Alexandra Peñaloza Alessandri is the author of Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela! (Albert Whitman), which won the silver medal in the 2020 Florida Book Awards Young Children’s Category, and Isabel and Her Colores Go to School (Sleeping Bear Press), as well as the forthcoming middle grade fantasy The Enchanted Life of Valentina Mejía, which releases Spring 2023 from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
The daughter of Colombian immigrants, she received her BA and MA degrees in English from Florida International University and a Certificate in Fiction Writing from UCLA Extension. She is a former associate professor of English and a poet, with some of her work appearing in The Acentos Review, Rio Grande Review, Atlanta Review, and Young Adult Review Network. Her experience growing up straddling both cultures often influences her children’s fiction and poetry.
Alexandra is represented by Deborah Warren of East West Literary Agency. When not writing or teaching, Alexandra spends her time daydreaming of Colombia, relearning the piano, and planning the next great adventure with her family. She lives in Florida with her husband, son, and hairless pup.
Long Bio: Finding My Way Back to Writing
Once upon a time, I was a child growing up in Florida with summer trips to Colombia. My parents fostered a love of books at a young age, and I was immersed in reading and making up stories. The library was my favorite place, apart from my backyard, which was the stage for my imagination. I graduated to storyteller, entertaining my younger cousins or anyone who would listen, with made-up tales of kingdoms in clouds. At some point, I began filling notebook after notebook with poems, stories, and snippets of my daily life. One of my first typed stories was a (horrid) ghost tale. I still have this story somewhere in the box of memories I keep.
After high school, I attended Florida International University, where I earned my BA and MA degrees in English Literature. During those years, I took creative writing and literature courses, and though my heart was in the former, my practical thinking was in the latter. I kept writing as a hobby, focusing my professional energies on academia instead as I got married and, later, had my son.
Then, in 2008, my father passed away. After his death, I began filling the ensuing void with memories. I wrote to make sense of my past, of my father, and of our (often troubled) relationship. And like memory begets memory, so does writing beget writing. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I’d found my way back to writing.
In 2011, I was diagnosed with an invisible illness–connective tissue disease with a side of fibromyalgia–and I often find myself trying to find a balance between what I want, what I need, and what my body tells me I can do. All these experiences have found their way into my writing. I write about grief and loss, as well as about my identity as a Colombian American, submerged in the nostalgia of my parents’ country but grounded in my U.S. American reality. I write about children like my son, those who grow up steeped in multiple cultures. I also write about the magic that’s possible if only we look closely at the world around us. I’m grateful for my agent, Deborah Warren of East West Literary Agency, for believing in my stories.
On October 20, 2020, my debut picture book Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela!, illustrated by Addy Rivera Sonda, released from Albert Whitman & Company and has since won the silver medal in the 2020 Florida Book Awards Young Children’s Category and become a finalist in the 2021 International Latino Book Awards. My second picture book, Isabel and Her Colores Go To School, released from Sleeping Bear Press on July 15, 2021 and is illustrated by Courtney Dawson.
I’m obsessed with urban murals, strong coffee, and mapping out my ancestry. I’m a kid who never grew up and who wishes life consisted of song and dance at random moments. I’m an only child raised with many primas and primos and deeply rooted in my Colombian heritage. To me, family and faith are everything. We have a Colombian-German-Chilean-American household that gets rowdy during the World Cup, and I wouldn’t have it any other way–hairless pup and all.
- I’m an only child, and my son is an only child. However, my mom is the eldest of eleven and my dad was the middle of six–so I have tons of primos and primas.
- My great-uncle, Bernardo Arias-Trujillo, was a Colombian novelist and poet. There’s a school in Risaralda, Colombia named after him.
- I’m ridiculously clumsy.
- I’m also shy and an introvert.
- Music makes me happy. There are musicians on both sides of my family, and almost all our family gatherings are accompanied by live music. My son has inherited this love of music. He plays the guitar, tenor sax, and clarinet, is teaching himself piano, and is always whistling or tapping out a tune.
- I play the piano–sort of. My dad taught me how to play when I was a child, but I never pursued it. As an adult, I’m relearning and pleased it’s somewhat like riding a bicycle. You never truly forget. I’m still in beginner-early intermediate though.
- I create playlists for my novels. They help me visualize and inhabit the world and characters. Picture books, though, like poetry, I generally have to write in silence.
- Favorite genres: fantasy and magical realism.
- Favorite music: salsa, cumbia, vallenato (with a side of reggaeton and merengue). I can’t help but start moving when I hear them.
- Favorite colors: pink, purple, and yellow, though really, these change depending on mood and moment; I love all colors, and I love combing through paint chips and their names.
- Favorite food: churrasco with rice and beans. And, during the holiday season, buñuelos!