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Boomer writer's first published novel proof that practice makes perfect

by: PHOTO: MERRY MACKINNON - Portland resident Estela Bernals first published novel, Can You See Me Now? was launched this summer at Powells Bookstore in Beaverton. Written for middle-school children, the book was recently published by Arte P√∫blico Press, the nations largest publisher of contemporary literature by U.S. Hispanic authors.

It took 18 years of persistent writing, with loads of rejections from publishers along the way. But now that her debut novel — “Can You See Me Know?” — was recently released, Estela Bernal is earning a reputation as a talented author of a middle grade children’s book whose story portrays emotional challenges faced by a Mexican American teen.

“Diversity is finally getting some attention,” said Bernal, who grew up in the Texas Rio Grande Valley in a Mexican American family. “We’re called authors of color.”

But a healing story of a child dealing with tragedy has appeal to children of all backgrounds.

“I got a note from a woman who said she considered it a book that transcends ethnicity,” said Bernal, who retired and moved to Portland after a stint in the military and a career in California social services.

This summer, Powell’s Bookstore in Beaverton hosted Bernal’s book launching. She also has been interviewed on radio stations in Texas.

Published by University of Houston’s Piñata Books of Arte Público Press, Bernal’s novel tells the story of 13-year-old Mandy, whose father dies in a car accident and whose grief-stricken mother sends her daughter to live with her diabetic grandmother in a fictional rural town in Oregon. A shy and awkward girl, Mandy suffers from low self-esteem while she grapples with her mother’s remoteness, with her own guilt and grief and with bullying by other students in her middle school. But with the help of a composed and mature schoolmate, Paloma, and the overweight and asthma-afflicted Rogelio and his lovable dog Lobo, Mandy gains confidence and a renewed sense of joy in life.

“You start seeing a transformation in these kids as they reach out for one another,” Bernal said.

Her characters are composites of people she’s known. Paloma, for instance, has qualities Bernal saw in her own yoga teacher. Mandy is transformed through Paloma’s friendship and way of life, which includes meditation, yoga and healthy, outdoor activities.

“I like to introduce concepts like love of nature, good diets and love of exercise,” said Bernal, adding that lifestyles which urban higher income families take for granted, are often unavailable in lower income rural communities.

A yoga aficionado herself, Bernal, who is in her mid-60s, now has the luxury of meditating — and writing — every day.

“I love it,” she said.

Bernal began writing when she was in her 40s, first by practicing what she had learned from reading books on writing, such as “The Writer’s Guide For Crafting Stories For Children.”

She is at work on another novel, this time about a teenage boy.

Her message to other, as yet unpublished writers is: Persistence pays off.

“It’s very easy to get discouraged after you lose track of how many rejections from publishers you’ve gotten. But stick with it,” she advised.

Having been the youngest of nine children in a family whose parents didn’t speak English or have books in the house, Bernal knows firsthand that some children live in households where no one reads to them. For that and other reasons, Bernal is donating all the proceeds from the sale of her book to childhood education and to animal welfare.

For young writers

On Oct. 11 at 2 p.m., Estela Bernal will conduct a workshop, “Putting new spins on old tales: If every story has already been written, how do we make ours unique?” Sponsored by Workshop for the League of Exceptional Writers (for ages 8 to 18), it will be held at Beaverton Powell’s, 3415 S.W. Cedar Hills Blvd.