"Our Nipa Hut: A Story in the Philippines" is the debut picture book of Rachell Abalos, whom I first met when she interviewed me for Samahan about my own debut book, "We Belong," two years ago. Since then, our friendship has grown to where she now calls me "Ate" or "Big Sister," as others in our growing community of Pilipino American creatives. I was delighted and honored to interview her about her book, coming full circle in our friendship and community. Rachell's charming picture book and my own novel-in-verse are part of a long-overdue Pilipino American literature renaissance, especially in the genre of children's books and youth literature, and it's always a proud moment when a book like this one joins the shelf.
Congratulations on your debut picture book! It's a lovely reflection on taking care of the things and people that take care of us. You say that it was partly inspired by your grandmother singing "Bahay Kubo" to you when you were young. Can you tell us more about your inspirations for the story?
Thank you so much for taking the time to interview me. It still hasn't truly hit me that I'm a published author. My Inang had a lovely voice. I thought it was just a lullaby/song, but she was probably singing it because she missed the Philippines. My grandfather built three bahay kubos for her! I was also inspired by my experience with the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. Yelena needing to close the windows? I had to do that. I had to help keep the ashes out. My whole family huddled in one room together. It was also a core memory of a time I saw a community pull together and helped one another in an extreme natural disaster. I wrote about a storm because that's relatable anywhere in the world.
How long did it take you to write it? What was your publishing journey like?
I originally wrote this story in 2018. It started out as an art hashtag challenge on Instagram and I felt creative and wrote a bunch of microfiction during that time. Our Nipa Hut was originally a non-fiction picture book. Then during #pitchwars on Twitter, I pitched my idea and it got a like from an agent! I sent the manuscript and immediately got rejected, LOL. I entered into a writing mentorship program with WriteMentor in 2020 and my cute little non-fiction about a nipa hut became a heartwarming story about a family that weathers a storm together.
But the publishing journey was pretty wild too. After the mentorship, it got the attention of another agent. I sent the full manuscript and several other stories (that weren't as polished as NIPA HUT) and immediately got rejected, LOL. I pitched it again on Twitter. To make the long story short, that same agent who rejected it the first time fell in love with it again. That agent is now my agent, Hannah. Barefoot Books acquired it by the end of 2020.
The publishing process can be slow and grueling. It took half a year to announce the deal and find an illustrator. It was supposed to come out in 2022, but COVID happened and it delayed its publication.
But I'm a strong believer of "it happens for a reason" and "Our Nipa Hut" is finally here.
How old are your kids now? What did they think of the book?
My son is 13 years old (*gasp*) and my daughter is 9, turning 10 soon. I think they've always seen me as a writer, so they're not fazed by it. They're also my first beta readers. I always check with them on any picture book story I'm writing. They loved it the first time I wrote it. And now I think they're over it. Heard it too many times. Haha. Teenagers for you.
I'm a school librarian and I do storytime every day. I read my book to some of the students and they're fascinated by the Filipino language. My school is mostly Latinos and they're not familiar with the Philippines so they were really engaged with the story.
The illustrations are charming. What was it like working with Gabriela Larios? How did you two collaborate to make the story and pictures resonate with each other?
I am in love with the illustrations. I think Gabriela's art style was a perfect match to the story. She is from El Salvador and she wove a lot of her own culture into the book. I wasn't concerned with accuracy because it is fiction. I made her a mood board. Gave her ideas on the kind of vibe I wanted for the book. Some of my must-haves were a carabao (my dad had one growing up) and a mango tree (my family had a mango farm).
There were some things that Gabriela added (without me telling her) and it hit me right in the feels. She added the banig on the floor. That was a great touch. The chicken on the lola's head? OH, MY GOD. How did she know? That is one of my childhood memories! My cousins and I used to chase the chickens in her backyard, and I remember laughing hysterically because one of the chickens landed on her head.
The story centers around a multi-generational family living in the same house. Was that a detail from your own experience? How much of the family dynamics is a reflection of your own family?
100%. I grew up living with at least one grandparent in the house. Whether it was my mom's dad or my dad's mom, my sisters and I shared rooms with at least one grandparent. My kids have also experienced that too. My mom used to live with me. I think the idea of taking in a parent is normal in our culture.
In the story, the bahay kubo is a character that Yelena and Papa treat like part of the family. Did you draw on the Pilipino animistic tradition for that detail? Could you talk a little about that?
The house having personality and facial expressions... that was a must-have in my book. It's the heart and soul of the story. My dad was the Yelena of his family. He brought those instincts to the United States. He would wake up early on the weekends and walk around the house, looking for things to repair.
Yelena and Papa have a partnership and buddy dynamic that resonates with me. I'm the oldest daughter in my family and I was also close with my father, like Yelena. Does her relationship with her father reflect your relationship with your own father?
I'm the oldest too! I think being the oldest, we have so much responsibility placed on us. Pressure too. And yeah, their relationship hits deep with me. As you can see in the story, Yelena takes it upon herself to save the day. Lola and Mama are busy doing other things! So naturally, Yelena has to help Papa out. I always came along when doing errands. But unlike Yelena, I wasn't too happy to help.
The educational section in the back of the book, including a map of the Philippines and a glossary of the Tagalog words was a wonderful companion piece to the story. I had no idea about William Le Jenney's connection to the Philippines until I read about him in your book. How did you decide what to include in that section?
I'm very proud of the end pages. And it was decided just a few months ago! It was like writing a completely separate book! It was unexpected. It was originally going to be just an author note, with a few facts on the bahay kubo, including a note about Le Baron Jenney. But a lot of questions arose as the book was ready to be printed. Like, could a nipa hut withstand today's changing climate? Do nipa huts still exist? The editors thought it was a good idea to just include everything we researched.
What are you working on now? Anything you can talk about?
I have two picture books on submission right now. It's Filipino-centric, of course. I can't emphasize enough how slow the publishing world moves, so I keep writing and writing to keep myself busy. As if I wasn't busy enough, haha. When I'm not writing, I'm back in school (after 17 years), getting my teaching credentials.
I'm super proud of this book. I hope everyone who reads it loves it as much as I do.