Monday, May 30, 2011

Illegal by Bettina Restrepo — Interview with the Author

I was lucky enough to meet Author Bettina Restrepo at the YA A to Z Conference in Austin this past April. She spoke on a panel titled: New Voices in YA. Bettina read the prologue from her book ILLEGAL to the attendees, and it was evident that this daughter of German and Columbian immigrants felt deeply connected to the story she had written. To say that writing this book had a profound effect on Bettina would be a gross understatement. Bettina spent time getting to know the immigrant families who frequented the Fiesta Mart where she once worked. They were generous enough to share their stories. And from those stories grew a rich and heartbreaking story of one family’s quest for unity, under the oppressive circumstances of survival in a new country.

The main character, Nora, takes the reader on a journey from Mexico to the United States in search for her father who went ahead of his family on a quest to begin a better life. When her father stops sending money back home to Mexico, and they don’t hear from him, Nora makes a decision. She and her mother must cross the border in Texas by any means possible. Traveling under inhumane conditions, and determined to survive, they face the challenges of unemployment, language barriers, and bigotry upon arrival. Not knowing who to trust or where to turn, especially when faith becomes something of a burden, Nora prevails. Her faith lives inside her, not in the confines of a church, or the words of book, but in her heart.

Nora is a survivor. She stands up for what she believes is right. She has a rock hard personal constitution. And through all that her family endures, Nora shows an unparalleled strength. There are times when losing everything, including her father, is too much to take. But even then she prevails, finding strength in the kindness of strangers who become more like family.

As the daughter of Greek immigrants, I could relate to Nora’s struggle with the language. It brought back memories of my mother’s story of survival and adjustment. For me, personally, this is an important story that should be found in abundance in any school library.  I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but if you’ve ever felt like an outsider, or befriended someone from another country, this book is a must read.



WHY I YA: Why do you write books for young adults?

BETTINA: I go where the voice takes me.  Sometimes it’s a snarky six year old, and others a pensive teenager who has told one too many lies.  I let everything stand with the character.  But, I do tend to gravitate to YA – perhaps my teen years had the juiciest material to draw from!

WHY I YA:  Do you think there’s an age limit for writing the YA protagonist?

BETTINA: Yes and no.  18-19 are really the limit – because after that, most teens have enough experience to lead themselves into different directions.  Life EXPECTS them to be more responsible.  Teens over 18 have more access to freedoms – which I think changes the ball game. 

WHY I YA: Who was your favorite character to write in Illegal?

BETTINA: I was in love with different characters at different times.  I love Keisha’s heart, Nora’s perseverance, and Grandma’s faith.  Flora is the most complicated, so perhaps I love her most – today!

WHY I YA:  Is this the character you most identify with?

BETTINA: There are pieces of myself in every character I write.  I’m not adept enough to get myself out of the way. Maybe one day.

WHY I YA:  What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

BETTINA: Publish well, not fast.

WHY I YA:  How do you deal with negative criticism or reviews (if any)?

BETTINA: A three-prong approach on reviews.  1.  Margaritas   2.  Delete or block as quickly as possible.  3.  Move on.

But- helpful criticism of work in progress is soooooo good.  I love a good critique (but I hate comments like… why don’t we try this in 1st person/ 3rd person/ unreliable narrator after I’ve written 80,000 words.  THAT is NOT happening)

WHY I YA:  Have you, or do you think about, writing anything other than YA?

BETTINA: Yep, I also do picture book, but I prefer YA.  Believe me, if the voice takes me somewhere, I’m following, I don’t care what category it is – I just want to tell a good story.

WHY I YA:  What ran through your mind the first time you saw your book in print?

BETTINA: Surreal and indifferent.  It didn’t seem like me anymore.  Those words from my brain grew up and moved out of the house.  About an hour later, I cried until I almost collapsed.  I lost a dear critique partner and teacher who helped ‘raise’ the book six months prior – and she didn’t get to see the book.

WHY I YA: What’s in store for us from Bettina Restrepo?

BETTINA: Hopefully more writing and teaching for me.  I just love the kidlit and YA community so much.  So, I have a PB and another Latina YA in the mix.  


Bettina Restrepo and I (Demetra Brodsky) at the YA A to Z Conference in Austin

Thank you, Bettina. I know many readers and aspiring authors are looking forward to what 
you will bring to the genre next. 


  1. Great interview and a heartbreaking trailer... looks like a must read!

  2. Having recently met Bettina myself, I can say she is as awesome a person as she is a writer.

  3. Great questions, and a darn cute picture!


  4. Love the interview, the picture and the advice on negative criticism...I shall get my blender at the ready!

  5. Wonderful interview and great insight!

  6. Bett, I love the way you trust your character to define the story. Looking forward to more of your books!

  7. Thanks to everyone who commented. It's a great book, written by an amazing lady who I'm proud to call my friend. You go, Bettina!