Falling Short,” the new novel for young people by Santa Ana author Ernesto Cisneros, tells the story of two middle-school boys and best friends – one an athlete who excels on the basketball court, the other an academic standout.

Despite their differences in height, athletic prowess and classroom performance, the two friends do their best to help each other shine – the diminutive Marco Honeyman, half Mexican and half Jewish and loaded with what he calls “geek awards,” and the much taller Isaac Castillo with his MVP basketball trophy and strength enough to pull his “fun-sized” friend through his bedroom window.

As they enter the sixth grade at Mendez Middle School, both must navigate a new world with new challenges, as well as the issues they face at home as children of broken families. Each of the main characters in the book in some way feels they are falling short, and each in their own way strives to overcome that.

Cisneros, who lives in Santa Ana, teaches English and writing at Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School, near the Artesia Pilar neighborhood where he grew up playing foosball at El Salvador Park, shooting baskets at Our Lady of the Pillar Catholic Church and sharing french fries at El Comedor, which gets a nod in the book. “Falling Short” is his second published novel, and like the first, “Efrén Divided,” is aimed at children in the middle grades, but adults can relate to the narrative, which moves with the quickness and agility of a fast break.

Cover art for “Falling Short,” the new novel by Santa Ana teacher and resident Ernesto Cisneros. Credit: Photo courtesy of Andre Jesus Martinez

Cisneros, 48, said he put a lot of himself into the characters.

“Writing this book is my way of taking struggles and negative experiences from my life and changing them into something more positive,” he said, “something that might help readers avoid these same pitfalls.”

“Efrén Divided,” released in March 2020, received numerous accolades, including the prestigious 2021 Pura Belpré Medal from the American Library Association, a Golden Poppy from the California Independent Booksellers Alliance, a Crystal Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, as well as two International Latino Book Awards. It made a number of lists of top 2020 books, including those by National Public Radio, the New York Times, and the Chicago and New York public libraries.

Released on March 15, “Falling Short” is already a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection and has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, the School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews.

“Told through animated alternating first-person chapters, Cisneros’ story not only captures the anxiety – and at times, humor – of trying to measure up to expectations, it also tackles delicate subject matter, such as parental absence and alcohol reliance, with profound sensitivity and nuance,” said Publishers Weekly, which focuses on news in the world of book publishing and sales.

The School Library Journal found it “highly recommended,” and Kirkus Reviews said the story “spotlights the various ways preteens and their parents fall short of their goals only to end up stronger because of their resilience and grit.”

Cisneros said he feels blessed by the success of “Efrén Divided,” and humbled by the reception that “Falling Short” has received. “After 14 years of struggling to get published,” he said, “I have a deep appreciation of how fortunate I am to have found a home for my work at Quill Tree Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books.”

Voice of OC contacted Cisneros by email to talk about his new book, and his career as a writer. His responses have been lightly edited.

Voice of OC: Why did you want to write “Falling Short”?

Ernesto Cisneros: I wanted to write a novel that addresses the “I’m-not-good-enough” syndrome many of us tend to feel growing up. Personally, I remember marveling at how much better than me other students seemed to be at just about everything.

It’s something I see in my students today. My hope is that “Falling Short” will serve as a lens of sorts that will let them realize how amazing they really are.

VOC: Where did the idea for the book come from?

EC: Honestly, the idea came from my eldest child who used to classify classmates the same way PetSmart does its fish.  On one side were the community fish – fish that got along with everyone. In the middle were the semi-aggressives, which could be aggressive from time to time. On the far right were the aggressives, fish that refused to get along with anyone else and needed to be kept away from the general population. The idea fascinated me, and I thought it would make for a great character quirk.

Ultimately though, the book is about the feeling we all have, the feeling that we don’t measure up, that we “fall short” of everyone’s expectations of ourselves.

Like my main characters, I, too, struggled to find my niche in the world, something that I could excel at, something I thought would make my parents proud.

Writing this book is my way of taking the struggles and negative experiences from my life and changing them into something more positive, something that might help readers avoid these same pitfalls. The way I see it, if my experiences help others, they become good regardless of how they felt at the time.

VOC: Who do you see as your audience for it?

EC: I share this book with anyone who has ever felt like they “fall short” of what the world expects of them.  When everything is said and done, we all feel like we “fall short.”  Truth is, all we can do is our best. As long as we do that, there shouldn’t be any room for regret.

VOC: Why did you build your story around basketball?

EC: Despite the fact that I was horrible at it, I’ve always had a love for the game of basketball. I didn’t know how to dribble. I couldn’t shoot to save my life. And yet, if there was a rebound to be had – I knew it was mine simply because I didn’t mind sliding headfirst onto the asphalt court. Basketball was the only place where my best seemed to make a difference. And after 30-plus years of playing the sport, I wanted to share what I’d learned.

VOC: You’ve no doubt observed students struggling, like the kids in this book, with failure in school, seeking acceptance on the playing field, dealing with bullies.  What did you learn from them?

EC: I have to admit that teaching for 25-plus years has really helped my writing tremendously. My stories don’t come solely from my imagination – they stem from the experiences I have with my students.  I wrote this book with the hope that kids would fall in love with Marco and Isaac, and in the process see just how amazing they truly are.

VOC: Why was it important to you to have the characters attend Mendez?

EC: This was crucial. I grew up in the same neighborhood and saw myself represented in the media. I grew up with a sense of disentitlement, a feeling that I was not entitled to the same opportunities as everyone else simply because of the slight accent in my voice. My work is my attempt at erasing those same feelings from future generations.

VOC: Without giving it away, how would you describe the ending?

EC: Like with “Efrén Divided,” I wanted the ending to be as optimistic as it was realistic.

VOC: How has your life changed since “Efrén Divided”?

EC: Well, doing virtual visits in addition to my teaching and family responsibilities has been quite the challenge. I do find myself a lot more tired than I used to be. There is very little time and energy left for writing. Additionally, I’d like to say that I no longer have insecurities about my writing and that it is a lot easier now – only it’s not.

Nevertheless, writing is as challenging as it is rewarding and continues to be my way of making a difference in my community.

VOC: Do you think your writing, or your voice has changed or evolved since “Efrén Divided”?

EC: In “Falling Short,” I tackled two different stories, each told in first person, which forced me to make each voice distinct despite both boys being of similar backgrounds and the same age. It seems that every new book I write comes with new and unique challenges.

Cover art for “Efrén Divided,” a novel by Santa Ana teacher and resident Ernesto Cisneros.

VOC: How long did it take to write this book?

EC: Like “Efrén Divided,” I wrote during my nutrition and lunch breaks, along with an hour or two after school. This one took about a year to complete – twice that of my first.

VOC: Can you share anything about the editing/revision process?

EC: Yes. Even after eight literary awards and multiple best-of lists across the country, I still don’t think of myself as a talented writer. In fact, I know I’m not. However, just like on the basketball court, I feel like I’m ready to scrap for each loose ball and do as many rewrites as needed to hold my own. Ultimately, that’s the secret. How badly do you want the ball?

VOC: With two books now published, what insights have you gained into the publishing world that you can share with other new writers?

EC: For 14 years, I struggled to publish my work simply because I struggled to find my own voice. Don’t strive to be like anyone else. Write from the heart. Be you. That is enough. I promise.

VOC: Are you planning to continue writing novels about the Latino experience, or other topics? Are you able to share any of your ideas?

EC: Yes, definitely! The real world is filled with amazing people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. My work will always strive to reflect that.  Fortunately, the amazing folks at Quill Tree books, a division of HarperCollins, share my vision. I am blessed to be contracted for two more middle-grade books with them.

Ron Gonzales is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at ronsgonzales@gmail.com.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.