Today, we celebrate Mariana Ríos Ramírez’ debut picture book, SANTIAGO’S DINOSAURIOS (Albert Whitman & Company), a story that celebrates our differences, while also connecting us through common interests. Scroll on for an interview between Mariana and Musa Judith Valdés B!
JUDITH VALDÉS B: Mariana, reading SANTIAGO’S DINOSAURIOS moved me, especially given everything that Santiago had to go through on his first day of school. Can you share what or who was the inspiration behind your story?
MARIANA RÍOS RAMÍREZ: Thank you for your kind words, Judith. I’m glad you enjoyed reading the book. Actually, Santiago’s character and story are inspired by my son’s experience, which makes this book very special to me in a unique way. My son, Patrizio (Pato), was 5 years old when we moved to Anderson, SC from Mexico due to my husband’s job in an international company in summer 2016. Back then, he didn’t speak or understand English, so it was very challenging for him (and for the whole family) to face starting a new school year in a new school where he couldn’t communicate.
I remember well his first day of school, when we left him at the school’s door wondering what he was going to do. The first months were really hard for him. He missed his school and friends in Mexico, in addition to missing our extended family and our previous home. The process of moving to a new country with different culture and language and where there are no family or friends can be a great shock for adults and children alike, and it’s very complex in several areas of an individual’s life.
For Pato, the period of adjustment took him time and work. Fortunately, he had kind teachers and classmates, who were very welcoming and patient. He began by using signs with his hands and imitating what other children were doing, until he finally was able to start making connections. The valuable assistance of an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) teacher at his elementary school was a blessing during several years. However, it was until after Christmas break that I began to see a notable change in him by starting to communicate in English. From then on, he became a successful bilingual student.
Our family’s experience made me realize that there are many children around the world who go through situations like ours, especially now that the global force relocates often implying big changes for families. That’s the reason why I thought Santiago’s story would matter; because children from several nationalities would be able to see themselves in the book, sharing Santiago’s struggles and fears.
JUDITH: One aspect of SANTIAGO’S DINOSAURIOS that captivated me was how I experienced both the anxiety of Santiago and the caring response of his teachers and classmates. Did you always intend for your story to be one of encouragement that would serve as model for how we should treat one another?
MARIANA: Yes, from the very beginning I wanted this book to serve these two purposes and to speak to readers in different situations. I think many kids could see themselves as characters in this book. They could either be Santiago’s struggling with adapting to new environments, or they could be supportive, welcoming classmates. There’s a message in the book depending on each perspective; but I think that in the heart of this story there’s hope and kindness. If readers can identify that, it will be huge win for Santiago’s Dinosaurios.
JUDITH: When I read the opening page, my heart started beating fast along just like Santiago's. What was going on in Santiago’s mind as he loaded his dinosaurio backpack with his favorite dinosaurios?
MARIANA: I’m happy to hear you connected with Santiago’s emotions from the beginning. I wanted to start the story by showing Santiago getting ready to face this huge challenge ahead of him, which was his first day of 1st grade in a new school, in a new town, in a new country, and without speaking English. With the text and illustrations, you can tell Santiago is anxious and he’s packing his backpack with his favorite dino-things, so that they provide a source of comfort and support, as they join him in his journey to the unknown he’ll be facing at school. He’s already aware the language barrier is there and wonders how he’ll be able to communicate with others and make friends.
For me, it was crucial that Santiago began his day by thinking and speaking only in Spanish. I internalized his emotions because with the language barrier other children wouldn’t understand him, but I wanted readers to know what was going on in his mind and heart. I’m glad that my editors, Andrea Hall and Nivair Gabriel, agreed that Spanish was important to show Santiago’s anxiety and frustration. It definitely made the story more realistic. The translations on every page allow the readers to understand what Santiago is going through and to realize the extent of the challenge he’s facing. I think this is exactly what makes readers connect with Santiago's emotions as they experience his day along him.
JUDITH: How did you decide to have Santiago measure the size of his problem with something that he loves and plays with, like dinosaurios?
MARIANA: Actually, when I started querying this manuscript, the dinosaurs were not part of it. I thought about including them after getting several rejections to my first queries. It was then when I realized that the story of first day of school in another country was not fresh enough. So I had to come up with something unique to make it different and appealing to children. That’s when I thought about the dinosaurs, because my son was a huge fan growing up. In Pre-K and Kindergarten he knew the names and facts of many dinos, and he even said he’d be a paleontologist when he grew up; so I thought it would be fun to include them in Santiago’s story since I know many kids are dino-fans too.
With this idea, I rewrote my manuscript and turned out that dinosaurs were the missing ingredient the story needed. It worked! So, I changed the title to Santiago’s Dinosaur-sized Problem, and in the story Santiago went from definitely having a dinosaur-sized problem in the beginning, to no longer having a dinosaur-sized problem by the end as he started to connect with this classmates and making friends.
When the book was acquired by Albert Whitman & Company and I began working with my editor Andrea Hall, she suggested adding more dinosaurs in the story by replacing each dinosaur-sized problem with a specific dino species. I loved that idea! It made it easier for children to understand the magnitude of Santiago’s anxiety by connecting it with a dinosaur (representing the right size of problem) and seeing it get smaller as the story progresses. I’m very happy and satisfied with the way it turned out. I absolutely love the illustration with all the dinosaurs together in the end pages, I can’t wait for kids to see that.
JUDITH: I must say that I would have a hard time choosing my favorite moment in Santiago’s day. However, one of them was when Santiago and the other children found creative ways to communicate, like with a simple “thumbs up” or words like choo-choo, cat/gato, blue/azul, or even ROARRRRR! What did you hope that children would take away from this story?
MARIANA: I’m glad you liked those moments of interaction. I agree, there are many ways to communicate besides the speaking language. That’s something I wanted to show children with this story, that there are really no barriers to kindness, and that small gestures like a smile, a thumbs up or a simple interaction are universal and that they have a big impact on a child who is adjusting to a new environment. Also there are different ways to connect, and sharing the same interests (like the dinosaurs in this case) can open the door to friendship.
What I hope children will take away from this story if they are in a situation like Santiago is that they are going to be okay. I understand that in the beginning it can be scary, frustrating, and maybe it might seem hopeless; but with time, hard work and patience, they will eventually be able to communicate successfully. Also I want to show them, by seeing themselves in a book, that they are not the only ones going through challenges like this one. There are many kids around the world, in different places, with different cultures, and languages who are finding new homes far away from what they used to know as home.
For kids who have classmates or friends like Santiago, I hope they will realize that kindness makes a huge difference in children going through these difficult situations. I wish they will see that reaching out and embracing those who are different, not only transforms that person but also themselves.
Besides, we must keep in mind that in this evolving globalized world, nobody really knows where life will take us next, so everyone could be the new “kid” in a far away land one day.
JUDITH: I love your words: “There are really no barriers to kindness.” What a wonderful message for readers, both young and old. The illustrations are amazing, as they add so many layers to an already beautiful story. Can you tell us a little bit about your collaboration with the illustrator? How did that collaboration work? Did she use many illustration notes?
MARIANA: I agree, Udayana Lugo’s illustrations are beautiful, and they definitely contributed to make this story better and stronger. I love the layers of warmth and diversity that she added to the book. I feel very lucky and grateful that she was part of the amazing team bringing Santiago’s story to life. In the end, the final product is much more special than what I had imagined.
As for the collaboration, I have to say all the communication was done through my editor (Nivair Gabriel) and Udayana’s art director/team at Albert Whitman & Company. I’m happy that, from the beginning, they wanted to know my ideas for the cover, and whenever they had sketches, they would show them to me and ask for my opinion. I always felt considered and listened to, which I appreciated a lot through this process. Once the book’s final color version was ready, they asked for my feedback and considered what I said for final adjustments. I’m very happy with this experience, it was very interesting for me.
Regarding the illustration notes, I only wrote down two. One was regarding the boy that does the thumbs-up with Santiago, because I needed that boy to be Cam. The other one was about a boy feeling overwhelmed by Santiago’s Spanish, since I wanted to make sure the illustration showed that. Other than that, the rest was Udayana’s imagination.
JUDITH: Clearly, the story and the illustrations fit wonderfully together. I am so grateful that you took the time to share with us “the story behind the story” of SANTIAGO’S DINOSAURIOS. Is there anything else you would like to add, something you would like the readers to know?
MARIANA: I hope readers will enjoy getting to know Santiago and his friends, that the ending makes them smile and that they’ll carry the book’s message along.
JUDITH: We wish you great success. I can’t wait to buy my copy of your book.
MARIANA: Thank you Judith, for your kind words, your time and thoughtful questions. I had fun sharing more about Santiago’s Dinosaurios and the story behind my journey to publication with my debut book.
Buy SANTIAGO’S DINOSAURIOS today!
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.
Photograph: J. Pray Photography
Judith Valdés B. was born and raised in a Mexican town of vibrant colors and traditions. She is an American author and illustrator who celebrates multiculturalism through storytelling. Her debut picture book, AN OFRENDA FOR PERRO (Fall 2023), is a culturally grounded exploration of loss and understanding.
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