By Millicent Borges Accardi
Inês F. Oliveira’s debut children’s book Calvin And Sugar Apples will be launched this summer by the San Francisco based publisher The Collective Book Studio. Born in Viseu, Portugal, the author is thrilled to share her writing with readers old and young. Oliveira, who holds a master’s degree in engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, worked for many years in the field of technology before rediscovering (as she says) “words and writing.” Stating that she believes words have the power to scatter light into children’s eyes, she insists on reading aloud with her children every night. Currently, she lives with her husband and their two small children, by the sea in Bairro da Beira Mar, in Aveiro, Portugal,
About the book
In the forthcoming Calvin And The Sugar Apples, eleven-year-old Amelia has always had Calvin to talk to, but Amelia has no idea where he is. Calvin is a twenty-one-year-old chinchilla and has always been there for Amelia whenever she needed to talk about her problems—but he is no longer in his cage, and her parents just say he’s in a “better place.”
Everything seems to go wrong now that she and her best friend Camilla have had an argument, and Amelia has missed the school talent show.
Without Calvin, who does she talk to about her disappointments at school? Without Calvin, who does Amelia talk to about missing Calvin? She vows to become like the sugar apples in her backyard, rich on the inside and always hard to find.
The book is illustrated by Vanessa Balleza, a Venezuelan author and illustrator of children’s books, with a knack for capturing warm moments with vivid detail and imagination.
In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, Inês F. Oliveira speaks of what inspired her to write for children, her experience as a foreign student in the United States, what she loves about her native Portugal, and how much family means to her.
Q: Congratulations on Calvin And The Sugar Apples, what made you decide to write a children’s book?
A: Thank you so much, Millicent. I fell in love with children’s books after my children were born. Every book is available now, exploring everything from friendship to grief. They’re thoughtful and magical, yet so simple, with a complex message in the background. I love how we can read the same book to the same child in different stages of development. And it displays a bit more of the meaning behind the story every time we do.
From illustrated books, I switched (with my children) to middle grade and was so happy to keep falling in love. And to see them falling in love, making their own choices.
I started writing as a UX writer and a copywriter. When I decided to risk my chances in creative writing, I was sure I wanted to write for children. Books do make a difference. They connect us to our inner selves and others. They grow empathy and allow to dream. I want to make part of this difference. What better stage to start than with children?
Q: Was it inspired by a real-life event?
A: Yes, my inspiration was a real-life event. The chinchilla in the book is our chinchilla, Calvin. Calvin lived for 21 years. It’s funny how a small animal settles into the family. We missed him a lot when he left us. My children missed him more. Calvin passed away when they were in school. There were a lot of questions when my daughter and son arrived home. What most impressed me was that, after a few weeks of losing Calvin, my son started crying out of nowhere. He was finally sinking in his loss. Feelings take time to process. And we take even longer to share them.
Q: What age is the book for?
A: Calvin And The Sugar Apples is for children ages 7 to 10. It’s for young middle-grade readers. But it’s also for adults: teacher librarians, teachers, educators, and parents. It’s for everyone who enjoys reading various genres but comes to middle grade for heartfelt stories with depth and a relatable voice. And for solid friendship and family themes that teach something about life.
Q: Who are you writing for?
A: Kids are my ideal audience and the ones I think of whenever I write. Every child, although the story suits seven to ten years old. I hope librarians, teachers, educators, and parents worldwide also find Calvin And The Sugar Apples a good fit for their youngsters.
Q: Can you set up a teaser for PAJ readers about what the story is about?
A: Here it goes: It’s hard for ten-year-old Amelia to talk about her emotions, and she sees no point except when she’s with Calvin, her 21-year-old, long-tailed chinchilla. He has lots of time to hear her and never judges. But now, Calvin is gone, and she has no one to talk to about disagreeing with her closest friend and missing the school’s talent show. What will she do? According to Amelia’s parents, Calvin is in a “better place,” which means he’s dead. Amelia refuses to accept the inevitable and plans to bring Calvin home.
Q: The book is in English. Do you anticipate doing a bilingual edition or publishing it in Portuguese?
A: I’d love to see a Portuguese version. There are plans for that to happen. Right now, we want to focus on nurturing the English edition, ensuring it reaches readers everywhere.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I was born in Viseu, but my parents moved to Aveiro while I was still a newborn. My family and I love to travel and meet new places and cultures. Yet, we always end up in Aveiro. It’s home for us. It’s a beautiful city, close to the sea, and small enough for us to walk around everywhere or to drive with little or no traffic.
Q: You have lived both in the US and Portugal. Any comments?
A: Yes. I lived in the US for a short period while taking my Master of Science, I loved living in Pittsburgh, by the way. But my husband and I traveled along both US coasts. We love the melting pot culture, the diversity, and the dynamics of places and people.
Q: What was it like attending college in the United States?
A: Carnegie Mellon was an eye-opening experience for me. First, the proximity of the university to the corporate world. Second, the diversity of electives. While in a technology-related master, I chose non-tech courses. I did Innovation Management and Transformational Leadership. And I began rethinking my career when I finished my master’s. Also, I found Pittsburgh to be a welcoming city. I’ll always cherish the experience and the memories.
Q: What did you miss most about Portugal?
A: When I lived in the US, I missed my family and friends the most. I had no children then but missed my husband, parents, and sister. And I missed the food. Food and food habits vary between countries. I missed Mediterranean food.
Q: Living in Portugal, how did you publish a book in San Francisco?
A: As a UX writer and a copywriter, I was already writing in English. Also, I found the best courses, summits, and general information in the US.
I found The Collective Book Studio from watching Angela Engel’s presentation as part of the Women in Publishing Summit. Alexa Bigwarfe and her team organize the Summit every year. It covers every theme about the book business industry from the perspective of outstanding speakers. I loved watching Angela and hearing about her stance on the publishing business. Also, I loved how she depicted books as a way of art. The Collective Book Studio makes beautiful books. I contacted Angela, who accepted my book as their first middle-grade story. I’m thrilled and learning so much from The Collective Book Studio’s team.
Q: How does Bairro da Beira Mar inspire your writing?
A: There are so many beautiful features of the city. I used the ones that we see every day. Things like the grocery shop, the narrow houses, and the traditionally paved sidewalks. And others, like the smell of salt and algae and the high walls with the cabbages peeking above them.
I am much into the details of places and streets. Walking the streets instead of driving helps. And doing so with my children is a sure way to discover new peculiarities and fun things to do. Every corner is a playground when I’m with them.
Q: Before writing this book, you studied engineering. What do literature and engineering have in common with you?
A: These are two separate fields. But literature and engineering are also two broad fields. I graduated as an engineer and worked in technology. While still working in technology, as the manager of a User Experience team, I returned to writing.
We were designing the products but needed them to have a voice. The Apps you use are not only about design. They need a voice and personality. We didn’t have the tech writing skills in the team, and we couldn’t find them in the Portuguese market. I have always enjoyed writing, so I dug in. When I decided to shift my career to writing as a freelancer, I worked with tech companies. It was my field and a language I spoke well. So, for me, writing and technology cross. As I progress to creative writing and writing a book, I understand that tech writing can learn from the creative process and vice-versa.
Q: Can you describe how you write?
A: Sure. I start with an idea. This idea must mean something to me. I find it much easier to persist in something that I believe. But I also look into the market and try to find books that deal with the same subject. I read them before thinking of my story. And I work to understand how their plot flows. I then define my main storyline and theme, work on a short synopsis, and sketch my main characters. After this first stage, I put my hands to work on the first three chapters and sense the point of view. At this stage, I also like to summarize each chapter and fully understand what the story will look like. These foundations take the stress out of writing for me. When I begin working on the complete story, I know my way. It changes, and I may add a character and new chapters. But at least I know my way.
Q: You’ve said you like writing for kids (because you are a big kid yourself) what else about your personality helps you write for children?
A: I enjoy the way children think and act. How they interpret situations, and how that changes with their growth. As a mother, I work daily to shape how I see things and improve myself. My children teach me to see myself from a different perspective, be present, and laugh more. Also, I’m resilient and love to learn. And I love reading middle-grade and YA (young adult) literature. There are so many good authors and books.
Q: The book is about a chinchilla. What research did you do for the book?
A: My research goes back to when we first had Calvin, our chinchilla. We had never had one before, and my husband and I wanted to ensure he would live the best life we could provide him. And we tried to understand the species and its history.
I learned a lot with Calvin about how even the smallest creatures find a way to be part of the family. More recently, I realized that short-tailed chinchillas are listed as endangered. You can check it too in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
Q: You have two children. What do they think about the book?
A: They love the idea of me writing a book. The book is still something intangible for them. They have seen illustrations, and they know what the story is about. But it will only become real once they see and touch it. They find it funny to have Calvin as part of the story. And they’re curious about understanding if they’re part of the book.
My children aren’t my first readers, though. They can’t read and understand this much text in English. But I’m sure they’re my first fans.
Q: Do you make up bedtime stories for your children?
A: I’m much better at making up stories when I’m writing. But I do read aloud with my children every night. My son loves me to read any nonfiction book to him. We’re reading a history encyclopedia at the moment. He loves facts and comics. My daughter is more into fiction, and she loves a variety of genres. They both read in Portuguese, but I also read with them in English and Spanish.
Q: What Portuguese traditions are you raising your children to treasure?
A: My husband and I are raising our children to be aware of others and themselves. I’d love my children to grow up appreciating what they have instead of being sad about what they don’t. I want them to understand that, despite their talents, there’s a lot of work and sweat into being successful. And that success means different things to different people. They must find their version of success, happiness, and peace. We don’t think of peace that often. Life is overwhelming. I’d love them to find that sweet unperfect spot where they can live with respect and love for themselves and others. And I want them to know that it all takes time. We expect everything to happen so fast these days.
There aren’t specific Portuguese traditions we worry about, except for the proximity to family. That’s something we value.
Q: An opening quote, “Friends are supposed to keep their promises instead of changing plans at the last minute” indicates that the book will teach a lesson (or lessons about friendship) and perhaps parenting? And childing? What lessons do you hope the book teaches readers?
A: Calvin And The Sugar Apples is about friendship, loss, and grief. But it’s also about new opportunities and moving on. Amelia (the main character) learns to open up about her feelings. And how that helps her move forward and be happy, even if she experiences something sad. I hope the book empowers every child to talk about their low and happy moments. To search for support and, from that, find their way. Also, I’d argue this is also a good story for parents to read. We are always in such a hurry. And we continuously work to provide the best opportunities for our children. As a parent, I learned from Amelia’s relationship with her mother and how a simple conversation could solve so much.
Q: Can you share a short passage from Calvin And The Sugar Apples? That will entice people to buy the book!
A: “To my friend Calvin, who’s been with me forever. I learned from you that talking things out brings peace to my heart. I learned from you that dark things become brighter when I share them. You’ll never need a cage to return to me because you’ll always be in my heart. I’m forever your home. Love, Amelia.”
Q: What is for you the magic about writing?
A: Writing is magic because it travels to distant readers and resonates with different people. It inspires, empowers, and relates in ways we can’t anticipate. It somehow builds a highway that guides our words into someone else’s heart. Someone that picks the words and makes them their own. There isn’t magic, right? That is until we believe it. Then anything is possible. The same goes for writing, whenever we dive deep into a story and live it fully.
Q: Do you have a favorite Portuguese writer? Children’s book author?
A: I love Isabel Minhós Martins. Isabel is also the founder of the Portuguese publisher Planeta Tangerina. They have beautiful books that challenge both children and adults. And she writes beautiful poetry. One of my favorite books is Metade Metade. It’s a beautiful poem about falling in love.
Q: Will you be hosting readings or book launches?
A: I’m still working on those, but I will host readings in person and online. I’ll be announcing events through my newsletter. You can subscribe to it on my website, inesfoliveira.com. And, of course, I’d love to promote a book event at PAJ. I’ll reach out to organize something.
Q: What are you working on now? Do you have a new book in the works?
A: Besides promoting Calvin And The Sugar Apples, I’m working on a new middle-grade fiction story. And, I’m plotting out a new book to follow Amelia’s adventures. I’d also love to try my hands at a picture book. In the future, I want to improve my writing skills for the middle grade. There’s so much to learn still and so many great professionals to learn from.
Millicent Borges Accardi, a Portuguese-American writer, is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Through Grainy Landscape, 2021 (inspired by Portuguese writings) and Quarantine Highway.
Her awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, Creative Capacity, California Arts Council, Foundation for Contemporary Arts (Covid grant). Yaddo, Fundação Luso-Americana (Portugal), and the Barbara Deming Foundation, “Money for Women.”
She also curates the popular Kale Soup for the Soul reading series.