Kitty Felde and her husband, Tad Daley, moved from Los Angeles to Southwest D.C. in 2009 when Felde was assigned to cover Capitol Hill for a public radio station in Calif. Kitty and Tad lived at River Park on Delaware Ave. until 2018, though they still own their unit. While living in Southwest, they loved being able to walk to the Nationals games and taking the Wharf’s jitney to Potomac Park. The proximity of the Nats Mass and the Bardo Beer garden were also a central part of their community experience. Felde, who designs and sews most of her clothing, has also been a fan of estate sales in the area.
She found more contrasts than she had expected between the coasts, beginning with the sad shoes women wore to accommodate cobble stones, bricks and marble floors. “So much for my beautiful green mules!” she exclaims. Then there were the congressional dogs wandering the Capitol and of course the ways partisanship reared its ugly head.
As a reporter from outside the Beltway, she had to learn “the rules” in order to navigate the formality on Capitol Hill. She was taken aback by some of the bluntness, and she noticed that reporters from Spanish media had to rely on reps from Mexico-bordering states or Florida for usable quotes. Meanwhile, she loved the pomp of the State of the Union plus the mob scene afterwards in Statuary Hall where everyone scrambled for comments. Finally, the wonder of Snowmageddon and autumn leaves were marvelous!
In her middle-grade novel, “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza,” 10-year-old Fina expresses the newcomer shock that Felde felt.
Tell us about Fina and how she became your central character.
Fina was inspired by a young woman I mentored for several years in L.A. She was fierce, smart, quiet, driven, even persuading her non-English-speaking mother to help her transfer to a better high school where she graduated with honors. I imagined what she must have been like when she was younger.
Fina gets into some exciting adventures. What sorts of research did you do? Any “adventures?”
I spent a lot of time in the Capitol Crypt, listening, watching people, rubbing my fingers over the cat prints by the Samuel Morse plaque. [Note: The Demon Cat of Capitol Hill plays a key role in Fina’s adventures.]
I quizzed the House Rules Committee staff and explored a storage room near a freshman congressman’s office that he’d turned into an extra workroom; I used it for Fina’s “girlcave.” I pestered the House Historian, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, and most of the California delegation for information.
Unlike Fina, I didn’t break anything. But I was yelled at by the Capitol police for carrying a purse into the Speakers Lobby.
Fina’s mother has died recently, and her father is in his second term in Congress when Fina and her sister move east with him. Talk about the relationship between Fina and her father.
I’ve watched members of Congress interact with their kids, and you can see the love and pride, but the flip side is that there’s pressure on the child to be perfect, growing up in the shadow of someone famous and important. Fina is proud of her father and wants to be perfect, but she’s also reeling from the loss of her mother. She’s smart and independent but also vulnerable and insecure. She’s always pointing out her own faults. She and her father are getting to know each other again.
You have had a lot of success with your middle-grade podcast, including the DC Mayor’s Award for Excellence in the Humanities and the California Library Association Technology Award, plus grants from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, Nora Roberts Foundation, Capitol Hill Community Foundation, and the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities. What has been the most gratifying part of that undertaking?
I love the opportunity to talk to kids about books. We always start with the story and then at some point, the conversation takes a left turn. We follow that left turn. So a conversation about brothers and basketball in Kwame Alexander’s “The Crossover” led to an a capella song by a group of 5th grade boys. A discussion with 7th grade girls informed me that dystopian novels are actually hopeful because the main character is a strong young woman, and the boys treat her with respect (as opposed to the 7th grade boys they know). Talking about “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith led to a “Me Too” conversation. I feel honored to share in those discussions.
What insights have you gained about the age group?
Kids are less interested in party politics than in issues. Safety is on their minds. And they worry about racism and environmental degradation. But they are hopeful about the future. That’s the best news.
You have been recognized in the Larry Neal playwriting prizes several times. Do you plan to pursue a play for Fina, too?
Fina may end up as a dramatic podcast, but no plans to produce her story onstage. One play, an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose,” will be published soon by YouthPLAYS.
Are you planning to do school visits in California or Washington?
Yes and yes! I’ll be talking about writing—but also about U.S. government. There hasn’t really been much entertainment about Capitol Hill for kids since the ABC Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Only a Bill…”
Kitty Felde will read from and discuss her book at Politics and Prose on the Wharf at 7 p.m. on March 18. For more information, visit Kittyfelde.com.
By Carolyn Lieberg