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An Author Joins Us: Julia Alvarez of How Tia Lola Learned to Teach

October 20, 2010

Today’s post comes to you from the amazing adult and middle grade author Julia Alvarez. Many parents and teachers of younger children love her first Tia Lola book, How Tia Lola Came to (Visit) Stay. Julia has a brand new book about Tia Lola in stores now, and we are pleased to be a stop on her blog tour! How Tia Lola Learned to Teach has all of the heart and humor of the first Tia Lola book, and is a wonderful multicultural book to recommend to middle readers. Please also look for Return to Sender, new in paperback. It is a beautifully written story that touches on issues of friendship, family and illegal immigration.

If you want to follow Julia on the rest of her blog stops (or check out her first few posts on other blogs she visited), here is her schedule:

October 18: AmoXcalli

October 19: Dona Lupe’s Kitchen

October 21:

October 22: Spanglish Baby

If you would like to win copies of the two Tia Lola books, please leave a comment below. We have three sets to give away!

What I do When I’m Not Writing?

part one

            Readers often ask me what I do when I’m not writing.  Well, if you read my entry, “My Writing Day,” (tomorrow on  you know that a writer is always writing, even when she’s not actually writing.  As she goes about her day, running errands or cooking a meal or sometimes (I’m embarrassed to admit it) talking to a friend, she is thinking about her characters and what they are about to do.

            But I do also do other things besides write.  I happen to be married to a guy who feels about farming the way I feel about writing.  So, one of the things I do when I am not writing is farming. 

            Bill grew up on a farm in Nebraska.  The family was too poor to afford their own farm, so they were sharecroppers, farming someone else’s land. 

Farm where Bill spent his childhood.

It was a tough life, and the family barely got by.  In fact, when Bill was nine, his father had to take a factory job.  As the oldest of five, Bill was left in charge.  Weekdays, Bill had to get up extra early to finish his chores before driving himself and his brothers and sisters to their one-room schoolhouse in a horse and buggy.  No, he’s not a hundred year’s old!  It’s just that Papillion, Nebraska, in the mid 1950s was still a pretty rural place.

Bill driving the buggy.


Bill with his show calf and little sister, Laura.

            Bill went on to become a doctor, but farming was in his blood.  Wherever he went, even when he was stationed in Labrador, way up near the arctic circle with only a two-month growing season, he planted lettuce, rhubarb, potatoes.  By the time I met him, Bill was living in Vermont, in a co-op in town.  The condo association tried to make him happy by bending the rules and letting him put in half a dozen raised beds to grow his greens and vegetables.  (When he told me about his raised beds, I couldn’t imagine why he had to ask anybody’s permission to raise his bed off the floor!  That’s how much I knew about farming!)

            But Bill wasn’t happy living in town.  Soon after we married, we moved out to the Vermont countryside.  Ten acres of solitude for my writing was the way I thought of the new place.  Meanwhile, Bill was thinking, ten acres to farm! 

            It began with one vegetable garden, that somehow morphed into three.  There was the greenhouse garden, to get an early start in late March while there was snow on the ground outside.    

            Then came the lower garden, which kept getting longer and wider.  Meanwhile, his parents, who had recently moved into town, asked if they could have a garden on the property as well.  That’s how the upper garden got started.  When they died in 2001, it seemed the best way to honor their memory, to keep their garden going. 

Lower garden, greenhouse roof in background.

            Here’s some of the many things we grow in these three gardens and on these ten acres: tomatoes, lettuce, arugula, cabbage, asparagus, red peppers, corn, leeks, onions, garlic, shallots, broccoli, eggplants, cucumbers, potatoes, rhubarb, beets, pumpkins, zucchini, green beans, pole beans, basil, chives, dill, apples, melons, pears, Asian pears, chestnuts.  I can’t believe this cornucopia–it took writing it all down to make me wonder how we find the time or energy to do our other work: Bill’s medical practice and my writing. 

            The animals came a little later.  First, it was just going to be one cow, but the cow we got, proved to be pregnant.  (I suspect that Bill already knew this.  To me, she just looked like a fat cow.)  Very soon we had a cow and a calf, who soon became a heifer (that’s the teenage stage of being a cow).  Bill wanted to breed her, so we needed a bull, which is how Ferdinand joined the growing herd.  Right now, we have four cows, three of whom are either fat or pregnant, a bull, and a steer. 

Julia feeding cows.

            One time, while Bill was at an overnight meeting, I stayed home, farmsitting.  A call came from Paris Farmer’s Union.  They had a delivery for Bill to pick up.  I drove over, and guess what it was?  Forty-eight chickens, four goslings, and four guinea hens!  I admit, they were so cute.  That’s always the problem.  I intend to be reasonable, and then I fall in love.

            That’s how the rabbits joined us.  Who doesn’t love a bunny or two or three or four or six?  Kittens are also impossible to resist.  And we did need help with the mice population in the barn.  Two of these kittens came from the humane society.  The third was a fluffy grey kitty from a farmer neighbor, who had over a dozen cats roaming on her dairy farm.  Nothing is more satisfying than to rescue an adorable little critter from certain death.  Like I said, falling in love keeps getting me into trouble.

Julia with a kitten in the barn.

             Every farmer needs a helper.  That’s where I come in.  I’ve done everything from collect eggs and harvest beets to feed calves their bottles. 

Julia feeding a calf.

So, if you come across a farming scene as you are reading a Tía Lola book, you can be sure that I’ve tested the chores personally.  A few times, I have been caught writing instead of farming. 

Julia writing instead of reading.

Photographs courtesy of Julia Alvarez and Bill Eichner

© 2010 by Julia Alvarez

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 20, 2010 9:24 am

    What a great story! No wonder you are able to write such great fiction-surrounded by all that beauty! The photos are great.

  2. Annemarie O'Brien permalink
    October 20, 2010 10:47 am

    I’d love to win copies of Tia Lola books by Julia Alvarez. She’s a wonderful writer and I just adore the books that Knopf puts out, like Dark Water by Laura McNeal!

  3. Shirley Thomas permalink
    May 11, 2011 10:30 pm

    I am a Reading Specialist and used the first Tia Lola book last year for a 4th – 5th grade book club for students and their parents. I work in a bilingual school and the majority of our students and parents are Spanish-speaking. I purchased enough books in Spanish and English so the parents could read the same book their children were reading in English. This allowed parents and children to read the same book in either language and discuss it at home. It was so successful and popular, parents and students alike can’t wait until we can start How Tia Lola Learned to Teach during the 2011-2012 school year. Actually, I’m sure we will be reading all the books in the series as soon as they come out. What a great way to connect teachers, parents, and students through literature! I would love to win a copy of the set!


  1. An Author Comes Back: Julia Alvarez « Random Acts of Reading

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