Q & A with Yamile Saied Méndez

Horse country has room for everyone—that’s the animating belief that drives the new Horse Country middle grade series by Yamile Saied Méndez. The central protagonists are two sixth-grade girls who each have a Latinx father and white mother, but come from very different economic backgrounds: Carolina Aguasvivas has grown up on the Idaho ranch that her father manages, and Chelsie Sanchez, whose mother, the ranch’s new owner, has ambitious plans for its future. The series debuts today with Can’t Be Tamed; a follow-up volume, Friends Like These, appears in June. The Utah-based Méndez is a busy author, with a host of picture, middle grade, YA, and adult books already on her roster, and more in the works. She spoke with PW about horses, tween drama, and the smells of a freshly cleaned barn.

You’ve talked about wanting to move beyond the traditional depictions of horse-loving kids in middle grade books—not just in terms of ethnicity but also in terms of income level. How did the series emerge from that idea?

Series like The Saddle Club and Canterwood Crest are so popular, but we only see stories about people who have access to competitions and formal lessons. Out here in the West, horses are a part of everyday life—they’re daily companions—and I hadn’t seen that kind of story being done.

But it was kind of an organic thing—I didn’t have a five-year career plan that included writing this series. I always fantasize about stories I might never get to write because of time constraints, and I have characters I play with in my mind. As I started writing stories with Scholastic and developing a relationship with my editor, Olivia Valcarce, Horse Country took more shape in my mind.

I was born in Argentina on the plains, where there are a lot of horses—polo is the big sport there, not soccer. But I never had access to horses because my family didn’t have the financial means. During the pandemic there wasn’t much to do, so I enrolled in riding lessons. I live in a tiny town in Utah and it’s also horse country; There are lots of ranches and riding schools. Olivia saw photos of me riding on social media and she told me that she loved horses, too—that it was her dream to work on a horse book. At the time we were working on my third book, When You Wish Upon a Strayand she asked my agent [Linda Camacho] to send her a proposal, a summary, and a couple of chapters. And we ran it with it.

It’s always been a series in my mind because there’s so much material and so many stories I could tell—not only with these two girls but with the other characters as well. And horses are a never-ending subject. I would love to explore what happens as the girls get older and then reach a point when they have to decide whether they’re going to go on being “horse people” or if it’s something they leave behind in their girlhood.

You’ve lived in Utah for 25 years—why did you choose to set the books in Idaho?

Because it’s beautiful! It’s just breathtakingly beautiful. There are enough similarities between Utah and Idaho that it wasn’t hard for me to recreate the environment. It was fun to throw that little curveball—to give my readers a new place to read about.

Both girls have a white mother and a Latinx father. Why was that an important aspect of their characters?

We don’t see a lot of that mixed identity in fiction; where I live, it’s very, very common. I wanted to show what it’s like having dads represent the same culture [both men have Argentine roots]but one lives with his daughter, and one lives far away. [Chelcie’s parents are divorced; the father is a famous Argentinean polo player.] It gave me the opportunity to show how two girls could have similar backgrounds and still be very different. Also, both characters deal with looking very different from their moms, and how that affects their sense of identity.

You write so evocatively about the hard work and sensory rewards of horse farm lifefor example, how a clean barn goes from smelling like manure to being fragrant with eucalyptus and lemon. Did you feel that this kind of detail was missing from the genre?

When I was planning the series, I immersed myself in a lot of the media around horses, particularly from the 1990s to the 2000s: Saddle Club, Pony Tails, the TV series Heartland. There are some universal aspects to horse life, but I also really wanted to capture the details that are purely American West. I wanted to make this world so real that when readers closed the book they missed Paradise Ranch so much they’d want to go back!

Those sensory details—they’re so particular to a barn. You just can’t forget that smell, it gets ingrained in you. Not a lot of readers will have the opportunity to experience those things in real life so I did the best I could recreate it through words.

It is hard work and it’s never ending because you’re working with a living creature. You can’t take a break because you’re tired. I don’t live on a farm, but it’s one of my lifelong dreams—although I wonder if it’s what I really want, because it’s so much work!

I plan on going deeper and deeper into the topic of farm life now that I’m working on book four. It’s set in the summertime, which is a busy time of year on a farm—you wait for summer with such longing, and it’s so fleeting.

Tween girl dynamics are tough to get right in fiction—you have to be empathic and realistic. How did you approach those scenes?

Growing up, I went to an all-girl school, and I don’t remember as much girl drama as I’ve seen with my daughters. But then every time I talk to the friends I went to school with, they remind of how intense it was [laughs].

I did my MFA thissis [at Vermont College of the Arts] on the cartoonal of puberty in middle grade fiction. When we talk about puberty and girls we think about periods, but all these things are taking place in the brain, too. Social relationships are so important: when you’re a twin, some of those issues do feel like life or death. And there are conflicts of forced proximity—you have to go through school for many years with the same people. In my book, you also have to live on the same property.

I have five children, and now my littlest one is in fourth grade, and I see again what best girlfriends go through: some days they love each other and then they argue, and they don’t talk for two weeks. They’re just practicing for life in the real world in their little universe.

You’ve written two picture books (What Will You Be? and Where Are You From?) and a number of middle grade books (most recently, Wish Upon a Stray). What do you like best about each form?

I love that I can explore the same topics through different lenses and different scopes. In a picture book I can only answer one question—I have 300 words. In the Horse Country books I have 35,000 words—but that’s still not a lot to develop a world and explore the questions of belonging. You have to keep it simple.

I come into all my stories with a huge respect for my characters, to be honest and show their stories with authenticity. I was listening to a podcast with Kate DiCamillo, and she talked about being a former eight-year-old. With Horse Country, I try to see my former 11-year-old and honor her.

You were one of the founders of the Las Musas collective of Latinx women and nonbinary writers, writing and/or illustrating in traditional children’s literature. The group seems to have a strong momentum going can you give us an update?

I used to know everyone in Las Musas by name and we could count our members on one hand—and then on two hands. And now there are so many members I have to look up their names on our website! It’s so exciting. And yesterday we welcomed six new Musas into the group. It’s grown into a mentorship program, which was always a goal: a way to lower the ladder to others and help more people tell their stories and share them with readers.

We’re planning our third Latinx KidLit Book Festival, mostly likely for the end of 2022, and that seems like a miracle, too. I’m so happy to see how this little seed has grown, and how much stronger all of us are.

What’s next for you?

I have two other middle grades novels that are out on submission. And I have a picture book, Pockets of Love, with HarperCollins that will come out in 2024. I’m super excited—Sara Palacios will be illustrating it and I’ve always wanted to work with her. It’s about a family dealing with the death of their grandmother; It’s Mom’s birthday and they want to celebrate by making Grandma’s empanadas. It was my way to process all the grief from the last couple of years and show how the people who have left us can still be present.

Can’t Be Tamed (Horse Country #1) by Yamile Saied Méndez. Scholastic, $7.99 paper Apr. ISBN 978-1-338-74946-5

Friends Like These (Horse Country #2) by Yamile Saied Méndez. Scholastic, $7.99 paper June ISBN 978-1-338-74948-9

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