Updated: Apr 5
By Amaris Castillo
In the opening scene of Plátanos Go With Everything, a young girl named Yesenia helps her mother in a bright, warm kitchen. While they prepare dinner, Mami shares stories about her life back in the Dominican Republic.
At one point, Yesenia asks her mother, “Why do Dominicans love plátanos so much?”
It’s a question author and poet Lissette Norman tenderly explores in her forthcoming picture book, out on Jan. 31 from HarperCollins. “Plátanos keep the connection to the homeland and also represent how Dominicans make community here, or anywhere,” Norman said of the book illustrated by Sara Palacios.
In 2020 as the Covid pandemic began to upend lives and families could no longer spend time together like before, Norman felt compelled to write this story about Dominican joy. The New York native dedicated Plátanos Go With Everything to her late mother, Juliana Disla Castillo – a seamstress and animated storyteller who expressed love through food. “My mother and a lot of memories from my childhood are all over this book,” Norman said.
Throughout the book, we follow Yesenia as she begins to thread these connections in her mind. She likens plátanos to her Abuela’s warm hello kisses, and to love poems her papi recites to her mami.
Plátanos Go with Everything/Los plátanos van con todo – a bilingual version of Norman's book translated into Spanish by Kianny N. Antigua – is also out on Jan. 31.
Ahead of her book’s release, Norman spoke with the Dominican Writers Association about who she wrote this book for, how plátanos are like a love letter from the Dominican Republic, and more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Congratulations on your new book. How do you feel about it being out soon?
I’m super excited. It feels good. It’s a huge gap from when my first book came out [in 2006]. Life really got in the way. I was working on a novel on and off for all that time. The funny thing is that, while I was going through the editing process of the novel, I wrote this book.
If I learned one thing as a writer, it’s that if you’re working on a project for a long time and you’re waiting, sometimes it’s good to dabble in something else. This book came to me, and it was the thing that launched me right back into the publishing world, which felt like it was never going to happen. There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears since 2006 and, of course, I wasn’t writing the whole time, but there certainly was a lot of rejection. It was painful.
This book just happened. And it felt almost magical to me the way it happened, because everything just aligned so beautifully while the world was falling apart at the beginning of the pandemic.
I found your book to be deeply resonant. Take us back to how the book was born. What compelled you to write a picture book about plátanos?
The book title came to me first, and there were other things happening simultaneously. I was on the planning committee for my family’s annual family reunion in July of 2020. Then the pandemic started in the spring and we came to the realization that this is not going to happen. And not only is the reunion going to be canceled, but we may not be able to see each other for a while. I started missing my family even more. Everybody was worried for everybody. Whenever we plan the reunion, we always tell stories about things that have happened in past reunions – because something always happens. There’s this nostalgia for the past.
The final thing is, I’m getting ready to cook. I’m cutting up plátanos and suddenly I’m like, “OK, what am I going to eat with this?” This is as simply as it came. I had a variety of things, and I was like, “Oh, you really can eat everything with plátanos.” And then Plátanos Go With Everything happened. I sat down and started writing. Between the stories that we told to lift our spirits during this really scary time and this book, it was a sense of escapism for me.
Your main character, Yesenia, observes her mom preparing plátanos in the kitchen and begins to make these little connections in her mind. What was it like to place these connections onto the page?
I think they were all there, and that’s how I formed them together. I knew that I wanted to write about all the things that the plátano represented to us, and then I just likened it to whatever event was happening. With the rewriting, that’s what it turned into. But the lines [that began with] “Plátanos are like…” – those were there from the beginning. It was just a matter of how to build around them.
My mother and a lot of memories from my childhood are all over this book. I really did go into the kitchen with my mother. When my mother and all the vecinas would gather in the kitchen, I wanted to be in there with them. I would ask, “Mami, do you want me to clean the dishes?” I never wanted to do the dishes, but I wanted to be in the kitchen with them. I wanted to enter that oral society – the stories that they exchanged about politics, husbands, or whatever was happening on the block or in the neighborhood. They were just loud and funny. You know kids couldn’t be in adult conversations, so they would send me to be with other kids. But I wanted to hear them.
My mother was an incredible storyteller. She could take any story and she would make it so funny. She was very animated and captivating in that way. And so in the kitchen, I listened more than I helped her [laughs]. Because I loved to hear her tell stories. This book has a lot of pieces of my life, like the party scene. For as long as I can remember there was always a party on the weekend, and it wasn’t like anything they planned. If five or more people gather, it breaks out into a party. There’s already the music and there’s already the food. Just move the table aside and let’s dance now. And this was every weekend.
Growing up in New York to Dominican parents, how did you view plátanos?
I loved them. My mother was also an incredible cook. There was always food at home. In my college days, I studied in upstate New York, but I would come home on the weekends or holidays and go out with my friends. I could come home at three in the morning and my mother would wake up to greet whoever I came with. And she’ll say, ‘You guys hungry? Want me to cook?’ I’m like, ‘Mami, it’s three in the morning. Go to sleep.’ [Laughs] That kind of thing. Her way of showing love was with food.
As a Dominican kid growing up in Brooklyn, I would sometimes complain about the repetition of meals. There were many, many plátanos. Now I wish I could have my mom’s mangú all the time. What is your relationship to plátanos now?
I love it. I eat mangú probably more than I eat tostones. When I was growing up, plátanos came with every meal. I don’t think I thought, ‘Wow, there’s always plátanos’ as a kid. It might have even been weird if there were not plátanos. I don’t cook it as much as I think my mother did, though. I do cook it. I mean, I have plátanos right now downstairs.
You write that “Plátanos are like a love letter from the Dominican Republic.” I found that line to be so beautiful. What does that statement mean to you?
Plátanos keep the connection to the homeland and also represent how Dominicans make community here, or anywhere. What was interesting about our family, too, is that my mother’s friends who came from the Dominican Republic (and one from Puerto Rico) moved around New York City as a unit. If one moved, the other one moved. And it was all up and down Washington Heights, Harlem and Inwood. They formed this community. So it wasn’t always just family coming to parties and coming to our house’ it was other Dominicans that came from Dominican Republic and now we’re all family. And we grew up saying that their kids were our cousins, even though we weren’t by blood.
And the ever-present plátano was there. It represented that connection. It made all the other women and their families feel that connection.
I loved how you allude to Plátano Power, which is something that Dominican baseball players are sometimes said to have when they go out on the field. Why did you want to include that?
I wanted to bring so many different things about being Dominican and, of course, baseball is a big thing. We’re very proud of our baseball players, so I wanted to bring that into the story. I picked the players that I loved or family members loved, and still love.
When I saw your cover reveal, I immediately recognized the illustrations from Mexican artist Sara Palacios. She’s done beautiful work for other children’s books. In Plátanos Go With Everything, there are so many nods to Dominican culture – from the decor in Yesenia’s home to the viejitos playing dominoes outside. Did you play any role in making sure the illustrations were as representative as possible to a real Dominican community?
Absolutely. I was very on top of that. That was incredibly important to me. And I have to say, Sara Palacios was so incredibly patient and she did a beautiful job. The illustrations were gorgeous – down to what the people look like, what the hair was like. Sara was very cool. She rolled with it. She asked what are some of the things that are in Dominican households, and so I sent a bunch of pictures. And you can see it scattered about.
You have the muñeca sin rostro. You have the diablo cojuelo. And I even noticed one of the pillows that has the artwork of Cándido Bidó.
Yes, his artwork. I sent her pictures of things and of Haitian wood art. There’s a lot of that in there.
The grandfather in the book was initially very different. There was a lot of back-and-forth when she would send sketches and illustrations. When she sent me the illustrations of the grandparents, it was around the time that Johnny Ventura died. And so I asked, “Can you change the grandfather?” And I sent her pictures of Johnny Ventura. So that was a nod to him.
That’s amazing. I can see it.
We went through everything. I’m just so happy with what Sara did. She did a beautiful job. She was really great about it, and open to my suggestions. She was great to work with.
Your book joins other plátano books in the children’s literature space, such as Luz Maria Mack’s The Secret of the Plátano and Alyssa Reynoso-Morris’ forthcoming Plátanos Are Love. In terms of the publishing industry, what does the presence of these books signal to you?
It signals that they’re more open. They were so happy to receive and to show this representation. The publisher, too. They were very open to wanting to represent a Dominican family right. And I was very specific: this is an Afro-Dominican family.
It signals to me that they’re willing to fill a space that people are hungry for. People want their children to see this kind of representation. Parents, readers, librarians want them to see it. I think it's beautiful that there’s now going to be three plátano books out there. I think that’s wonderful.
As a reader, it felt like this book was written for Dominicans. But then, upon a closer read, it also felt like it was for non-Dominicans to learn about the importance of the green plantain for our community. Who did you write this book for?
First and foremost, for my people. I thought about our Dominican kids. I wanted to give them something that they could be proud of. It was so important to me for Dominicans – young and older – to be proud when they read this book. After that, it’s the cherry on top.
This story has a scene where they’re serving mangú. It’s kind of like anybody could come into my house and you’re going to get a plate of food. You’re family now. It’s universal, too, in that way. A lot of cultures are like that. When you understand people, you’re more empathetic to people. Kids will learn about different cultures. And because it’s gonna be read amongst children, they’ll be like, “OK, this is what happens in a Dominican house.” I just imagine a Dominican kid like, “Yes, this is how it goes down in our house.”
Ultimately this is about Dominican joy. It’s about family love, and it’s about plátano pride. It’s a symbol of pride.
This title is also available in Spanish. You may purchase copies from our bookshop: https://bookshop.org/lists/2022-new-noteworthy
About the Author:
Lissette Norman is a poet and author of the picture books My Feet Are Laughing and Plátanos Go with Everything. She is also co-author of the picture books, On the Line: The First African-American Rockette (w/ Jennifer Jones) and Until Someone Listens (w/ Estela Juarez). Lissette received her BA in English at SUNY- Binghamton and currently lives in New York City.
Amaris Castillo is a Brooklyn-born 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 is forthcoming 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 and read her stories from the colmado at bodegastories.com.