Please share a little about yourself and your journey.
MARIANA RIOS RAMIREZ: Thanks so much for inviting me, I love your blog and I’m so happy to share about Santiago’s Dinosaurios with you and your readers.
I’ve always liked writing, since I was a child, but I never thought I’d become a writer growing up, so my life took different paths. I studied International Business and afterwards I became a high school teacher and an online business owner for several years. Then, in 2016 my life changed completely when I moved to USA from México with my husband and two kids (5 and 2 year olds at the time) due to my husband’s job.
Experiencing such a big challenge pushed me to pursue different dreams. I suddenly found myself with more time in my hands so that gave me the chance to explore what I wanted to do next. That’s when I discovered my passion for photography and when I started to consider writing for children in a more serious way. Actually, what inspired me the most was reading a lot of picture books with both of my kids, so that they could learn to speak English. I began taking writing classes, webinars, and making the most of the opportunities available in the kidlit community to learn the craft, become a better writer and follow my dream of being a published author.
I spent quite some time in the querying trenches, faced rejections and struggled, but I kept going until I finally got an opportunity to query an editor in Albert Whitman & Co. through a LatinXPitch success with Santiago’s story in September 2020. After an R&R (revise and resubmit) and months of waiting, my book was acquired and I signed my contract for Santiago’s Dinosaurios in early 2021. I didn’t have an agent then, but still I decided to take a leap and I’m so happy I did!
Then, on July 2021 I finally signed with my agent, Natascha Morris, and she helped me sell my second picture book, Abuelita’s Gift, which will be illustrated by Sara Palacios and published by Knopf in Fall 2024. I can’t wait!
#SOKL: This story takes inspiration from the real-life experience of your son. Please share the story behind the story and how you choose what details to include or to change.
MRR: Yes! Santiago’s Dinosaurios was inspired by my son’s experiences in his first days in a new school, in a new country back in August 2016. Those moments were hard for the whole family. He was five years old and was facing a big challenge in a new world in which he he didn’t know anyone, didn’t speak English, plus he missed Mexico, his school, friends, and our family. For weeks he was sad, sometimes even angry as he didn’t understand why we left the place he loved so much. So, as a parent it was hard to see him struggle, so we tried our best to be supportive, to keep him connected with our Mexican family and to help him learn the language as fast as possible.
It was a slow process which took a lot of time, patience, and work in and out of school. It was after Christmas break that something just switched and he started to be more fluent in English. It was amazing to witness him overcome the barriers and begin thriving. We are so proud of him!
I wanted to share my son’s story with this book, because our experience made me realize that he’s not the only kid who has gone through such a big challenge. Everyday more and more children around the world move to new places where they face barriers and struggles, and I want them to know they are not alone and that it will be okay.
As for what I decided to include or change from real life to the story, I think that the emotions of anxiety, fear, and loneliness that Santiago experienced were very familiar to me, so it was easy to bring them into the story. The dinosaurs were something that wasn’t included in my first versions of the manuscript, but I added them later to make the story more unique. I actually got the idea from my son because, like Santiago, he was a dino-fan for years.
The support, kindness and love that my son got from his teachers and classmates was also something that I brought to the pages from our real life experience. Even some names included in the story are from children with whom my son connected with in those early days of elementary school. Lastly, another detail that was brought into the story was the invaluable work with the ESL teacher, which was actually the scene that I wrote into the book with the R&R request.
As for changes, I can tell you that Santiago is older. My son was in Kindergarten when we moved, but I made Santiago a first grader. In Kindergarten there are usually two teachers in the classroom, but I needed Santiago to feel a bit more lonely, so that’s why I gave him just one teacher, while the other support came from his ESL teacher. Finally, other things that were a bit different is that Santiago is more obsessed with dinosaurs than my son was at the time, and that my son’s name is not Santiago.
#SOKL: What is one of your favorite things about Back-to-School?
MRR: I think my favorite thing about going back-to-school when I was a kid was definitely getting to see my friends every day again. I was lucky that my whole elementary school years I was in the same class as my two best friends. Of course I also loved thinking about the new things I’d learn and getting my school supplies, but each summer, what I really looked forward to the most was finding out if my friends and I would be together once more.
As a mom, my favorite thing regarding back-to-school is thinking about all the possibilities that my kids face as they start a new year. I am happy to see them excited about meeting their teachers, seeing their friends, getting to know new kids, and learning new things. I love how each year brings personal growth to them. Witnessing how they change and evolve into better versions of themselves makes me so happy and proud.
#SOKL: What is one of your favorite Back-to-School celebrations or rituals to make it special?
MRR: My kids love it when we buy their school supplies every summer. They like choosing their own things, with the designs and colors that represent them at the moment, so I enjoy shopping with them and witnessing which of their choices remain the same over the years and which ones change. Every year we also go out to dinner to celebrate the last day of vacations and we get to discuss their anxieties and goals for the new grade.
However, my favorite tradition is taking their first day of school picture. We
have this chalk board that we fill with information of the things they like at the moment like their favorite books, favorite hobbies, favorite food and what they want to be when they grow up. So these pictures have become a dear keepsake for me and I’m happy that they both still like doing this, even if my son is now a 7th grader. I truly hope we’ll continue this tradition in the coming years. It’s amazing to see how much they grow in different aspects of their lives from one picture to the next. For example, from K5 to 6th grade my son always wrote down he’d be a Paleontologist, but this year he wrote he’d like to be a Veterinarian. I’m looking forward to see what he’ll write in 8th grade.
#SOKL: What’s your favorite school subject?
MRR: When I was in elementary school, my favorite subject was English, which for me is a second language. Back in those days, we would have English lessons every day for about two hours and we’d learn Spelling, Grammar, and also Reading and Listening Comprehension. I remember we used to have British books, which were very pretty.
Through the years my interest in learning about other places, languages, and cultures has got even stronger. I think that influenced my decision of studying International Business in college, and now I even get to live in a different country.
PRIZE: Mariana has generously offered a 25-minute Zoom call and book swag to one lucky reader. To be in the running for this prize, please share this post on Social Media and note where you shared this in the comment section, along with your comment. We will choose a winner on September 30, 2023.
Mariana Ríos Ramírez is a Mexican picture book author living in South Carolina with her husband, two kids and a Chihuahua mix dog named Rogers. She was a high school teacher and co-owned an online business before becoming a writer.
Santiago’s Dinosaurios is Mariana’s debut picture book. Her second one, Abuelita’s Gift, will be published in Fall 2024 and it’s based on the Mexican holiday Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead).
Besides writing, Mariana is passionate about photography, singing, traveling, watching k-dramas, and spending time with family and friends.
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