My Favorite Bit: José Pablo Iriarte talks about BENNY RAMIREZ AND THE NEARLY DEPARTED

José Pablo Iriarte is joining us today to talk about her novel, Benny Ramirez and the Nearly Departed. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Benny Ramírez can see dead people . . . Well, one dead person, anyway.

After moving cross-country into his late grandfather’s Miami mansion, Benny discovers that the ghost of his famous trumpet-playing abuelo, the great Ignacio Ramírez, is still there . . . and isn’t too thrilled about it. He’s been barred from the afterlife, and no one can see him except his grandson. But Benny’s got problems of his own. He’s enrolled in a performing arts school with his siblings, despite having no obvious talent.

Luckily, Abuelo believes they can help each other. Abuelo has until New Year’s Eve to do some good in the world and thinks that teaching Benny how to play the trumpet and become a school celebrity might be his ticket into the great fiesta in the sky. Having no better ideas, Benny finds himself taking Abuelo’s advice—to disastrous and hilarious results.

What’s José‘s favorite bit?

My favorite bit of my debut middle grade novel is the very first scene. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that? Maybe I should tell you that you have to read two-thirds of the book to get to it, so you will feel pressured to buy the book. But that would make a more boring post, because it wouldn’t be true.

And, you know, there’s lots of stuff further into the book that reviewers have already said nice things about, so by all means read on and maybe one of those will be your favorite bit. But my favorite part is the beginning because it breaks all the rules about what works and what you can do in a kids’ book especially, and it fills me with delight that I got away with it.

I vividly remember the responses from my critique group of young adult and middle grade authors when we met to discuss the opening of the my newest project. We met via Zoom, because pandemic, and so all their faces were aligned on screen with more or less the same expression: incredulity at the blatant disregard for every bit of received wisdom that my opening showed, and incredulity at the fact that somehow . . . it worked.

When you go to writers conferences and attend an agent or editor panel, sooner or later the topic of prologues seems to come up, and when it does, every publishing professional rolls their eyes heavenward, throws their arms up, and says not to use one. They’re never as interesting as the book. Or they’re misleading, creating artificial interest that will immediately be discarded in Chapter One. Or they’re evidence that the writer started their manuscript in the wrong place. And that’s just talking about prologues in general, not in kidlit, where we’re further told to assume a reader has a short attention span, and that you’d better get to the point fast.

But wait: there’s more. I not only have a prologue in a kids’ book–I have a prologue in a kids’ book where the point of view character is an adult. That’s supposed to be another no-no. Kids don’t want to read scenes from the perspective of adults!

But my prologue in a kids’ book doesn’t just come from the point of view of an adult–it comes from the point of view of an adult who is . . . pretty terrible, actually. Self centered and clueless and with a colossal ego.

And if that wasn’t enough, my prologue to my kids’ book depicts an on-the-page death.

But the thing is, it’s pretty funny. And it gives you the first impression of the ghost who will haunt our protagonist: his estranged grandfather Ignacio Ramírez, a former star musician who was larger than life and is now larger than death. And the thing is, you can’t have a star who is larger than life without giving him, for a little while at least, the spotlight.

But it works because he gets some comeuppance when he attempts to enter the afterlife, expecting to be treated like a star as he was in life. And it works because kids are smarter than people give them credit for, and they can see the way that Ignacio is lying to himself and fooling nobody. And it works because when Benny Ramírez first meets his grandfather’s ghost, he is at first taken in by the image of the benevolent star he always wanted to know better, but the reader is not. And tension is when the reader knows what’s going on but the protagonist doesn’t.

So that’s the bit that sticks with me. If the premise sounds fun to you, then come for the rule-breaking prologue, but stay for the family dynamics and feels that I’m known for in my Hugo- and Nebula-nominated grown-up work. And then let me know what your favorite bit was!


Book Link





José Pablo Iriarte is a Cuban-American writer, high school math teacher, and parent of two. Their fiction has been finalist for the Nebula, Hugo, Locus and Sturgeon Awards, longlisted for the Otherwise Award, and reprinted in various Year’s Best compilations. Their debut novel, Benny Ramírez and the Nearly Departed, will be published on April 30, 2024 by Knopf Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House. Learn more (but frankly not much more) at, or follow José on facebook, twitter, or bluesky @labyrinthrat.

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