Debbie Zapata is the author of Up and Adam (Kids Can Press, 2022). Her debut picture book, illustrated by Yong Ling Kang, features a protagonist with Down syndrome and is designed for readers of all ages and abilities. Having her own son with Down syndrome led to the story development. Debbie is a former international programs specialist. She also received a Masters in Middle Eastern Studies and in Social Work. Debbie works as a therapist helping families who have children with disabilities, and she partners with school districts on diversity and inclusion. She is represented by James McGowan of BookEnds Literary Agency.
Where did you grow up, and how did that place shape your work?
I grew up in a multicultural family in Austin. We had a bedtime ritual of telling stories. My dad was the best storyteller. His stories drew on his own experiences growing up in Texas. We couldn’t get enough of them. What I didn’t know at the time was that our community creates the lens through which we tell and write our own life stories.
Austin in the 1970’s and ‘80’s had a big impact on how I saw myself. Growing up in Austin was an amazing experience. At the time, the only University of Texas was UT-Austin. People from all over the U.S. and the world moved to Austin to attend UT and then stayed after graduation. My parents took us to hang out at the Texas Union, to listen to live music, and to get breakfast tacos in East Austin. We would see people of every background enjoying our unique city.
As a child, I would write letters to older family members. I filled the page with stories about life in Austin. As a teen, I began reflecting on those experiences in my journal and in letters to my international pen pals. I now write stories that people can enjoy all over the world, but certain people can see themselves reflected in a new way. I believe that kids need characters that look like them, overcome obstacles, and make a difference in their community.
In my new picture book, Up and Adam, Adam, a young boy with Down syndrome, and his dog, Up, help their community after a big storm. When the Mayor asks the community for help, Up and Adam spring into action and lend a hand wherever they can. But, it turns out, Adam’s most important contribution is one he doesn’t even think about—his smile. Adam’s open-hearted and infectious smile lights the pages as he lifts spirits all over town.
Did you always want to be an author, or did that come later?
As a child I loved to write stories. In college, I was a strong academic writer. I preferred writing papers over taking tests. I enjoyed the research, the challenge of having a lot of information, and not being sure how I’d eventually go from a rough draft to a fascinating paper. In my twenties, I didn’t know how to go from academic writing to creative writing. So, I took some writing classes through UT’s Informal Classes, but I didn’t pursue my dream to write until later in life.
It wasn’t until my son was born with Down syndrome that the story concept for Up and Adam took shape. I didn’t know how to go from creative writing to being a published author. Luckily, I found my way to a supportive writing community through organizations like the Writer’s League of Texas and Austin SCBWI. Taking classes and becoming part of The Writing Barn family made having a writer’s life a reality for me.
If someone were to follow you around for 24 hours, what would they see?
First and foremost, they would see a variety of things playing out to a great soundtrack of songs, because I love change, and I love music. Although my day consistently starts with coffee, most everything after that is driven by making a new choice and not falling into a predictable routine. I might pick oatmeal or eggs for breakfast, or a delicious smoothie recipe. I first help get everyone out the door and then start to focus on balancing my inbox emails, any book promotions for Up and Adam, and revising or writing new stories. I use knitting or another hobby as a reward for making progress on a project. I watch the clock count down to school pick-up and try to get in time for yoga or the elliptical.
I spend a lot of time with my kids when they get home. My middle schooler updates me about the highs and lows of her day. We usually watch something together on TV. We recently discovered “America’s Got Talent.” My son never liked sweets before, but now he loves cookies. So, I like baking fresh cookies for everyone to enjoy. There’s even a scene in Up and Adam which hinges on the joy of cookies!
I’m a big believer in eight hours of sleep, so I usually wind down fairly early, with time to decompress. As a writer and a social worker, I like watching movies and TV shows. The best ones are those with intricate characters. I love character-driven stories!
How does your everyday life feed your work?
My love of family is central to my everyday life and is reflected in my work. I write about family, my identity as a Latina, and being a mom to a child with Down syndrome. I live in the town where I grew up and felt a strong connection to my community, which is a big theme in my work. Austin is full of people, both past and present, who are ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
I started doing yoga in 1995. It has informed a lot of my life. I think the reminder that we are all doing the best we can in this moment feeds the work I do to bring people together. Whether it is being a social worker, or a writer, or a mother, I can draw on my well of curiosity, empathy, and desire to connect with others. As an introvert, my most successful way of recouping my energy is with time alone. I love that writing can achieve both work progress and restoration.
Lastly, having time with family at the end of each day and hearing their stories fill my well—personally and creatively.
Tell us about some accomplishments that make you proud.
I am super proud of publishing Up and Adam because it features an endearing and authentic representation of a child with Down syndrome, focuses on his abilities (not disabilities), and offers an inspiring model of how everyone can make a difference in their community. Yong Ling Kang’s illustrations thoughtfully feature details in Adam’s clothing and belongings that are sensitive to his needs. The book is full of positive examples of community, contribution, and inclusion.
Seeing my work in print has been a tremendous joy because I believe in a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book. Only about 3% of children’s picture books include a prominent character with a disability. Up and Adam features a protagonist with Down syndrome and focuses on the character’s abilities. I hope it inspires children to see how everyone can make a difference in their community.
I am also very proud to have been selected as a featured author at the 2022 Texas Book Festival where I was able to share my Up and Adam inclusive storytime event with readers of all ages and abilities.
What surprises you about the creative life?
I’m blown away by the kind, creative people who are also children’s book authors. I’ve found the most supportive people through the friends I’ve made in different writing groups and organizations. Children’s book writers tend not to be driven by ego, but rather by a desire for bringing people together and for all kids to feel seen in the pages of books.
When a reader discovers your work, what do you hope they find?
I hope they find an untold story about someone they never knew before. I’d like for them to discover a new world through the characters I create. I feel my goal is to share honest writing that is inspired by real people, whether my story is fiction or nonfiction.
Favorite international children’s book?
I loved reading Pippi Longstocking (by Swedish writer, Astrid Lindgren) when I was a kid. It was one of the books that launched me as an independent reader. I enjoyed the fact that the main character was different, with her red hair, freckles, and superhuman strength. It was an added bonus that the books were part of a series. It’s a fun fact that Pippi originates from bedside stories told for Lindgren’s daughter, Karin, circa 1941.
Recommended inclusivity parenting resources?
As a parent to a child with special needs, some resources that have been extremely helpful to me are the National Down Syndrome Association (www.ndss.org), Special Needs Alliance (www.specialneedsalliance.org), and Beyond Play (www.beyondplay.com). For parents, or other adults looking for resources to help advocate for inclusion, I would recommend Parents for Diversity (www.parentsfordiversity.com), KIT: Kids Included Together (www.kit.org), and the National Inclusion Project (www.inclusionproject.org).
What makes you smile?
Rolling out my purple yoga mat under a tall oak tree on the patio of my yoga studio … It’s the promise of something better from tuning in and listening to my heart—with the affirmation that I am okay at this moment.