Diana López has achieved her real goals, and then some

diana lopez headshot
Diana Lopez <i>(Photo credit: Kristel Puente)</i>

Teacher and novelist sees her work on film screen

By Susie Phillips Gonzalez 

As she launched her career as an author and teacher, Diana López (M.F.A. ’99) set herself a fake goal. Sure, she had a real career goal — to write and regularly publish while sharing her love of books with students ranging from middle school to college.

She also wondered, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a novel adapted to a film?” López calls this her fake goal.

As a graduate student in creative writing, López commuted from her job as a San Antonio middle school English teacher to Texas State University, where she attended classes and thrived in writing workshops with peers who critiqued her work. Her days often began before dawn and ended near midnight. The grueling schedule took its toll. Tom Grimes, then- director of the university’s creative writing program, urged López to consider a break from the writing workshops to concentrate on her writing style and to find her voice.

“Because I had that year, I gave myself permission to start a novel,” López recalls. Published in 2009, Confetti Girl, is about a middle school girl with friends who make cascarones (confetti-filled eggs) and whose life reflects the trademark themes of middle grade novels — family and friendship.

Fast forward seven years when an editor for Disney Press contacted López to write a novel based upon the animated film, Coco. The editor was looking for a Latina author and was impressed when she read Confetti Girl. An example of being in the right place at the right time, López says the novel opened doors for her. Coco director Lee Unkrich was among several people who wrote the screenplay for the Academy Award-winning film, but Disney Press asked López to create an adapted novel with greater depth and expanded themes. López thought the way to keep the story’s momentum while honoring its spirit was to give Miguel, Coco’s grandson, a larger role.

Coco: A Story About Music, Shoes, and Family (Disney Press, 2017), published before the movie was released, became a dream come true. Technically, it was López’s second work related to a film project. Her book Choke was based upon her experiences as a middle school teacher with students who played the dangerous game. In 2014, The Choking Game aired on the Lifetime TV network.

Hollywood is dazzling, but to be clear, López loves reading and writing. Her journey started in middle school when she put her thoughts via pen to paper even if her journal entry didn’t convey a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. “It was the joy of opening a page and having that tactile experience,” she says, adding that she would play with words, asking herself, “What if this happened instead?” As time went on, López realized she was composing fiction, not necessarily expressing personal encounters.

Eager to share her love of reading and formalize her desire to write, López earned a bachelor’s degree in English from St. Mary’s University. At the middle school where she taught, the principal encouraged her to pursue a master’s degree to further her teaching career. That’s when she enrolled at Texas State. López credits Grimes and former associate professor Dagoberto Gilb as mentors and role models who helped her transition to the persona of a writer.

Today, she encourages aspiring writers to find a group of authors for support and creative nurturing. “If you think about the writing act, it’s mostly in isolation. It’s not something you need to be with people to do,” López says. “But when it comes to finding avenues for your work, you have to network.” She flourished with the Daedalus critique group in San Antonio.

Now a professor at the University of Houston – Victoria, López advocates books as your best friends. She has written eight books and reads 60 to 70 books a year. She also shares her story with students across Texas, from kindergarten to college. She wants young writers, particularly Latinos, to understand that their stories are worth a book. “I tell them, ‘If you can see it, you can imagine it. If I can do it, you can do it.’ I see this as part of my job as a writer,” López says.

Books by Diana López

  • Sofia’s Saints (Bilingual Review Press, 2002)
  • Confetti Girl (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2009)
  • Choke (Point, 2012)
  • Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel (Little, Brown Books for Young  Readers, 2013)
  • Nothing Up My Sleeve* (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2016)
  • Coco: A Story About Music, Shoes, and Family (Disney Press, 2017)
  • Lucky Luna (Scholastic Press, 2018)
  • Sing With Me, the Story of Selena Quintanilla (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2021)

*2017 finalist, Tomas Rivera Mexican American Children's Book Award