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Me and My Abuela: The Stories that Made Me Want to Become a Storyteller, a guest post by Alex Aster

Storytelling is one of our most ancient and sacred abilities as humans. From cave drawings, to woven tapestries, to the bards in Ovid, to my abuela, whispering terrifying tales in the dark. I remember it all—me and my twin sister tugging at my grandmother’s soft, starfish-like hand, leading her to our room. As a child, my abuela, at four-foot-eight, was always more of a conspirator than an adult figure. She would sneak us apple juice at 9pm, way past our bedtime, which we would request through a matching pair of Barbie walkie-talkies. She was scared of the same things we were—I remember screaming at the sight of a giant spider in my room, and calling for her to help, only for my abuela to say tentatively in the hallway, in Spanish, “What is it? I might be scared too.”

I don’t know how it started, but somehow, every night, my abuela would end up at the end of the bed my sister and I shared, swaddled in endless blankets like a giant child. My sister and I would shout requests, and then she would start, in a voice completely different than the high-pitched laugh that always echoed through our house. Everything about her would change—her voice became serious. Her spine straightened. And now, thinking back on it, maybe she wrapped herself in so many blankets because she was afraid for any of her skin to be exposed to the darkness. Because she understood something I do now. Words have power. Scary stories can make the room change—make the shadows on the wall longer, make the darkness hungrier.

Though my grandmother has been on a desperate, long journey to learn English since my sister and I were born, she never mastered it. So these stories were told the same way her mother had told them to her—in Spanish. And language, in storytelling, makes a difference. There are words I can’t begin to translate, not because I don’t know what the English equivalent is, but because the available words are unworthy. They don’t capture either the tenderness, or wickedness, or humor. They don’t sound the same. And, since these stories were always told orally, sound also makes a difference.

My grandmother knows dozens of stories that she can recite word for word—and they’ve never been written down. These tales have been passed along the same way they were passed to me. In dark rooms, on stormy nights, as cautionary tales to curious children. They contained warnings that used to shape my nightmares—don’t wear a ponytail to bed, or it’ll fall off. Don’t sleep backwards on the bed, or your life source will be flipped as well, and the devil will think you’re old instead of young, then collect you for death. Follow the rules, or you might just end up with horns on your forehead.

These Colombian legends shaped my creative brain, during a time when it was still growing, when critical connections were being made. And they continue to influence me now. One story in particular, La niña con la estrella en la frente, inspired the world of my debut book, Emblem Island: Curse of the Night Witch. In the story, a girl earns a star on her forehead for following the rules, and her sister is given horns on her face for breaking them. That tale inspired me to create a world where markings on one’s skin could be earned, and could come with great power—or could end up being a curse. And, as a tribute to all of those cuentos my abuela told me before bedtime, I created a Book of Cuentos for my debut, an ancient book of legends on Emblem Island that the main characters must use to track down the only person that can break their deadly curse—the Night Witch. Some of these cuentos are based on Latinx monsters, like “La patasola,” “La ciguapa,” and “La llorona.” Some I wrote from scratch. We included these stories in between each chapter, creating a book within a book. Nothing can quite capture the magic of my grandmother telling stories herself, or my sister and I on the edge of our seats (only for my abuela to start snoring before we lightly kicked her awake again). But, hopefully, my book will introduce children who have never heard of these Latinx monsters to our beautiful, rich culture.

I’m lucky to still have my grandmother in my life. She’s still four-foot-eight, still laughs more than she talks, and still can’t quite speak English the way she wants to. But, now that I’m twenty-four, I haven’t heard her storytelling in years. I asked her recently, if she told these stories to my cousins, who are four and eight. I believe she’s tried. Perhaps I’ll ask her to tell them to me again sometime. I owe everything to her, and to our family’s traditions. Because my abuela’s stories made me want to become a storyteller too.

Meet Alex Aster

About — Alex Aster
Photo credit: Kathryn Wirsing

Alex Aster recently graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied English with a Concentration in Creative Writing. Emblem Island: Curse of the Night Witch is her debut novel, inspired by Latinx myths her Colombian grandmother told her before bedtime. She is currently working on the second book in the Emblem Island series. Explore the world of Emblem Island at asterverse.com.

About Curse of the Night Witch

A fast-paced series starter, perfect for fans of Aru Shah and the End of Time and filled with adventure, mythology, and an unforgettable trio of friends.

On Emblem Island all are born knowing their fate. Their lifelines show the course of their life and an emblem dictates how they will spend it.

Twelve-year-old Tor Luna was born with a leadership emblem, just like his mother. But he hates his mark and is determined to choose a different path for himself. So, on the annual New Year’s Eve celebration, where Emblemites throw their wishes into a bonfire in the hopes of having them granted, Tor wishes for a different power.

The next morning Tor wakes up to discover a new marking on his skin…the symbol of a curse that has shortened his lifeline, giving him only a week before an untimely death. There is only one way to break the curse, and it requires a trip to the notorious Night Witch.

With only his village’s terrifying, ancient stories as a guide, and his two friends Engle and Melda by his side, Tor must travel across unpredictable Emblem Island, filled with wicked creatures he only knows through myths, in a race against his dwindling lifeline.

ISBN-13: 9781492697206
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 06/09/2020
Series: Emblem Island Series #1
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

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