Jen Cervantes on Smashing Barriers in Kid's Lit

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

Meet the Homegirl: Award-Winning Author of Tortilla Sun and The Storm Runner

by Malavika Kannan

Edited by Laura Wu

Jen Cervantes weaves worlds that are velvety with culture. They’re inhabited by characters with warm copper skin, and they unspool like infinities of fiction. Drawing inspiration from her rich Mexican heritage, Jen’s novels are taking the literary world by storm, empowering a new generation of readers and writers of color.

Growing up, Jen couldn’t always find herself in the pages of the books she read. In a literary sphere dominated by white characters, it was hard for her to believe that she, too, was magical--that she could tell stories, wield swords, fight monsters, discover happiness, and accomplish everything in between. Today, Jen is an acclaimed children’s novelist on a mission to make change. She hopes that by increasing representation of diverse voices in children’s literature, she can show coming generations that their stories matter.

Her debut novel, Tortilla Sun, features a twelve-year-old girl named Izzy who spends a life-changing summer in the mystical and magical landscape of rural New Mexico. Amidst an enchanting setting of forgotten secrets, mosaic floors, and bright tortilla suns, Izzy embarks on a journey to discover her past. In many ways, Tortilla Sun is an anthem for girls from diverse backgrounds. It celebrates a character who journeys back to her roots, derives power from her heritage, and is supported by her equally magical Nana who happens to make impeccable empanadas.

Tortilla Sun has gained national recognition for its impactful message, earning the New Mexico Book Award, Zia Book Award, American Booksellers Association’s New Voices Pick. But for Jen, Tortilla Sun is only the first of many books to come. Currently, she’s set to publish her second book, The Storm Runner, through Rick Riordan’s buzzworthy literary imprint “Read Riordan.” Releasing next month, The Storm Runner is an adventure spun from the stuff of Mayan mythology, powerful as a dormant volcano in the mesas of New Mexico.

To Jen, it’s critical for youth to be able to embrace their identities, tap into their magic, and connect to their roots. That’s why she took a stand against family separation through “Kids Lit Says No Kids In Cages,” a campaign to protect the rights of immigrant children. Jen envisions a world where anyone--even little girls from the other side of the border--can uplift themselves with their words, where diverse characters are not considered outliers, where acceptance is universal.

There’s a point in Tortilla Sun when Izzy’s Nana reminds us that “sometimes you can’t see the magic, you just know it’s there because you feel it.” That’s the kind of power that Jen brings to kids’ bookshelves--the power of untapped magic, big horizons, impossible words, adventures and friendships. She knows that telling stories is as much a duty as a hobby, and that words can change lives.

Jen freaks out over the J.K. Rowling Suite, as one does.

Her storytelling career may just have started, but Jen is not stopping anytime soon. Because the stories of women of color--women like Izzy, Nana, and Jen Cervantes herself--have always been necessary and will forever be necessary. The only difference is that they’re finally being told.