Written by Mariana Ríos Ramírez
Illustrated by Udayana Lugo
Published by Albert Whitman & Co.
Lynne Marie, thanks so much for inviting me to share the story behind my debut picture book, Santiago’s Dinosaurios. This book is very special to me because it’s inspired by my son’s experience when we moved to United States from Mexico.
My family moved to Anderson, SC due to my husband’s job in 2016. Leaving behind our life in Mexico wasn’t easy, but we were excited about the adventures that awaited our family. My son Patrizio (Pato) was 5 years old back then, and my daughter Lara just 2. Neither of them spoke English; my husband and I did.
Our first two weeks were filled with activities such as discovering the town, setting up our apartment, and getting Pato ready for Kindergarten. I still remember his first day of school really well. He was scared and anxious. He was so young and he had to face the challenge of going to school in another country, with no friends, and no way to communicate. The first weeks were hard for all of us. Pato was mad and sad. He wanted to go back to Mexico, to his old school and old friends, and he missed our extended family very much.
Thankfully, he had great teachers and kind classmates who were very welcoming. He also had the fortune of working with an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) teacher at his elementary school, which was a blessing for several years.
Although all of the above made the transition easier for Pato, it took months for him to be able to understand and talk to the other children and vice versa. At first, he used his hands, drawings and he imitated what other kids did. Then, little by little, the new language began to sink in. It was until after Christmas break that I started to see a real change in him. Pato started liking school more once he began speaking and understanding English. From that moment on, he became a thriving student fluent in English and Spanish.
These experiences inspired me to write Santiago’s Dinosaurios in 2019. I wanted to show kids going through the same struggles as Santiago that it takes time and hard work, but it eventually gets easier to communicate; to find a way to make friends, and to get adapted to their new environments and lives far away from what they knew as “home”. I wanted to show these little readers that they’re not alone and that many children around the world experience similar challenges, especially nowadays that international assignments among companies relocate families.
In my first drafts, the story was quite different to what it is now. The initial title was The New Boy. It was written in first person point of view, but it wasn’t working out because I was trying to cover several problems in just one story, like Santiago’s struggles at school, with the new culture, with different food, missing family, etc. Later, I experimented with a third point of view which actually made the story flow better and I decided to focus on just one problem and one of Santiago’s life aspects: the language barrier at school (specifically the 1st day of school).
When I began querying the story, I got some rejections. I quickly understood I needed to come up with something unique since there are several first day of school stories. That’s when the dinosaur idea kicked in. Dinosaurs had played a huge role in Pato’s childhood and I knew a lot of kids would relate to a dinosaur enthusiast, so I gave it a try and it turned out that dinos were the ingredient that my story needed. I then changed the title to Santiago’s Dinosaur-sized Problem. I kept on revising the manuscript to make it stronger. During this process, I had the valuable support of my critique partners, I won some critique giveaways, and I had a wonderful session with you, Lynne Marie.
It was during LatinXPitch on September, 2020 that I received a heart from editor Andrea Hall from Albert Whitman & Company. Although I didn’t have an agent at the time, I decided to go for it and I sent my query. In mid-November, I received and email from Andrea asking for a Revise and Resubmit (R&R). She said she liked the story and suggested I added an ESOL teacher. I hadn’t included this character before because I had the idea that children should solve their own problems in picture books; however Andrea’s suggestion made sense according to our experience.
It took me three weeks to work on the revision. I was happy that I had the freedom to decide how I wanted to include the ESOL teacher in the book. Doing it required changes in the structure of my story as I had to move scenes around and even eliminate some lines to have space for the new material. In the end, I was happy with how the manuscript turned out. I submitted my R&R and eventually signed my first book deal for Santiago’s Dinosaurios in March, 2021.
Working on the edition process was an interesting and exciting experience. I was lucky to work with Andrea, who believed in the story and acquired it, and later I had another great editor, Nivair Gabriel, with whom I continued the process. Both of my editors are delightful and talented people, who loved the manuscript and wanted to do the best to make it shine. I’m very grateful for having both of them being part of my journey.
Regarding the illustrations, I think they are absolutely adorable. I fell in love with Udayana Lugo’s portfolio and I was really excited that she was invited to be part of this team. She’s so talented; her wonderful images added so much heart to the pages and even more layers of diversity to the story. The truth is the final version of the book is way more special than what I had envisioned myself. I’m very grateful to her and to everyone in the art and marketing teams at Albert Whitman & Company. for their valuable contribution to making this book a reality.
Finally, I want to mention that in addition to the topics of diversity, inclusion, and first day of school; Santiago’s Dinosaurios is also a book about moving, making friends, and overcoming challenges. It’s a bilingual story with translations included in every page, since Santiago only speaks and thinks in Spanish. To make the book more fun and appealing for children, several dinosaurs are sprinkled throughout the pages. I hope little readers will love the book and that they will connect with it, either because like Santiago, they are experiencing being the new kids in new environments themselves; or because they are friends/classmates who will be welcoming and supportive towards children experiencing Santiago’s struggles and anxiety.
Lynne Marie, thanks again for your time, attention, and for giving me a wonderful forum to talk about Santiago’s Dinosaurios. I hope it will bring hope to children who are finding new homes in foreign lands.
Note: Looking for signed copies of Mariana's wonderful book? You can purchase them here:
https://www.fiction-addiction.com/si/9780807572306 Pre-Order Copies from Amazon here: Santiago's Dinosaurios
BIO: Mariana Ríos Ramírez is a Mexican picture book author living in South Carolina with her husband, two children and a rescue Chihuahua mix dog named Rogers. Mariana was a high school teacher and co-owned an online business before discovering her passion for writing. She's a member of SCBWI, Las Musas, Storyteller Academy, and Rate your Story. Santiago’s Dinosaurios is her debut picture book. Besides writing, Mariana enjoys photography, traveling, Chai Lattes and k-dramas.
Linktree: https://linktr.ee/MarianaRiosR for pre-orders