“As a new mom, raising a wild and beautiful daughter in a bilingual and multicultural home, I felt this message growing within me and needing to come out—I wanted Annalucia to feel a calm sense of self acceptance when the world looked at her with questions in their eyes. They Will Ask: A Story About Embracing Our Differences is that message” — Lexa Duno-Andreu
As I flip through the pages of They Will Ask: A Story About Embracing Our Differences for the tenth time, I am still amazed by the artwork and the impactful questions posed to the readers. Author Lexa Duno-Andreu and Illustrator Génesis Vásquez teamed up to created a beautiful picture book.
They Will Ask explores the questions, the well-meaning and the not, that people will bring to others around their identities. It uses figurative language to embrace the message of self-acceptance and empathy.
I had the incredible pleasure to engage with Author Lexa Duno-Andreu in an interview. I love all my interviews with authors, but this one I had some deep questions for because of how I personally connected with the book. Check out the interview below!
Kaitlin Kamalei Brandon (KKB): Tell us a little bit about yourself, Lexa!
Lexa Duno-Andreu (LDA): I’m Lexa – a New Yorker in Florida; a new mom raising a bilingual (English/Spanish) daughter; a former elementary school teacher; a literacy specialist and small business owner; the co-founder of an edTech startup; and – most recently – a children’s book author. In other words, I’m a woman with many hats; a lot of love; a great, big purpose; and a passion for words, language, and books.
KKB: What is your racial identity? What is your cultural identity? How do your identities add to your work as an author?
LDA: Because so much of our identity is connected to our ancestors’ homelands, languages, and traditions, my answer to this question always begins with those who’ve come before me. On my father’s side, I am first-generation American. My father’s father–my Abuelo–was from Havana, Cuba, but traveled to Venezuela to work in the petrol industry when he was a young man. There, he met my Abuelita, and shortly thereafter, my father was born. When he was just a baby, they migrated to NY and settled into a small apartment in (what was known back then as) “Spanish Harlem.” My mother was born and raised in New York, and is as Long Island as they come. Though we know her father’s family had Irish roots, we know little more about origins beyond what we’ve discovered from 23andMe genetic tests, which interestingly enough, revealed we share some common ancestor with Benjamin Franklin. So I guess that’s as American as it gets.
While I consider myself Hispanic-American, lots of seemingly innocent questions and comments – about my accented Spanish or my U.S. birthplace – often discouraged me from claiming the Latina identity as my own. On the other hand, among my America-born peers, I was, in some way, different. So, to answer your question, I feel my identity, and the questions that’ve come with it, haven’t just added to my work as an author, but have created a writer of me. It’s almost like the perfect storm—I’ve always been the contemplative type that looks for answers and tries to get to the bottom of things. Paired with those big, abstract questions about who I am and where I fit, it’s like I had no other option but to put pen to page and arrange my world into words–to define who I was so that no one else would try and write that definition for me.
KKB: What do multicultural/diverse books mean to you? In your opinion, what is the importance of multicultural/diverse books?
LDA: When I grew up, multicultural and diverse characters in books and mainstream media were few and far between; and the diverse characters that existed were not always portrayed positively—much less as the protagonist of the storyline. When I had my daughter, Annalucia, this broke my heart, and the idea that all kids need to see themselves in what they read and view became even more real for me. And not just see themselves in characters all around them—but observe those characters winning, beating the odds, and becoming the heroes of their own stories.
KKB: Now, let’s jump into your newly released book! Can you tell us about They Will Ask?
LDA: Sure! As I touched on earlier, I was raised in a multicultural household, and as a child, I often felt I was on the outside of both cultures, looking in. Later in life, when I met and married my husband, Darwin, a Venezuelan immigrant himself, I was inspired to write They Will Ask when our own daughter, Annalucia, was born. As a new mom, raising a wild and beautiful daughter in a bilingual and multicultural home, I felt this message growing within me and needing to come out—I wanted Annalucia to feel a calm sense of self acceptance when the world looked at her with questions in their eyes. They Will Ask: A Story About Embracing Our Differences is that message; it pays homage to the beauty in diversity and multiculturalism, empowering children to celebrate their differences – in all their unique and colorful forms.
KKB: As a biracial woman myself, I love your book, especially the dedication at the beginning that summarizes a huge theme within it: “May your lives rise above only checking one box.” I can also see how even people who are not biracial or multiracial will relate to that message. How do you see the ideas and themes within They Will Ask expanding beyond just people who identify as more than one race?
LDA: This is, hands-down, the best question I’ve gotten about the book, and I thank you for it. I think you hit the nail on the head – because the book indeed derives from my experiences as a diverse kid and woman, and how I hope my daughter will have different, more positive interactions with others and herself when those questions come about. But it is more than race and cultural identity, it is about being human. As humans, we exist in the space between lines, the meeting of opposites; no one is just one thing or the other—like trees, our colors change, and we evolve with each new season. One day, we might be confident in our identity as an orange-leafed tree, and the next, we have no leaves at all. We are leaf-less trees! Our identities change as we become and unbecome throughout our lives, and that is what makes us so complex, beautifully rich, mysterious, engrossing, and frankly, capable of empathy and connection.
KKB: Within your book, you share questions that others will ask the reader to pick apart their identities. Most of them are ones that I know myself and other people from minoritized racial groups have experienced negatively. I love how They Will Ask discusses that and pushes back with this idea of self-love and acceptance. It is also super important that we keep discussing identity, which is another theme within your picture book. Where do you see the delicate balance between exploring the identities of others and accepting them without any exploration?
LDA: Another amazing question. I think exploration is born from curiosity, and curiosity is a good thing. It means we are willing to learn new. There is nothing wrong with asking questions, if we are capable of listening when the answers come—without judgment or preconceived notions of what is and what is not, what’s normal or acceptable and what isn’t. I love learning about others’ identities and heritages. The journeys of our ancestors and how they connect throughout history, across continents, fascinates me. But I think it is important to understand: when we ask the questions, our role is not to label or categorize, but to listen respectfully in pursuit of higher understanding, connection, compassion, and empathy.
KKB: The illustrations and overall aesthetic of They Will Ask are vibrant and lively. Where did the inspiration for them come from?
LDA: I cannot take any credit for the amazing illustrations or the sparks that birthed them—the Venezuelan-born and now Orlando-based mural artist, Génesis Vásquez, is the genius behind them. When she agreed to illustrate the book, I sent her the story in text form, and she steeped on the messages buried within the words. Illustration by illustration, she began to colorize my world of words, and I saw firsthand how our once small ideas could bloom when we work together to breathe life into them. It was her magic that elevated this tale. The meeting and interchange of mediums – of words and images – come together to weave a story a vivid story about identity, acceptance, and self-love.
KKB: Lastly, how would you like teachers to use They Will Ask in their classrooms? How do you envision your book being used with students? I know you’ll have some brilliant ideas having been a teacher yourself!
LDA: One thing that I think is very special about this book is that it is filled with figurative language that goes beyond the surface level of the text. While it can be read and enjoyed by early learners, the message can also be unpacked by older, more cognitively mature students who are capable of reading beyond the lines. I would love teachers to use They Will Ask as an annual read aloud they share with their students as the new school year commences. I would hope it could encourage rich dialogue and discussion, and I can imagine students participating in hands-on projects, like creating their own illustrated similes of sorts: what beautiful contradictions make you, you? I hope students will see–while they may “float like ducks,” they can also “free-fly with eagle wings that sweep the sky.”