Erika is a children’s book author and illustrator who advocates for gender equality through the Millie book series and her most recent publication, Yo soy mexican_ (I am Mexican).
Her books are bilingual, and help the Spanish-speaking diaspora keep their mother tongue alive. She speaks with Puentes’ editor Gabriella Munoz about children’s literature and what’s next for Millie.
What prompted you to write children’s books?
I grew up with many books at home. I used to read the encyclopedia, but in Australia I couldn’t find books in Spanish for my daughter.
One thing the Maternal Health Nurses repeated all the time is that you have to read to your children, especially if they are bilingual. This led me to write my first story, Millie goes to space. The plan was to write it and get the pages bound. The book was just for her.
When I travelled with my daughter to Mexico, I took a notebook on the plane and wrote the story there. When I saw my daughter’s face inside the plane, I thought it was like she was going into space. That image changed the vision of the book.
How was the publishing process for Millie goes to space?
When I returned from Mexico to Canberra, I remembered I had Adobe Illustrator and I opened the program to make the illustrations for the book. Afterwards, I can’t remember if it was through an email or Facebook post, I read something about self-publishing and decided to publish it that way.
When I told a friend, who is now a librarian, about the book she asked if it was bilingual. She told me it was very difficult to find bilingual books in Australia for Latin American families where only the mother or father speaks Spanish. Then the penny dropped, and I made the book bilingual, for families like mine.
The market for Spanish-English bilingual children’s books in Australia is almost nil. You have paved the way for other Latin American authors …
This was in 2014. Now that there are more Latin Americans in Melbourne, we are seeing more books in Spanish, but not as many as in the languages of other communities.
During the lockdowns, many people tried to ensure their children continue to be raised bilingual. Did you see an increase in sales during the pandemic?
During the pandemic I sold many books; 2020 was an excellent year for sales, and most downloads came from the United States, although there were downloads from all over the world.
The first book, Millie goes to space, can be downloaded for free so that potential readers get to know the characters, Millie and Mr Racoon.
How many books are included in the series?
There are four Millie books: Millie goes to space, Millie tiene un nuevo amigo, Millie goes to the ocean (which has a lot of vocabulary about marine animals) and Millie and the lost colours, which was inspired by Melbourne. This city can sometimes be very grey, and in this book Millie travels around the world to find the colours of the rainbow and bring them here.
You made an animation about Millie. Do you have plans to make more animations?
Millie goes to space is a five-minute short-film for the mum who needs literally five minutes to go to the bathroom or grab a drink of coffee. It keeps the children entertained.
For this animation, I worked with Poomboo Studio. It was a really cool process. I showed them the book. They liked it and understood my vision. I want to make more animations, but it’s highly expensive, so I’m saving.
Tell us about your new book Yo soy mexican_ …
Mem Fox and her book I’m Australian inspired me to write Yo soy mexican_. Fox’s book made me cry the first time I read it. I told myself someone should do a book like this about Mexico, but I never thought it would be me.
I started the project in 2018 when I returned to work after maternity leave.
I wrote it in the little time I had at the office to express milk. And yes, I was inspired by Fox, but in this book I took the food, the folklore, the Mexican flag, which is one of the most beautiful in the world; the family, the warmth and everything that makes us Mexicans, and highlighted it.
I also wanted the book to rhyme to help children who are just starting to read. Rhyme is something I have seen a lot in children’s books in English, but I have hardly seen in books in Spanish, not even when I went to the Feria Internacional del Libro [better known as FIL] in Guadalajara.
In 2018, I brainstormed this book and left it there. Then I published two Millie books. In 2021, I spent two weeks in quarantine after returning from a trip to Mexico. During quarantine I did something productive: I made the initial drawings for the book. I finished it months later.
I didn’t want to title the book Yo soy mexicano because I have two girls and although I explain to them that in Spanish words have gender and they can be masculine, feminine or neutral, I want the children to fill in their book, put the letter they want and finish the title themselves.
You also have a podcast about writing. Tell us about the Bilingual Book Club.
It is very difficult to find children’s books that are well written and also have a positive message that goes beyond the classic ‘you have to behave well’. I also noticed there are many authors writing books in English and Spanish, so I contacted 10 bilingual authors and interviewed them for the Bilingual Book Club.
With this podcast, I want to meet more authors and talk about their creative process, get to know the story behind the books. I also want parents to know what bilingual options exist.
In most interviews, we learn something from the interviewee. Is there something that an interviewee told you that marked you?
Yes. When I interviewed Susana Ilera Martinez, a Colombian writer who wrote the super cute story Lala una lagartija differente and the Disney books for the movie Encanto, she told me: ‘I write a book and when I release it to the world it is no longer mine’.
And that stuck with me: the book is no longer mine, like Yo soy mexican_. When the parents and children read it, the book becomes theirs and they will use it however they want.
What other bilingual books are you planning?
I don’t know yet, but I want to continue promoting Yo soy mexican_. I want to make versions of Millie’s books just in English because there will be children in Mexico and other countries who don’t speak Spanish and who could enjoy the story.
Millie is a girl who can do anything. She is not a princess who stays quiet, she can be anything.
Although we believe gender equity is advanced, it is not like that. I still hear children saying ‘this is not for boys’ or ‘this is not for girls’ and it shouldn’t continue to be like this. Millie is not a story for girls, it is a story about a girl.
In Australia there are many initiatives to include women in more industries, but gender equity does not start at university or when you graduate; it starts when you are born and we need books to help us understand this.
As a Latin American in Australia, do you think there is more representation or interest in Latin American culture today compared to when you arrived?
Yes, there are many more opportunities too. Australians appreciate Latin American culture and in Melbourne in particular, which is a city that loves its food, our gastronomy becomes an icebreaker. That’s how we meet more people.
Latin Americans have an excellent reputation here and have many opportunities, like grants for creators and events for children’s authors that you can attend for free.
What books are you reading now and would recommend to Puentes readers?
I’m reading She’s on the money, which is also a podcast series. We never learn about money and how to manage it. This book is not fiction, but it is very practical. It tells you what type of bank account to have and so on. I think we should all manage our money better.
I recently read I’m not your perfect Mexican daughter by US writer Erika L Sánchez, which tells the story of a 15-year-old girl. The book begins when the sister’s protagonist dies. The surviving sister then has to uncover some secrets about the ‘perfect’ daughter. She learns to navigate what it means to be the daughter of migrants, whose idea of a ‘perfect daughter’ differs from that of other people.