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George Lopez, Ryan Calejo blend Latinx folklore and laughs in new novel

In ‘ChupaCarter,’ a boy befriends a legendary creature with a ‘fangy grin.’

George Lopez, right, and Ryan Calejo collaborated on the new novel “ChupaCarter,” the story of a boy who befriends a monster known in Latinx folklore as a chupacabra. (Ryan Calejo/Photo by Penguin Random House/Photo by Justin Stephens/The Washington Post illustration)

Friends come in all shapes and sizes, but “ChupaCarter,” a new middle-grade novel, pushes this idea to the extreme. Twelve-year-old Jorge’s best buddy is a hairy, seven-foot-tall monster named Carter.

The book was written by George Lopez and Ryan Calejo. Lopez is a well-known comedian and actor. One of his favorite roles, he said, was the voice-over for Papi, the brave chihuahua in the film “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.” Calejo writes the Charlie Hernández fantasy novels for young people.

“ChupaCarter” — fast-paced and funny, with lively illustrations by Santy Gutiérrez — is a terrific pick for Hispanic Heritage Month. It features figures from Latin American folklore, including Carter, a chupacabra with a “goofy, fangy grin.” Humans and dangerous mythical creatures are on the hunt for easygoing Carter, and as they close in, Jorge and his buddies must figure out how to rescue their hard-to-hide friend.

Inspiring abuelas and abuelo

Lopez, who is Mexican American, often drew on his childhood for the book, he told KidsPost by phone from Los Angeles, where he was recording a new TV show, “Lopez vs. Lopez.” His grown daughter Mayan is his co-creator and co-star.

Like Jorge in the book, Lopez did some of his best thinking as a kid on the roof of his grandparents’ house in Southern California. “I’d sit there and look at the moon and wonder ‘Who am I going to be?’ ” he said.

His grandmother and step-grandfather, who raised him, are the models for Jorge’s loud, tough abuela and gentle abuelo.

Though his abuela didn’t throw empanadas at him, as does Jorge’s grandmother, she “did throw other things,” said Lopez with a laugh.

Calejo’s abuelas told him stories of frightening chupacabras and other legendary creatures to entertain and keep him out of mischief, Calejo said by phone from his home in Miami, Florida.

These tales inspired the first story he remembers writing in elementary school. It was about a protective doglike spirit known as el cadejo.

Another important Latinx inspiration for Calejo, whose parents emigrated from Cuba: Lopez, whom he watched on TV as a kid.

“I wanted to replicate my hero, George,” he said. “In middle school, the teachers even let me stand in front of the room before class and tell jokes [like Lopez in his comedy routines] as long as I promised not to tell jokes during class.”

Said Calejo: “Seeing George succeed, I felt that I could succeed, too, and dream bigger.”

Pushed to try new things

Being able to work with his idol on the book was fun, Calejo said. Because it was written mostly during the coronavirus pandemic, all planning and talking had to be done by phone or video chat.

“We’d pass ideas back-and-forth,” said Lopez. “It was a real meeting of the minds.”

Lopez thought often about his boyhood friends during the book-writing process, especially one named Ernie who, as Carter does for Jorge, pushed him to try new things. Together they went to see stand-up comedians and bought their first guitars at age 15.

“I was shy and poor as a kid,” said Lopez. “Everything I do now, I owe to Ernie. Carter is Ernie to me.” (There is also a human character named Ernie in the book.)

If you’re wondering what might happen next for Jorge and his friends, Lopez and Calejo are creating the second book in the series.

“It’s about a haunted piñata,” said Lopez, “and it controls who gets the candy.”

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