Although being myself a writer, I forget that renowned authors are also made of flesh and bones.
So when earlier this month at Petunia’s Place, my local children’s bookstore, I learned that Gary Soto himself would lead a tour at the Gary Soto Literary Museum in Fresno, I knew I had to go.
Gary Soto is not my most favorite writer but he has definitely transformed the children’s literature scene with his stories and poems, most if not all, deeply anchored in Fresno, California, his hometown and endless source of inspiration.
There are of course more romantic or picture like destinations in California than Fresno. But there are maybe none that connect more deeply with what California is still today: a state with dramatic beauty split between sophisticated urban locations and bountiful agricultural valley where poverty and wealth cohabit but rarely meet.
The museum dedicated to Gary Soto is nestled in the Old Administrative Building at Fresno City College, first community college in California and second oldest in the nation. With its brick buildings and courtyards, the college reminds more of an Ivy League school than a community college in Fresno.
This is however where Gary Soto discovered the words of writers and poets who influenced him and made of him the writer he became in the following years.
Gary Soto is a small man in stature but a charismatic person. Few people attended his guided tour and it is a pity. He is not living anymore in Fresno, preferring temperate Berkeley to the brutal seasons of the valley, and his visits to his native town are not as frequent as they were.
I offered my two adolescents to join me and although they both read Soto’s work at school, they declined my invitation. Perhaps they guessed they would be in the spotlight. Soto indeed involves people in the conversation, asking them for their feedback after he introduces himself through different exhibits displayed in the small but well designed museum.
Yesterday afternoon, in a friendly crowd made of educators, librarians, parents and young children, and a few college students, everyone was eager to participate and Gary Soto was sure to make eye contact with anyone willing to talk.
The museum blends the elements of setting essential to Soto’s work through black and white pictures depicting Fresno and some of its neighborhoods present in the author’s books. A cactus sits in a window case behind the poem Cactus, all the published books and about a third of the anthologies featuring Soto’s work stand on two bookshelves, Soto’s kitchen table where he wrote his first books, his three first typewriters and laptop are gathered on a small stage with his armchair and Mexican artwork that both he and his wife admire and collect.
The walls display the many awards the writer has collected over his productive career.
After the tour, Gary Soto allowed people to ask questions. Most were related to his early years, to the publishing industry and his up coming books.
Sign of the times his latest book is an e-book.
A new picture book called Lucky Louise will be released next year.
Few writers have been more true to the landscape of their childhood than Gary Soto. The first Hispanic American to hold an MFA has left his handprint on the contemporary American children’s literature and put Fresno, a 500 000 inhabitants city still called town by most Californians, into the spotlight.
The Gary Soto Museum is, as museums should be, a quiet place where literature lovers can see bits of a favorite writer’s life and get inspiration from a man who didn’t allow his Hispanic heritage, poverty and bad grades to stand in his way but instead embraced them and made them the stars of his stories.
Visit the website of the museum to find out more about Gary Soto and a local place to visit: