Exciting updates & new “insider” learnings (plus, Mexico travel tips)

Hello! It’s been a long minute, and I have some cool updates!

I’ll start with some book-related news, then I’ve got some very intriguing learnings about publishing. And finally, I’ll end with some travel tips for Mexico City & Manzanillo.

BOOK UPDATES

Ezra Jack Keats Award Honor

I am SO happy and grateful that I’m a recipient of the 2024 Ezra Jack Keats Award Honor for Writing! I posted on Instagram when the awards were announced back in February, but I’m still floating on a cloud! This honor means so much to me, and the award committee has shown so much love for Sora’s Seashells. Look at that shiny, lovely sticker on the cover!

Apparently, the award committee reviewed over 400 children’s books traditionally published in 2023 in order to arrive at the six winners. Wowza! Can you imagine how many gorgeous books from different publishers were submitted for the EJK Award?? This really gave me the impression of having experienced a true miracle. I wasn’t able to attend the award ceremony due to pre-existing travel plans, but my deepest gratitude goes to the judges who evaluated all the wonderful entries, and to the EJK Foundation and the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, who sponsor the awards. And of course, my wonderful publisher Candlewick.

 

Keats’ character Peter was featured on USPS stamps in 2017.

The award is named for author/illustrator Ezra Jack Keats, a pioneer in the field of children’s books. He created little Peter to be his main character in his bestselling book The Snowy Day, and back in the early ’60s (when the book was published), this was considered revolutionary: to see a diverse character on the front cover of a children’s book, when the norm was not at all someone like Peter. Did you know that The Snowy Day is the most checked-out book of all time at the New York Public Library?!

A gorgeous plaque, lovely card, and the de Grummond Primer (a book delving into the beautiful collection) arrived in the mail, among other wondrous things. On nice days, I sit in this exact spot to write, so I thought it’d be a good setting for this photo 🙂

It’s so moving to see Keats’ little Peter on the cover next to Sora. I’ve always loved this sweeping, tender image by artists Stella Lim & Ji Kim.

Meet me in Mississippi!

I’ll be at the Mississippi Book Festival this September! The festival committee & the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection have kindly invited me to be a speaker on the EJK Panel, so if you’ll be in Jackson, MS, on Saturday, September 14th, please join me! The details (including the exact time) are still being worked out, but here is the website in case you’re interested. I’ll be posting about it on Instagram as the date approaches.

On my way to the festival, I’m planning to stop by the de Grummond at the University of Southern Mississippi campus for a private tour of the collection and archives. I think it’ll be an extremely moving and profound visit, especially since one of the curators will be guiding me. What a treat!

Good news about good friends

My dear friend & brilliant artist Colleen Kong-Savage released her beautiful picture book, Piano Wants to Play! If you’re already familiar with The Turtle Ship, you know that Colleen’s collage images are truly exquisite. You’ll relish the dynamic, colorful, gorgeous collages and sweet story in Piano Wants to Play. A perfect gift for music lovers and musicians-to-be.

HUGE congrats, Colleen!!

 

 

                My next book: Shoes Off, Please!

My next picture book (title: Shoes Off, Please!) will be released sometime in the spring of 2025. But a lot of things are happening behind-the-scenes. A few months ago, the publisher asked for my author’s dedication. I mulled on this for a while because a number of family and friends inspired the story. So while a story like, say, The Paper Kingdom, was specifically written with my parents in mind, this upcoming book carries the influence of an entire community of lovely people! So I settled on a dedication that would reflect that. You’re going to love the charming artwork by Myo Yim. More news about this book soon, including the cover reveal!

Some cool “insider” learnings about publishing

After I received the amazing EJK honor, the Society of Children’s Books Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) invited me to be a judge for not just one of their prestigious awards, but two! Yes, I’m a member of two separate judging committees this year, and the process of selecting the winners for one of the awards recently came to a close.

I’d always wondered how judges were selected for these competitions, and I’ve now learned that when you’re a recipient of a national honor, your name starts hanging out in the minds of folks who run and fund these fantastic, generous awards. What a privilege to be one of the judges! In the very near future, I plan to be one of the donors as well (I mentioned in a prior post that, growing up in a working class family, a goal of mine was to live and give abundantly as an adult, and I truly believe that donating to these deserving foundations and organizations will be like coming full circle: using the proceeds from my childhood dream to help fund the dreams of future artists).

I also learned something extremely eye-opening throughout the judging process: the strongest submissions immediately stood out. In these strong submissions, the story world was unmistakably alive. Whether funny, tender, captivating, or all of these qualities, those submissions got my vote during the first reading. And even after the second and third rounds of review, those submissions just became clearer in my mind because they were a pleasure to evaluate again and again. The challenge, though, was that there was a sizable number of very strong submissions! How to whittle them down to the top two or three or five?!! This was actually the most arduous part of the judging process, when you were left with the cream of the crop. There was a lot of deliberation among judges, multiple rounds of reading & list-making, etc. The process gave me great insight into what the EJK award committee must’ve experienced, and also made me marvel, yet again, at Sora’s Seashells selection from what was surely a vast sea of wonderful, traditionally-published books — four hundred of them!

The process also helped me understand what literary agents go through while reviewing queries, and what editors go through while evaluating manuscripts to acquire. It was truly educational and fascinating.

Thanks to the EJK Foundation, the judging committee, and the de Grummond Collection for welcoming me into the EJK family! And to Candlewick Press for being such an awesome publisher.

MEXICO TRAVEL TIPS (Mexico City + Manzanillo)

Okay, now on to one of my other favorite topics…travel!

Mexico is a fascinating place and I’ve enjoyed every trip there. Whenever I say that to friends, the first question I get is: “But is it safe?” I can only speak from personal experience, which has been resoundingly positive. That said, it’s always good to be cautious wherever you are, and to carefully choose your areas of exploration.

One of our most memorable journeys to Mexico was a snorkeling expedition with whale sharks and CIA agents (!) near the Isla Mujeres. This time around, we spent five days in Mexico City and five days on a private peninsula near Manzanillo. I would go back in a heartbeat. In case you’re heading that way, here are some tips & highlights.

Mexico City

Which Neighborhoods to Stay In & to Explore

Mexico City is huge and has several different key neighborhoods. And although Centro has a lot of the famous old sites (like Zocalo Plaza and the Templo Mayor), I would just go there for a day, possibly on a food tour that provides a mix of history, culture, excellent food. Quite frankly, the Centro Historico is pretty nutty. For someone who likes peace and quiet (like me), the hyper-charged ambience — music / street hawkers / performers / people / traffic / noise — can be overwhelming. It’s like a mix of downtown Los Angeles during morning rush hour + the foot traffic level of Times Square + anywhere else in the world with tremendous sensory overload.

I’d say my favorite parts of the city were Roma/Condesa (lots of trees, cool shops, charming atmosphere, little traffic) and Polanco (very chill, clean, pretty houses and upscale shops/restaurants). Whenever we go back to Mexico City, we’ll probably avoid Centro except to eat at certain spots (especially since we’ve already toured most of the notable sites in that area).

Pictured here is a gorgeous park in Roma/Condesa — the Parque Mexico. There were only about five other people in this part of the park while we enjoyed pastries. An absolutely magical moment.

 

 

The Food (OMG!!)

The food is MIND-BLOWING! Mexico City is a foodie’s paradise.

Seriously the best horchata I’ve ever had in my life. This is the oat, cinnamon, light sugar horchata at Itacate. 

Gabriela Camara’s family of eateries are absolutely outstanding (Contramar/Caracol de Mar/Itacate). Fresh, elevated, exquisite—mostly seafood and vegetarian options. Totally deserving of the James Beard honor! We really enjoyed the tuna sashimi tostados, fish al pastor tacos and horchata at Caracol so much that we went twice (it’s located inside the Circulo Mexicano in Centro). Contramar is in Polanco and Itacate is a casual eatery in Centro (also located in the Circulo Mexicano). So delicious.

We didn’t get to go to Pujol, the two Michelin-starred restaurant that consistently ranks in the top 10 in the world, but that’s on our list for next time. People rave about it! But honestly, you can get excellent meals all over Mexico City. Did you hear about the taco stand that recently got a Michelin star??

 

 

 

I loved the famous churros at El Moro! We were told to check out their original 1935 location in Centro. It had lots of historic charm, but honestly, given the craziness of Centro, I might go to one of their quieter outposts, like the one in Roma. Hot, fresh, delicious.

We did three food tours in different parts of the city (Centro, Roma, Polanco), and the absolute best was with Mexican Food Tours in Polanco. Ask for Viry, a trained chef who’ll take you to seven delicious spots, where your senses will be electrified while you hear about the ingredients, the preparation, the culture. The tour was 3 hours long — in my opinion, the perfect amount of time for a food & culture tour. What Viry also did really well was to recognize that people appreciate a nice, shady place to sit while eating, so she always chose comfortable spots for us to enjoy our delicious eats (this awareness was not always present with some food tour guides—read on to find out).

The food tours in Condesa/Roma as well as Centro weren’t at the level of the Polanco food tour, which featured amazing food AND drinks at every stop. (One of the other food tours just gave a single bottle of water per person — not enough hydration on a hot day.) I won’t mention the tour operators for these other tours, since I would much rather steer people to the Polanco food tour. While a few spots were excellent, some of the stops were surprisingly mediocre—maybe we’re just too spoiled with great Mexican food in Los Angeles, but at a few of the places, the Geno and I whispered, “We can get better in L.A.” Also, our guide for the Roma tour (a young woman who showed up in workout gear) definitely used the food tour as an opportunity to get her 10,000+ steps in. We did SO MUCH WALKING. It felt like we walked about 10 miles, weaving in and out of streets on a hot day. As for the Centro food tour, it was admittedly great (lots of history, obscure Diego Rivera murals, good eats, etc.), but the reason why it doesn’t rank as high as the Polanco food tour was that it went on for 5 hours — much too long. We actually ended up leaving the rest of the group a bit early because we were eager to go do our own thing!

So why do we like food tours? Because when done well, they provide an excellent introduction to a city’s sites, history, and tastes. If you have limited time in a place and don’t feel like wandering around looking for good spots, a great food tour will cut through all the noise and get you to the best placess. Viry of the Polanco Food tour not only took us through famous residential streets and parks, but she explained the history and significance of statues we would’ve otherwise missed as well as some town gossip about certain glorious mansions. I can’t say enough good things about our Polanco food tour!

A lovely house in Polanco.

Accommodations in Mexico City

As for hotels, we stayed at the Circulo Mexicano in Centro. I’ll be honest: I really don’t recommend it. We chose it because we’d read a good review about it in Conde Nast, and it seemed to be nestled within the “beating heart” of the city. And while it was a stylish place with a phenomenal view of the historic center from its rooftop restaurant/bar AND the complimentary breakfast was quite good, I wouldn’t stay there again. Why? Because it was noisy, both in and out of the hotel. Music at all hours of the day in the communal spaces, plus the enclosed courtyard design made the sounds (voices, screaming children, music) carry into our room. A screaming kid in a neighboring room woke us up at 3 AM. Not fun.

Next time, I would stay in Roma/Condesa or in Polanco. We met an Irish couple who were staying at the Hotel Condesa, and they seemed to really like it. That would probably be our pick next time.

The view of Centro from the rooftop bar/restaurant at the Circulo Mexicano. This was the best thing about the hotel, along with the restaurants Caracol + Itacate being on the ground floor.

Other tips for Mexico City

We used Uber to get around everywhere, and it was cheap, easy, convenient. Would I recommend this for a solo traveler? During the day, sure. At night, I’d be a bit hesitant. Try to do most of your exploring during the day, and then spend the evening closer to your accommodation, just in case. There was one instance when we had to wait over half an hour for an Uber due to high demand (it was evening rush hour). You don’t want to be stuck out in a random neighborhood somewhere, especially when it’s dark. This applies anywhere in the world, though.

When I saw this carved stone at the Museo, I was thunderstruck. It is so beautiful, so elegant, and took me straight back to elementary school, when my teacher (who was passionate about pre-Colombian art) introduced us to this piece, along with other Mesoamerican wonders.

As for museums, most folks go to Frida Kahlo’s blue house, but we didn’t go there. I was mostly interested in seeing the pre-Colombian art, so we spent a fantastic afternoon at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. There are also some really cool ruins in Centro, the Templo Mayor of the Aztec capital. (We didn’t make it out to Teotihuacan this time because we devoted our days to the city itself, but the excursion is on the list for next time.)

What to wear?? You know this is my favorite question, ha! It was really hot in the city in April. It hovered around the mid-80s. So on a daily basis, I wore linen, a hat, and lots of SPF. Yes, I’m paranoid about sun damage! And this is key: wear closed-toe shoes. Parts of the city can get chaotic—for instance, if you visit any of the mercados, there are lots of people, boxes being shuttled around, trolleys. I wore these exact shoes and these exact pants in blue (they often go on sale).

At the entry of the Museo, wearing the pants + shoes mentioned above. Super comfy.

Manzanillo

Ahhh…stunning and beautiful Manzanillo.

I should clarify: we went directly from the Manzanillo airport to the Four Seasons Tamarindo, and basically spent all our time there. We’d originally planned to visit nearby villages (like the actual town of Manzanillo), but the FS Tamarindo was so exceptionally beautiful and had such delicious food that we just stayed at the resort. They offered many complimentary activities (like a really interesting reserve tour on a golf cart with a biologist who knew all about the flora & fauna), so we decided to just maximize our time there.

 The FS is situated on a 3,000-acre private natural reserve with stunning, unpopulated beaches and lots of biodiversity. We saw many families of coatis (like a raccoon + monkey) during the reserve tour. Thankfully, no rattlesnakes, though they’re known to emerge at night. Hidden cameras have also seen jaguars in the area.

My mouth is watering while I type this: the tacos + guacamole + horchata were SO good we had them every night. The tortillas were like beautiful pieces of art. And oh boy, the breakfast…the Geno enjoyed chilaquiles, while I loved the homemade bread with local honeys + jams, with a side of eggs from the farm on the peninsula.

The view from our private patio. See why we didn’t leave the resort??

A favorite simple pleasure: making quick watercolor sketches on our private patio with birdsong and ocean sounds all around. And then going for a swim in our heated lap pool. Absolutely magical.

I’ll be back soon with more updates — likely in a few months!

I now realize why I blog so infrequently: because each post runs about as long as a novella! But I do love communicating directly with readers, so thanks for being here. And if you have any topics you’d like for me to cover (more behind-the-scenes book stuff or finance? anyone?), please do send me an email!

Your friend,

Helena