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Carlos Matias on Bringing Queens, New York, to Life in ‘Emergency Quarters’

Updated: May 28

By Andreina Rodriguez


It’s Monday, and Ernesto’s starting his first day of school. It’s also the first time he’ll be walking there alone, without his parents. But before he heads out, his mom stops him to give him something special — some emergency quarters. She tells him they're just for emergencies and to find a payphone if he needs to call her. The problem is, Ernesto keeps feeling tempted to spend those quarters on other things.


Emergency Quarters, out now from Katherine Tegen Books, takes readers on a fun journey with Ernesto. He’s been waiting for this moment his whole life, finally getting to be a "niño grande" and walk to school by himself, with quarters in his pocket just in case. But every day, Ernesto finds himself facing new temptations. Set in Queens, New York, this picture book was written by debut author Carlos Matias and illustrated by Gracey Zhang.


Ahead of the book’s release, Matias spoke with the Dominican Writers Association about writing a children's book for the first time, the inspiration behind Emergency Quarters, and more.


This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.


Emergency Quarters is about a young boy, Ernesto, who's been given quarters by his mom that he can only use for emergencies, and he tries his best to avoid spending it on tempting treats. What inspired this book?

The book is really inspired by my childhood growing up in Queens. It's a true story. When I started walking to school alone or with friends, or hanging out after school, you know, cell phones didn’t exist back then. So my parents would give me a quarter every day before I left the house. They would tell me, like in the book, that it was for emergencies. And I would only have that quarter.


Like Ernesto in the book, I'd see my friends with dollar bills, allowances, and stuff, and they'd be spending it. And I'd just be like, "No, no, I'm good." You know, because I only had that one quarter. So yes, it's definitely inspired by my childhood. It was one of those things where you think it's unique to you, but then once I announced the book, a lot of people reached out to me. They'd say, "I remember that. My parents used to give me quarters," or "I had a bunch of quarters in my backpack when I used to go out." So, I was like, "Oh, wow, it's pretty cool that so many people are relating to it." I just thought it was a cool story to share because it's something that I hadn't seen covered much in stories or picture books.


I know this started off first as a column in The New York Times. Can you tell me about what it was like? I’m also aware that Mabel, the editor of the book, reached out to turn what was originally an article into the book. Did you ever think of turning into a book up until that point?

It was such a surprise. Yes, like you mentioned, there's a column in The New York Times called Metropolitan Diaries, focusing on New York stories. I think they receive hundreds of submissions weekly, so it's pretty hard to get into. When I started writing, it was mainly to keep myself accountable for writing stories. It was actually my New Year's resolution two years ago. I attempted to write a short story every week, but I knew it was ambitious. So, I thought submitting to the Metropolitan Diaries weekly might help keep me on track. My thinking was, “Well, I'll write a short story every morning for the rest of my life because I'll never get it into the column.”


I figured it would take years, if ever, to get accepted. My plan was to stop once I got in. Surprisingly, the first story I submitted was accepted. I sent it, and within a week or two, they emailed me back saying they'd love to publish it. Even that was a crazy experience, being in The New York Times. It was a dream come true. Then Mabel saw it and reached out to Ed Shanahan, the editor of the column. He forwarded her email, and I thought, “Oh, that's nice, he forwarded a nice review.” But then it continued, saying, “We'd love to turn it into a picture book.” I was like, “What?” When I saw her signature, saying it was from HarperCollins, I started freaking out. It was so unexpected. The good news was it was in The Times, and the amazing news was there was a possibility it might become a picture book.


What really meant a lot to me in this story is, being from Queens myself, I saw a lot of parts in it that I recognized. I thought, “that's my 7 train, I take that,” or “that's the Lemon Ice King.” It was really exciting to see that. I think what's also really cool is that this book does go a little bit way back when payphones were still a thing. While reading it, I felt so much nostalgia, more so because it captured the area that I grew up in. I'm curious if you felt the same way? 

Writing the article, I didn't feel it as much only because the article had a limit of like 100 words. So, super short. When I wrote the article and sent it, I wanted to show by using descriptive language, talk about the smell, the food, the noise, the honking cars, and a train passing by. There was a bunch of stuff I wanted to include, but I couldn't because of the word count, right? So I feel like that didn't really come across in the Metropolitan Diary piece.


When they told me I could do a picture book, I was like, “Oh, this is going to be amazing,” because I already knew what I wanted it to look like. I wanted to show specific areas, not just generic city streets. I wanted it to be like someone sees it and says, “Oh, this is Queens, and I know what street this is.” It's very specific.


Gracey Zhang, who illustrated it, did an amazing job. We worked closely, me being from the area and her not being from there. Even the editor really respected my opinions on everything, from what the characters look like to the inside of the barbershop.


I gave Gracey a bunch of references, like the Lemon Ice King, which is actually on the block I grew up on until my teenage years, and the 7 train. It was incredible because, for instance, I sent her images of the 103rd Street stop, and she had already chosen it to illustrate even before my input.


So yeah, to answer your question, when we got to the picture book, that's when it really hit me. I was like, “Oh, wow, I'm really going to be able to show Corona, Queens.”


Considering the fact that this book is supposed to be set a few years ago, did you have any trouble capturing the neighborhood the way that it was back then? Especially since there's been so many changes. Did you have to dig a little bit? Or was some of it left to your imagination?

It was more my imagination. Ideally, I would have loved to be like, “My plan is to write this picture book that takes place in Queens. Let me go back and go to a coffee shop or a mom-and-pop restaurant and write my book from there,” you know what I mean? Like a writer thing. But it was during the pandemic, so I couldn't fly, and I couldn't do that. So it was mostly just from memory and finding old reference photos. You know how Google Maps lets you see different times throughout the decades? I used those pictures and sent them to Gracey. So yeah, technology helped a ton there. It was mostly off imagination and remembering.


It's funny because after I wrote it, I went back to my old neighborhood. It was actually crazy and kind of sad how it hadn't changed a lot. Some of the businesses might have been replaced with similar businesses, but the street looked just like it did when I lived there growing up.


Are there any children's books that inspired you as you were writing Emergency Quarters?

No, I didn't really see any that were about Queens. Or maybe not even New York City. But I did read a few that inspired me. The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, and My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero. I love those two. I don't know how many times I read them as I was writing this, just because I love the way they show traveling through the city with different modes of transportation. The Last Stop on Market Street is about a bus, right? And My Papi Has a Motorcycle is about a little girl riding on her dad's motorcycle. I just love the way they show moving through the city and the neighborhood, interacting with all the different personalities and characters they come across.


I really loved how those two books showed that, even though they weren't about Queens or New York. They were set in different places, but yeah, those two really inspired me. I also love Nigel and the Moon by Antwan Eady, just for his storytelling and writing. I'm a huge fan of his.


I'd say those three books really helped me. Again, I wasn't writing to become a picture book writer, so I wasn't reading a ton of picture books initially. When it happened, I had to go back and read all the new and old stuff to understand story structure and all that. I read so many books. I remember going to the library and taking them out, and they'd say, "Oh, we think your kid would love this one," and I’d reply, "I don't have kids; these are all for me."


But yeah, those three books mostly inspired me the most.


What do you hope that young readers take away from this story?

I hope they leave with a sense of representation and that they can connect to the book. I hope that not only kids, but also parents and people our age who are the ones buying and sharing the books, are excited to share a piece of their childhood with the kids. Maybe that can create some sort of connection.


I also want them to take whatever they can from it. For me, there's so much in it, and everyone I talk to says something different. For me, it was just a personal story from my childhood. But when Mabel first heard of it, she said, "I love how it's about independence and how, even though the kid has a quarter and wants his independence, he still needs that connection to his mother." And I was like, "Yeah, sure, I meant to do that."


People say, "I love how it's about growing up with limited resources and not having as much as his friends," and I'm like, "Yeah, that too." Everyone I talk to has something different to say about the book that I honestly didn't even think about. It's almost giving me too much credit to say, "Oh, I love how you did this." I'm like, "I didn't even know what I was doing; I was just writing from memory."


I just really hope if they can take anything out of it that helps them see themselves in it, that's all I ask for.


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Visit our Bookshop to purchase a copy of Emergency Quarters.

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About the Author:

Carlos Matias is second-generation Dominican born and raised in Queens. He currently resides in Florida, and he received a master’s in branding + integrated communications with a copywriting concentration from City College of New York. His writing has been featured in The New York Times, Taste, Bon Appétit, and Edible Bronx. Emergency Quarters is his first picture book.


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Andreina Rodriguez is a journalist from Queens, New York. Her work appears on CNBC, NBC local, Refinery29, Latino Rebels, The Mujerista, #WeAllGrow Latina, and Modern Brown Girl.


You can follow her on Instagram @andreina_rod and follow her work through andreinarodriguez.com.


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