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Miami mom's Pedro Pan novel

There is a moment in Christina Diaz Gonzalez's debut novel, The Red Umbrella, (Knopf, $16.99, ages 10-up) that will strike some readers as too frightening to be plausible. The parents of two children, ages 7 and 14, announce that the kids are going to a foreign country -- alone -- to meet someone they don't know who they will live with for an undetermined amount of time.

Implausible except that scenarios like this happened thousands of times during Operation Pedro Pan, the airlift of about 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children to the United States between 1960 and 1962. Gonzalez's parents were among them.

‘‘It is terrifying to think that there were parents who feared so much for their children's safety that it was better to send them blindly away that to let them stay in Cuba," Gonzalez said. "It's unthinkable, but it happened."

Gonzalez, who lives in Miami with her husband and two sons, mined family history to create her main character, Lucia. The 14-year-old girl left Puerto Mijares with her little brother, Frankie, when it became clear that her father had been targeted for persecution.

Because the idea sprang from material she knew well, Gonzalez had the outlines of the story in her head long before she put pen to paper. She wrote it first as a short story, titled Flight from Neverland, but got the same suggestion from everyone she showed it to.

"Everyone said, ‘This is a novel,' but I hadn't written a novel before, and I wasn't sure I could do it," Gonzalez said.

Eventually, she realized she had to try. She had signed up for a critique from Nancy Siscoe, an editor at Random House, at a Society of Children's Book Writer and Illustrators conference. She remade her short story into the first 15 pages of a novel, and gave the editor the first 10 pages to read.

‘‘It was clear from those first pages that Christina was an accomplished writer. Her prose was clean and spare - it was just effortless to read. But she also managed to convey a lot of emotion," Siscoe said. ‘‘And on top of that, this great writer had a wonderful story to tell. It's a fascinating piece of history and a story that speaks so directly to kids. You can't help but imagine yourself in Lucia's shoes."

Gonzalez recalls that the first thing Siscoe said to her when they met was that Random House would like to buy her manuscript. Stunned, she fumbled Siscoe's first question -- "Are you almost done?"

"Before I could think, the words were out of my mouth," Gonzalez said. "I told her ‘Yes, almost.' I had written 15 pages!''

Time to get busy.

It was June, so Gonzalez lined up camps for her sons and enlisted her parents, Delfin and Esperanza Diaz, to baby-sit. By August she had a finished draft; by the end of the month, she had an offer from Random House.

She launched the book at a May 8 party at Books & Books with more than 300 in attendance.

"We were packed to rafters," said Debra Linn, the bookstore's event coordinator. ‘‘And they bought books by the armful. One person buying seven copies was not uncommon. There was so much joy in the room. Everyone was so genuinely happy for [Gonzalez], proud of her, and proud of having their story told, and told in such an artful and emotionally accurate way."


Despite the old wisdom that those who care for law or sausage should not watch either being made, Miami writer Adrienne Sylver, an avowed lover of the ballpark frank, dove headlong (footlong?) into research for her first book: Hot Diggity Dog: A History of the Hot Dog (Dutton, $16.99, ages 5 to 8). Every conceivable question you might have about the wiener is answered within including, did Homer really mention sausages in the Odyssey?He did!

What about Neil Armstrong? Was he really the first man to eat a hot dog in space? He was!

And where did the name “hot dog” come from anyway? Alas, no one is certain but one theory is that German vendors noted the similarity in shape to dachshunds and their sales pitch to passersby – “Get your red hot dachshund sausages!” – was shortened over time.

Adrienne Sylver will celebrate the publication of her first book at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, May 22, at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables. There will, of course, be refreshments and those refreshments will, of course, be hot dogs.