Between completing the 2019 Chicago marathon, releasing his first book, The Blue Q: The World As I See It, in October of 2020, translating his published novel into Spanish, and seeing both the English and Spanish versions of his story on shelf at his local library, Addison resident Dennis Avelar has accomplished a lot in just a few years.
But his latest accomplishment is perhaps the one he is proudest of to date: El Quetzal Azul: El Mundo Desde El Cielo, Avelar’s Spanish translation of his book, won second place in this year’s inaugural De la Página a la Fama author competition, which is a contest for Illinois authors whose books are written in Spanish.
“Writing [The Blue Q] was my first dive into creative writing. I didn’t have any formal training in writing. I didn’t know what to do aside from reading books from my favorite authors,” said Avelar. “I used the library as a reference location, exploring how different authors structure their stories.”
After reading several library books to pass the time on his commute, Avelar turned to writing and produced a short story, about 100 handwritten pages. It wasn’t until much later that he realized he would like to write a book one day. Avelar’s storytelling skills learned from film school certainly helped him on his writing journey, but writing a book “is a completely different beast,” he said. He challenged himself to keep going.
“It wasn’t supposed to be a long story, maybe just ten pages,” said Avelar. “Then ten pages turned into twenty, and twenty turned into fifty, and at that point I figured I’d better just finish it, and the story developed into over 500 pages.”
The Blue Q: The World As I See It tells the story of teenage orphan Dionisio Sedano, who wants to experience every adventure the world has to offer. But the natural balance of the world is in peril, and all that flies between the Earth's success and failure is a resplendent bird: a quetzal.
“My parents are from Guatemala and the quetzal, the bird, is a really important symbol in Guatemala. It represents the people in terms of this freedom, this liberty, this natural beauty that the bird has,” said Avelar. “It’s widely known that the quetzal cannot survive in captivity. It would rather choose death than a lack of freedom.”
The quetzal found in nature has stunning green feathers and a red chest, but Avelar had an idea when creating his own film production company: he would represent his company with a logo featuring blue quetzal instead, to set it apart.
“I told my aunt in Guatemala about my idea. She does paintings and specializes in birds. When I asked her to draw a quetzal for me, but in blue, she said, ‘Dennis, that’s got to be the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,’ but she did it,” said Avelar.
Avelar later realized the blue quetzal was not only the perfect representation for his company; it was the perfect symbol for his book, too.
“I grew up with a Guatemalan background from my parents, but I grew up in the United States, so there are two parts to me. I wanted to see how I could incorporate that concept into the story as well as with the characters and their languages and their priorities,” said Avelar. “The birds [in the book] are specialists at certain things, but they’re really united, and can travel to other parts of the world and recognize each other. They all have this purpose and they understand it and work together.”
The Blue Q was initially released in October 2020. By November 2020, Avelar began asking local libraries if he could donate a copy of his book for the collection. The Addison Public Library was the first to accept his publication, and the library is so far the only library that has Avelar’s book both in English and in Spanish. But his home library is not the only one with a copy of his work.
“One of the libraries I went to, the Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin, said yes and I got to meet one of the librarians. She asked me what I was going to do with the book, and I said I wanted to get more people to read it and that I also wanted to translate it,” said Avelar. “She told me there was a competition that was launching in Spanish for the first time, and if my book was ready I could enter it in the contest. I was excited about it, but wasn’t sure it would amount to much.”
Avelar’s plans to translate his novel originally came from a social media graphic he spotted that showed levels of illiteracy around the globe. In and around the Americas, Haiti was shown as having the highest levels of illiteracy. The country with the next highest levels of illiteracy was Guatemala.
“When I saw there was a high level of illiteracy in Guatemala, I wanted to see what I could do to help. That became my motivating factor. I needed to do something for the people of Guatemala, in a voice and in a way that they could understand. I wanted to help motivate people to read more, even if it wasn’t my book,” said Avelar. “That’s when we established the mission of The Blue Q, to help kids around the world. A percentage of sales from the book goes towards helping build schools and libraries and hopefully one day, it’ll be a bigger thing. But the point of it is that I’ll do whatever I can to help increase that level of literacy.”
The translation of Avelar’s book was completed in 2021. Afterwards, he donated a Spanish copy to the Addison Public Library and submitted his work into the first ever De la Página a la Fama competition. In September 2021, the list of semi-finalists was released, and Avelar was thrilled to see El Quetzal Azul: El Mundo Desde had made the list.
“When the list was released, I checked out the competition, and it was so intimidating! These were well-respected professors, people working in theatre, award-winning writers, and then there’s this guy with a book about a bird who came out of nowhere,” said Avelar. “But you have to shut down that voice, that self-doubt. I was so glad to make it on the list.”
When the list of 3 finalists was released a month later, Avelar was floored to find he was included yet again. He started looking into the award and its history to learn more about the people behind the contest. De la Página a la Fama is part of the Soon to be Famous Illinois Author Project, which has hosted an annual contest for Illinois authors who write in English since 2014 and is run by a committee of library workers across the state.
“It meant a lot to me that librarians were the ones to read the stories, to get to know these authors and their characters so intimately,” said Avelar. “To be placed in the top 3 by people who are surrounded by books all day every day, who see and know about good authors, was an incredible honor.”
On November 15, De la Página a la Fama named its winner and runner-up. Pascuala Herrera’s No Siempre es un Valle de Lagrimas took first place. Avelar’s El Quetzal Azul: El Mundo Desde El Cielo took second.
“I see it as a tremendous accomplishment. If this were the Olympics, I’d proudly wear that silver medal and show everybody what we were able to do,” said Avelar. “You never expect someone to read your book. You invest so much time and effort into what you’re doing, and you hope that someone will at least recognize it. It’s an exhilarating feeling.”
To Avelar, being involved in De la Página a la Fama is more than just an accomplishment as an author; it’s an accomplishment as a member of the Latino community as well.
“[The competition] shows that there is a lot of creativity in our Spanish-speaking, Latino community,” said Avelar. “I recently visited Lincoln Elementary School in Addison to talk with the kids about my book and tell them the story. They spoke Spanish as well. It was so much fun to show them there was a Latino who was just like them, who grew up in a similar environment, who could accomplish this. If I can do it, they can do it, too.”
Between running and writing, Avelar’s unwavering determination to carry on hasn’t always come easily, but he knows from experience what good can come from pushing through when the going gets tough.
“The hardest thing is to get started. There will be certain times where you think it’s not for you, or you’ll find an excuse. But you get this feeling when you run on the ice, or when you listen to someone laughing as they’re reading from your book, and it’s something you have to experience,” said Avelar. “If you want something bad enough, please just get over the feeling of doubt and do it. The worst that can happen is you have a feeling of accomplishment, and for that alone it’s worth it.”