We had the opportunity to talk with Claudio Aguilera, an award-winning Chilean journalist and children’s writer. 9 Kilometers was shaped by his childhood memories of long, long walks to school and the pride his ten-year-old self felt after receiving an award for perfect attendance. The Spanish version of this book was selected for the 2021 White Ravens catalog and was named the 2021 children’s category winner of the Chilean Ministry of Culture’s Marta Brunet Award. 9 Kilometers is Claudio’s English- language debut.
What made you decide to become an author?
My mother is a great reader and I grew up watching her write her life journals and poems that she sometimes shared with me. So since I was a child I loved reading and the desire to create my own stories grew in me. Then I studied journalism and art history, and writing became my profession. But it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I returned to creative writing, specifically children’s literature, which is a genre I’m passionate about.
What makes you most passionate about this job?
Meeting with boys and girls and the possibility of listening to their readings and interpretations of my books. Also knowing that the books I write become part of their lives (they read them before going to sleep, they take them to school, they discuss them with their families and friends).
What’s a typical workday like?
I work at the National Library of Chile, in charge of the original drawings department, so after I drop my seven-year-old daughter off at school, I spend all day looking at old illustrations and comics and reading books and magazines from the past. It’s a wonderful job! After that I come home and after my daughter falls asleep, I write the stories that will later become my books.
Where do the ideas for your books come from?
It can be anything: news, a conversation with a boy or girl, a scene I saw in a park, a game with my daughter, a song or a memory from my childhood. Many times it is a phrase or an image that settles in my mind and stays there for years until it becomes a story.
How much research do you do before you begin a book?
Yes, my training as a journalist makes me want to be faithful to the data and try to make my stories have a factual basis. That is why I invest a lot of time researching, reading articles, and documenting the most diverse topics. It’s something that entertains me a lot, but I always have to be careful because I can spend hours and hours looking for minimal data that sometimes doesn’t even fit into the book.
Where do you find your inspiration for new stories and characters?
As I said before, inspiration can come from anywhere, but to flesh out a story I observe and listen to the boys and girls, and I try to convey their curiosity, their way of relating, their way of thinking and seeing reality, and something of his complex and rich internal world. Another important source is my own childhood, which I was lucky to share with my brothers and sisters, in the landscapes of southern Chile.
What inspired you to create 9 Kilometers?
The true stories of thousands of boys and girls who in different parts of the world have to walk to their schools. For several years I saw news in newspapers and social networks about boys and girls in Asia, Africa, and South America who had to cross borders, rivers, jungles, frozen roads and huge ravines to study. When I tried to imagine what these boys and girls would feel, look at, and think about, 9 Kilometers was born.
What do you hope young readers will take away from 9 Kilometers?
I would like those readers who experience situations similar to that of the protagonist to feel that they are not alone on their path, that there are many who accompany them and who, from different spaces, are aware of the need to make changes in our society. Those who are favored and are lucky enough to have their parents take them by car or have local buses, I would like them not only to stop and think about how lucky they are, but also about how important it is for them to observe their surroundings, discover the flora and fauna, or the city, that surrounds them.
Do you have a favorite spread?
I love that page in which the protagonist is inside a forest and you can see the way the sun’s rays filter through the foliage. This ability to capture nature and convey its vitality is one of Gabriela Lyon’s great successes as an illustrator.
I there anything else you feel we should know about 9 Kilometers or yourself?
Although I never had to walk such long distances as the 9 Kilometers protagonist, I did walk a lot and I loved looking at the landscape, noticing the changes that were taking place during the different seasons, and observing the houses and buildings. And to this day I enjoy walking and looking, whether in the wild or in the city: there is always something new to discover!
Written by Claudio Aguilera
Illustrated by Gabriela Lyon
Translated by Lawrence Schimel
HARDCOVER; Releases: 2/28/2023
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A memorable, compelling story about the perseverance of a child and the human right to education.
The sky is still dark when a young boy leaves home for school. He has a long path ahead: nine kilometers—over five-and-a-half miles—through the mountains and rain forests of Chile. But the boy doesn’t mind. While he walks, he can count butterflies and lizards, and he can think about where the 15,000 steps he takes every morning could lead. Nine kilometers could bring the boy across ninety soccer fields, up the world’s ten largest buildings, or into a classroom at last…
Set against the lush backdrop of southern Chile, this book features one of the many children around the world who travel long distances in order to go to school. After the story, thoughtfully illustrated back matter explores the unique birds of Chile and the courage of similar students’ journeys in other countries. Striking and timely, 9 Kilometers will open lasting conversations about social inequalities, the value of learning, and the resilience of those who push past obstacles toward a better future.
“A brilliantly illustrated account of an arduous—yet deeply rewarding—journey.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)