Writer, poet, young adult novelist, and children’s book author Benjamin Alire Sáenz was born in 1954 in a farming village outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico, close to the U.S. -Mexico border. Author of this month’s Vamos a Leer featured novel, He Forgot to Say Goodbye, Sáenz was brought up in a traditional Mexican-American family.
As a child Sáenz grew up speaking only Spanish until he entered elementary school. As a way of obtaining educational opportunities, he became a Catholic priest, a calling that lasted only three years. His future belonged to writing. His education eventually took him to the St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, Colorado; the University of Louvain in Louvain, Belgium; the University of Texas at El Paso; the University of Iowa; and Stanford University. He has studied philosophy, art history, theology, creative writing, and literary studies with a focus on twentieth century American poetry.
In 1993, he resettled in the border region between Texas and New Mexico to teach in the bilingual MFA program at The University of Texas at El Paso. Themes and issues involving this region, immigration, and the Mexican-American experience remain central to his writing.
Sáenz’s writing career blossomed earlier with his award-winning poetry collections, but has received wide commendation most recently for his novels, and short stories.
His first young adult novel, Sammy & Juliana in Hollywood, won the 2004 Américas Book Award. He Forgot to Say Goodbye, his second young adult novel, won the Tomás Rivera Mexican-American Children’s Book Award in 2009. His most recent and celebrated work, YA novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, tackles issues of identity and homosexuality. Saénz has also published four bilingual children’s books, one of which is A Perfect Season for Dreaming/Un tiempo perfecto para soñar.
Even as we feature his young adult work this month with He Forgot to Say Goodbye¸ we also want to draw your attention to A Perfect Season for Dreaming/Un tiempo perfecto para soñar as an example of his children’s literature. Whether he’s writing for younger or older readers, Sáenz always narrows in on our common humanity and the beauty of our world.
Here is a description from Goodreads:
Ninety-two-year-old Octavio Rivera is a beautiful dreamer. And lately he has been visited by some very interesting dreams—dreams about piñatas that spill their treasures before him, revealing kissing turtles, winged pigs, hitchhiking armadillos and many more fantastic things! Octavio doesn’t tell anyone about his dreams except his young granddaughter Regina because she alone understands beautiful and fantastic dreams. On the ninth afternoon Octavio prepares for his siesta hoping to be blessed with one last lovely dream. That afternoon he dreams of a sky full of sweet and perfect hummingbirds calling his name over and over again…
This bilingual story takes us through the creative dreams of our elderly protagonist during the first few days of summer. In his dreams, fantastical items fall from a piñata; Italian pears turn into blooming desert cacti; mariachi coyotes escape in a tractor; colored shirts chase their owner, and more. At first Octavio doesn’t plan to tell anyone about his dreams, but he starts to feel a desire to do so – until his heart finally aches and he must!
He cannot think of whom to tell and finally realizes that he would love to tell his granddaughter, Regina. He shares his dreams with her and they have a wonderful afternoon together. On the ninth afternoon of summer, at peace that he has shared his dreams, he lies down for his daily afternoon nap and dreams one last incredible dream: a choir of hundreds of hummingbirds singing his name.
The book depicts a beautiful relationship between Octavio and his granddaughter Regina. Octavio feared that others would call his dreams childish, but knew that Regina would appreciate them. The moment in which they bond over his dreams reflects the passing down of oral history throughout generations – a very important part of family and community. Both young and old readers will connect to the book on this level and hopefully become inspired to share intergenerational experiences within their families and in their communities.
The rich and colorful pages illustrated by Esau Andrade Valencia complement the vibrant creativity of Octavio’s dreams. Those of us who live in the Southwest and who are familiar with the region will recognize specific details within the landscape,-from desert vegetationto adobe architecture, or the different towns such as Denver, Lubbock, Tucson, and Alameda. Even if you’re not familiar with the region, this level of detail makes for an engaging story.
If you’re interested in learning more about Sáenz and hearing what he has to say about his work and other issues, check out the following resources:
- PBS News Hour podcast interview with Sáenz discussing U.S.-Mexico Border
- NPR article and interview with Sáenz on “Discovering Sexuality Through Teen Lit”
- Lannan Foundation podcast reading and conversation with Sáenz
- Texas Monthly in-depth article about his personal life and journey, and his newest adult short story collection: Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club
Images: Modified from A Perfect Season for Dreaming/Un tiempo perfecto para soñar. Illustrator: Esau Andrade Valencia