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Angela Quezada Padron on Telling Latina Climate Scientist's Story in Author-Illustrator Debut Picture Book

Updated: Jun 6

By Amaris Castillo

An earthquake rattles Guatemala City on the first page of Angela Quezada Padron’s As the Seas Rise: Nicole Hernández Hammer and the Fight for Climate Change. There is despair and rubble everywhere. A woman and her frightened baby look on. Their apartment building destroyed, both appear shaken.


“She escaped from the rubble in her mother’s arms,” Padron writes. “They witnessed how POWERFUL nature could be.”


The baby clinging to her mother is Nicole Hernández Hammer, who would later become a climate scientist and activist recognized by former first lady Michelle Obama at the 2015 State of the Union Address.


Out on June 11 from Atheneum Books for Young Readers, As the Seas Rise is a painstakingly researched and illuminating picture book biography about Hernández Hammer, who has worked to address the disproportionate impacts of climate change on communities of color. It is the author-illustrator debut for Quezada Padron, who became interested in the environmental justice advocate’s story after reading about her online. The book follows Nicole from babyhood to adulthood, along with the deep relationship she’s always cultivated with nature.


Ahead of the book’s release, Padron spoke with the Dominican Writers Association about working with the scientist herself to tell the most representative story of her life and impact, finding the connections between her subject and nature, and more.


This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.


Congratulations on As the Seas Rise: Nicole Hernández Hammer and the Fight for Climate Change! How did you land the opportunity to tell this story?

I’m a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and attended their nonfiction conference in the fall of 2020. I had always liked nonfiction, but had only been writing fiction up to that point. Nonfiction was more for work. When I attended that conference, I learned about the different ways that nonfiction can be written for children’s books. I realized that there weren’t that many biographies about Latinos – especially Latinas. So I started brainstorming: If I wrote nonfiction, who could I write about? 


I came across Nicole’s name, and did more research about her. I found her story, and what she was doing, to be very interesting. I found her on LinkedIn and took a chance to message her and said: ‘Hi, I have this story. I would love to interview you.’ And she said, ‘Sure.’ So we set up a time on Zoom and we chatted. I wanted to verify things that I had read. She gave me other insight, too, that had not been in any articles. I told her I would share this story with her once I had finished writing it, which I did. That was in October 2020. Then I secured an agent in January 2021, and she submitted it to different editors. Within two or three months I got an offer from Atheneum (Books for Young Readers) not just for the text, but they asked me if I wanted to illustrate it as well. I was super happy, and I kept Nicole in the loop the entire time. I paid her a consultation fee, to consult throughout the book. We stayed in contact throughout the entire creation of the book, which obviously lends more credibility to the book.


That’s incredible. What was it like to work with her?

She was great. She’s very humble. She was kind of taken aback that somebody would write a story about her, because she just does her job. She was very honored and very helpful, because she gave me clarity about her life. In the circle of climate change and climate justice, she’s more known. But in the general public, she’s not as well known. She’s starting to get there in the last few years, and so I could only go limited on what was out there online. I got right to the source; the primary source was her, so she would sometimes clarify things that were either too general about her online, and would give me some specifics. She didn’t co-write the book with me. She just consulted. So I would share the text with her, and the sketches through all the phases – and I would get her feedback on it.


How did you first hear about Nicole and her work? Was it through that online searching you mentioned?

Yes, it was a website that was worded in such a way where it said, ‘Top 10 Latinos That You’ve Never Heard Of.’ And it’s so funny because, out of that article, there were two people I wrote about and both of them got book deals – Nicole’s and the second one that’s with Lee & Low Books. When I saw Nicole, I went into deeper research and found a podcast interview that she had done with Alicia Menendez. When I listened to that, that really told a lot about Nicole’s life and how she had gotten into her work. It was really from that podcast that I got most of the idea to write about her… It was really talking to Nicole that I got even more insight about her background.


I understand As the Seas Rise is your author-illustrator debut. What was the process like to both write the story and illustrate it?

My first author-illustrator book was probably the most difficult book to do, which is a nonfiction 48-page biography. Those three things together are like the perfect storm when you’re trying to get your first book out. I felt the pressure of trying to make it look like the person, on top of looking like the person that I’m speaking to on a regular basis and consulting with. I had the pressure on myself to try to make it as perfect and accurate as possible. So I really threw myself a challenge from the beginning. 


But it was super exciting. I feel like if I could write and illustrate a 48-page nonfiction biography, I could do any book. I was very nervous about As the Seas Rise. I worked with Giuseppe Castellano, who used to be an art director with Simon and Schuster and now runs his own company called the Illustration Department where he does portfolio reviews and consultations... He was so great because he gave me confidence.


One last caveat here is that, in 2021 as I was working on the book, not only did we move but my father got ill and passed away in December. We had to bury him in the Dominican Republic. It all threw me for a loop. I also had to have major surgery in March 2022. So all of this stuff was happening at the same time, and every single time it was happening, I kept saying ‘I shouldn’t be doing this book. I should probably just forget about it.’ And I just kept pushing through and pushing through, and then I was able to get it [done]. Once I handed in like the last art, I was like ‘Wow, I really did it.’ I feel much more confident now than I had before.


You begin this story with incredibly high stakes. Nicole, as a young girl, sees firsthand the destruction of an earthquake in Guatemala City. Why was it important for you to start your story there?

That’s a great question. If you see the first three or four spreads, it goes back and forth between hardship and tragedy, to beauty and nature. My one goal in this book was not just to talk about Nicole’s life, but about her relationship with nature. She told me that all of her life experiences led her to the job she’s doing now, and so I wanted to show that even from the time she was a baby, she was affected by nature – as powerful as an earthquake in Guatemala. Then she goes and lives in this beautiful, peaceful, jungle part of Guatemala, and then she’s got to move away from her grandparents. It’s hardship to beauty, and then hardship again. 


She realizes, ‘Oh, even though I’m in this new country and don’t know the language, my mother and I can explore nature and I can make that connection.’ She always kept making this connection to nature – the good, the bad, the tough, and the beauty of nature. That’s how she felt that connection to nature, and then she felt that connection to the people who lived in the communities where she was seeing the different sides of nature. So it was really important for me to start off by showing that she’s been very resilient from the time she was a baby.


In As the Seas Rise you show the many connections to nature that Nicole had as a child. What was it like to find those connections to include in the story?

I really thought it was important to show. I look at water. Right now I’m actually sitting in my house looking at a lake. It’s very peaceful. And I love going to the beach, as well, and seeing water. But water is one of these parts of nature that can be super calm and beautiful, but can also be destructive and rough. So it was important for me to show the readers that, when you’re outside and thinking about the world that you live in, you have to think about it all – good and bad. It’s all interconnected. There’s a reason why the plates are moving in the earth. Maybe scientists don’t know exactly why, but there’s always a reason for that. There’s a reason why the water has to be rough sometimes and then becomes calm, because it almost has to reset itself. It was important for me to show those different sides of nature.


If you look in the book, you’ll see certain words are in bold. We did that on purpose to show those adjectives that describe the different aspects of nature. [The book] also showed that people – no matter what the situation is, and no matter what we were talking about 40 years ago, and now – struggle. The story also talks about her struggle as an immigrant. She had different layers of her life. When we were talking about cutting the text down a bit, I thought, Should we cut out the part about moving away from our grandparents? The editor was like, ‘No. We should show that, because we need to show what immigrants go through when they’re leaving their home country.’ She’s leaving not just her family, but the place that she’s most comfortable with. And so we wanted to kind of tackle a bunch of themes in this book.


There’s a part of the story where you write, “Nicole had seen many sides of nature, but nature was changing. The climate was changing. Bigger storms were brewing, and she wanted to know why.” You mention climate change. What was your approach to making the issue of climate change digestible to young readers?

That’s a great question. I wanted to simplify the concept of climate change. But then there are groups of people out there that are deniers of the change. I think that’s probably another reason why I started with the earthquake; I wanted to show the different types of nature and natural events, and how they’re connected. It was important, in that particular spread, to show the different things that are happening. There’s an example of hurricanes, massive floods, sea level rise, and melting ice caps. It’s to show the kids, in a visual form, ‘Look, climate change doesn’t just involve getting hotter or colder outside. It can affect the ice caps. It can affect the levels of the water. It can affect the number of storms and the size of the storms.’ 


I wanted kids to think about, ‘Does that happen in my area? How many times has that happened since I was alive, or since my parents were alive?’ I was thinking particularly of Florida, since Nicole lived a lot of her time in Florida, which is where I am. Another reason why I wanted to write this book is because of the number of hurricanes and the size of these hurricanes that are starting to occur on a more regular basis. And so I wanted to get kids to think about what kind of events are happening in their area, or what kind of events are happening where their family lives… To get their minds to start seeing, and relating it to themselves as well as to their family and friends.


You dedicate this book to what you describe as resilient frontline communities. What do you want people to know about these communities?

That’s very important. That was a term that Nicole had taught me; the idea of frontline communities being resilient. At one point, the editor had asked if we should be putting the word ‘frontline’ in there. Is that too advanced for kids? But remember that this was taking place while COVID was going on, so kids were always hearing the word ‘frontline’ – the frontline workers, the frontline nurses. It’s communities that are on the front of these events happening – people that live in these coastal communities, people who have to protect their homes and property from rising waters, or from drains that aren’t working and the floods are going into their homes. This happens a lot in Miami and other coastal areas. So I wanted to dedicate it to all those communities, who sometimes become those forgotten people. 


What do you hope people take away from your book?

I really hope people understand that this book is not just about one person – it’s really about all of us. One person can make a difference. Whether it’s Nicole, or one of the readers, or someone in the community; everybody can help to make a difference in the lives of others. The main thing is I want people to understand the word ‘community.’ I think that, oftentimes, people think about, ‘How do I help myself? What can I do for myself?’ This book is more about, ‘No, how can we all work together in a community to protect each other and protect what we have, so that we all have a fair shot at having a prosperous life?’ And if that means money, time, effort, consultation, whatever it takes, but the idea of working together and that someone even as young as the kids who are going to read this book can also make a difference. It doesn’t matter what age you are. You can do something.

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About the Author:

Angela Quezada Padron is a Latina author-illustrator who spent her childhood days writing stories and doodling on the garage walls of her New Jersey home and her summers visiting family in the Dominican Republic. As the Seas Rise: Nicole Hernández Hammer and the Fight for Climate Justice is her author-illustrator debut. She won first place in the Portfolio Showcase at the 2023 Florida SCBWI Conference and was a semifinalist for the SCBWI Tomie dePaola Award in 2014. Visit her at AngelaPadron.com.


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Amaris Castillo is a journalist, writer, and the creator of Bodega Stories, a series featuring real stories from the corner store. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, the Lowell Sun, the Bradenton Herald, Remezcla, Latina Magazine, Parents Latina Magazine, and elsewhere. Her creative writing has appeared in La Galería Magazine, Spanglish Voces, PALABRITAS, Dominican Moms be Like..., and most recently in Quislaona: A Dominican Fantasy Anthology and Sana Sana: Latinx Pain and Radical Visions for Healing and Justice. Her short story, "El Don," was a finalist for the 2022 Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writers’ Prize by the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival. Amaris lives in Florida with her family. You can follow her work at amariscastillo.com.


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