A Conversation with Victor D. O. Santos: Celebrating Linguistic Diversity in Children’s Books

1. Can you share a bit about your journey into becoming a children’s book author? What sparked your interest in writing for children?

In 2016, my son Dylan was born and my wife – who is Ukrainian – and I decided that we would raise him speaking all three languages of our household (English, Portuguese, and Russian) and that we also wanted to pass our cultural heritage to him. So in 2018, I decided to write and self-publish a children’s book in which my son was the main character and in which he had to use his knowledge of more than one language to solve real problems. The main goal of the book was to show my son – and other kids in similar situations – that speaking more than one language and having more than one culture is something they should be proud of and something that was “cool”. I still remember the day when my son saw the finished, printed book for the first time. The spark in his eyes and his big smile from seeing himself on the cover of a children’s book is something I will cherish forever. He also enjoyed the story itself, which started me thinking that maybe I could do yet another book since I really enjoyed working on this first book. That’s when I got the children’s book bug, I would say. I decided to write and create more children’s books and to study more deeply about writing and creating good picture books. 

That first book became Book 1 in a series called Little Polyglot Adventures, composed of four books. After that, I also wrote a few other children’s’ books but my breakthrough, so to speak, came with my eighth book, a book called My Dad, My Rock, my first book with Anna Forlati (illustrator of What Makes Us Human). My Dad, My Rock benefited from all the knowledge about picture books that I had learned in the previous 3 years, and that Anna was already so familiar with, and was my first attempt at real picture-booking (vs just writing children’s books). My Dad, My Rock went on to receive a starred review and be selected as a Best Book of 2022 by Kirkus Magazine in the USA and to receive blurbs from well-known picture book creators such as Eric Fan (from the renowned The Fan Brothers). In 2023, Scribble Kids Books, based in Australia, acquired world English rights to the book, which is being re-released by Scribble in English now in 2024. Rights to My Dad, My Rock have been sold to eight languages so far. 

After all the fun and good results we had creating My Dad, My Rock, Anna and I decided to collaborate again on another picture book, What Makes Us Human, which has seen a level of attention and success we never expected but which has made us incredibly happy. In addition to having been selected for the 2023 White Ravens catalogue by The International Youth Library, in Germany, translation rights to the book have already been sold into 20 languages. The book has also been selected as an official children’s book for the United Nations International Decade of Indigenous Languages and has received blurbs from amazing picture book creators such as Sydney Smith and Felicita Sala, as well as a starred review from School Library Journal in the USA. 

I am a firm believer that children’s books can change the world for better by changing or positively affecting people and that’s my main drive to write and create picture books. Nowadays, I like to write about emotional or social topics that somehow can contribute to making the world a better place. 

2. I understand that you’ve lived in six different countries and stuied ten languages, which is quite impressive. Which are these countries? Are you fluent in all ten languages? How have these experiences enriched your life and informed your work, including your writing for children?

I have been lucky to have lived in Brazil (my native country), India, Germany, the Netherlands, Israel, and the USA so far. When I lived in these countries, I also studied the languages spoken where I was living and made great friends, which was such an enriching experience. I have also studied other languages such as Hungarian, Turkish, French, Mandarin Chinese, and a few others for different length of times, but I nowadays definitely do not speak all of them. Learning a language is not like learning to ride a bike. If you don’t use it, you will definitely lose it. Nowadays, I can hold a conversation in English, Portuguese, French, and Spanish, basically. I also have basic knowledge of Russian since it’s one of our home languages. However, I have by now forgotten most of what I was able to speak in the other languages I studied, since I have not spoken them in a very long time. 

Having lived in these countries and having studied these languages has shown me several things. The first is that despite our cultural differences, we humans are all very similar at our core, all having a desire to feel appreciated and listened, a desire to laugh and be entertained, and above all, a willingness to be engaged and touched by amazing stories. Second, it has shown me the importance of language to a culture and that unless we speak the language used in a certain culture, our understanding of that culture will always be only partial. Language is the key to culture. 

This realization above has impacted my writing and my books in the sense that I tend to write my books on universal topics that can be shared and understood by people across a wide range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. I would like my books to be available into as many different languages as possible, as this cultural sensibility is something I consider when developing my books. 

3. I understand that you are a father to trilingual children. How does your personal experience with language and culture at home influence the themes you choose to write about and your storytelling? 

Yes, my wife and I are now raising two trilingual and multicultural children. This has clearly influenced me in writing What Makes Us Human, given this first-hand knowledge I have of the importance of language (and languages). Apart from my first books, in the Little Polyglot Adventures series, I am not sure my personal experience with language and culture at home has much of an impact on the themes I choose. I think I would be choosing similar themes even if I were not raising trilingual and multicultural children. 

4. Can you share how your children have reacted to your books? Do they have any favourite stories or characters from your works? Are there any particular moments or conversations with your children that have directly inspired scenes or messages in your books?

My son Dylan is especially proud of the fact that daddy is an author, and I sometimes take him with me to some of the events I participate in. Both Dylan and Isabella enjoy my books and often ask to read them during bed time. They do share a favourite character from one of my earliest books: a platypus called Nino, from a book called Just Like Magic. It’s about a platypus that has self-confidence issues and is often bullied by other animals for looking so different. One day, Nino the platypus comes across a genie who may be able to help him with his poor self-confidence. It’s a fun book to read with children.  

As for specific moments or conversations with my children having inspired any of my books, yes, that has happened once, with my book My Dad, My Rock. The short dialogue seen on the very first page of the book was a real dialogue I had with my son Dylan one evening during bedtime reading:

Dylan: Dad, was grandpa a magician?
Victor: Not that I know, my love. 
Dylan: Then why did he disappear?

I grew up without a father in my life and my son, as a result, has never met his paternal grandpa. Therefore, when he asked me the question above one evening in 2021, I decided right there that I needed to write a picture book that would give him a good answer to his question. And that’s how My Dad, My Rock (Scribble, 2024) was born.

5. What inspired you to explore the theme of linguistic diversity in “What Makes Us Human”, and how do you believe children’s literature can aid in the preservation of endangered languages?

I have done my entire education in Linguistics, all the way to a Ph.D. program. During my bachelor’s degree in Linguistics in Brazil, I wrote my thesis on an Indigenous language of Brazil called Xavante – it’s also seen on the last page of the book as A’uwe, its native name. Indigenous languages can be so beautifully complex. Yet, many of them are unfortunately dying out given that there are only a few speakers left and the languages are not being passed on to children. Having lived in several countries and studied various languages, I have also come to deeply appreciate the power of language for the identity not only of an individual but also of an entire culture. 

Given my dual role as a linguist and as a picture book author and creator, I wanted to write a picture book that would celebrate the beauty and power of language in all its forms, while also drawing attention to the fact that many of the world’s languages are quickly disappearing. In fact, at least 50% of the world’s 7.168 estimated living languages (Ethnology, 2023) are expected to disappear by the end of year 2100 if urgent actions are not taken to protect them. And when a language dies, a whole culture can disappear with it. A beautifully unique way to view and understand the world. The loss of a language is a loss to all of humanity and to our cultural and linguistic toolbox. 

Children’s literature can aid language preservation in two main ways, in my opinion. The first is by raising public awareness in both children and adults of the fact that we are quickly losing so many languages and that language conservation is something we and our governments should care about. The second way in which children’s literature can aid language conservation is by making children’s books available into many of these endangered languages. When children see there are no children’s books available in their own language, they start to think that their language is less important and less useful than other languages spoken around them, which may benefit from a larger body of literature available and more economic and social prestige. But when these kids see their own language represented in children’s books, they feel seen and they feel that their language matters. I think the kid lit industry needs to rethink a little its approach to making books available into these languages as well. Some of the languages What Makes Us Human has been translated into include two endangered Indigenous languages (namely Mapudungun in Chile and Hñähñü in Mexico) as well as languages such as Basque and Galician, which are minority languages in Spain. It’s my dream that What Makes Us Human become translated into as many minoritised and Indigenous languages as possible around the world, directly aiding language conversation by increasing the number of children’s books available in those languages. 

6. Can you share the inspiration behind using a riddle-like format for the book?

Before I started writing the text for What Makes Us Human, I had read some picture books I really enjoyed on specific topics, such as I am Smoke (Tilbury House Publishers, 2021), I am the Subway (Scribble, 2021), I am story (HarperCollins, 2016), Almost Nothing, and Yet Everything (Enchanted Lion, 2021). I really enjoyed reading these books and their approach to describing a single topic from many different angles. However, all of these were explicit from the very beginning as to what the theme of the book was. I kept thinking to myself that those books could perhaps have been even more amazing if the topic was not revealed from the start and readers had to slowly come to understand what the topic was, although I do understand that this would have been a quite difficult feat given the topics chosen. 

That’s when I realised that the more abstract topic of language lent itself perfectly well to a riddle format, in which the topic could be described from many different angles and through various metaphors without revealing too quickly what the topic is. This could keep readers on their feet and engaged, trying to decode the textual and visual cues on each page to find out the real topic of the book (language). I tried the text on several people as I developed the manuscript, so as to ensure that the guesses they were coming up with along the way made sense and that they did not arrive at the answer too soon. However, it was also vital that when they did find out the answer to the riddle, they felt “tricked” (in a good way) and agreed that the topic was staring them in the eyes the whole time. This would give them the motivation to go back and re-read the book with new eyes. It was really fun developing each sentence in the book and collaborating with Anna Forlati to also add visual clues that could aid the most attentive of readers. 

7. What led you to collaborate with Anna Forlati on “My Dad, My Rock” and “What Makes Us Human”? Can you tell us about the genesis of your partnership?

I first saw Anna’s work during a vacation I took to Brazil in early 2021. I was at a bookstore when I saw the Brazilian edition of one of Anna’s first picture books, called The Books of Maliq. I instantly fell in love with her unique illustration style and said to myself: I need to work with this amazingly talented illustrator. That was at the time I had just finished writing the manuscript for My Dad, My Rock. When I got home that day, I immediately sent the text to Anna and asked her if she would like to collaborate with me on that book. Anna was touched by the text and told me she was open to collaborating. The next day, we had a video call to get to know each other and ironed out the specifics of our collaboration. We worked very closely when creating My Dad, My Rock, and discussed basically all aspects of the book. When Anna and I work together, we work as a unit, in which we are completely free to suggest changes or approaches to both the text and the illustrations. And I think that’s one of keys to the success of our collaboration. In the kid lit industry, this level of communication between author and illustrator is quite rare, but it’s one of the reasons we enjoy working with and learning from one another. 

After we had finished My Dad, My Rock, a few months passed until I finished the manuscript for What Makes Us Human. I was in the process of selecting an illustrator for the book and one day it hit me that Anna’s style would be a great one for What Makes Us Human as well. Since we already knew how to work together and enjoyed collaborating, I sent Anna the manuscript and asked her if she wanted to work on another book with me. When I got a resounding yes from Anna, I felt on cloud 9. I then approached a Brazilian picture book designer that had been recommended to me, called Daniel Cabral, to work on the book design with Anna and I. The three of us then officially became the team behind What Makes Us Human and closely collaborated to bring the book to life.

8. What was the collaboration process like between the two of you for “What Makes Us Human”? Did that collaborative process evolve or change from “My Dad, My Rock”?

Anna and I are in constant communication throughout the creation process and constantly bouncing ideas off of each other. Of course, Anna is in charge of and takes the lead on all visual aspects of the book since her mind and talent are simply amazing. However, she is humble enough to allow me to make suggestions here and there if I have an insight or something. And sometimes, to my surprise, she actually likes a suggestion or two I may provide (laughs). 

We often bring as many ideas as possible to the table and then we discuss the merits of each, regardless of who came up with it. This makes our collaboration a very healthy one, in my opinion, but above all, it’s a methodology that works for us and that benefits the final product, ensuring it achieves its full potential. 

I feel that every book we work on becomes more nuanced and complex than the ones before it in terms of visual metaphors and the visual narrative of the book. For example, My Dad, My Rock was relatively simple to develop, with fewer visual metaphors, and the team was just Anna and I. For What Makes Us Human, Daniel Cabral (who also has experience as art director in the publishing industry) joined our team, so starting with What Makes Us Human we had three minds instead of two thinking about how to bring the book to its fullest potential. Because What Makes Us Human reads as a riddle in which the actual theme of the book is not revealed until the very last page, it was a much more complex book to develop since the fact we could not give away the answer too early limited our choices much more often, which also made for a more challenging and rewarding process. The visual metaphors and the visual narrative in What Makes Us Human is also one that took us considerably more effort to develop.

A Conversation with Victor D. O. Santos: Celebrating Linguistic Diversity in Children's Books Multicultural Interviews anna forlati victor santos bologna book fair
Victor Santos and Anna Forlati

9. Congratulations on “What Makes Us Human” being selected for the prestigious 2023 White Ravens catalogue and on the significant achievement of partnering with UNESCO for the book! How did this collaboration come about, and what impact do you hope it will have?

Thank you so much, Natalia! I was indeed very surprised and flattered that What Makes Us Human was selected for the 2023 White Ravens catalog. A few months after we had completed the book and translation rights had already been sold to a few languages, a Brazilian consultant to UNESCO heard of the book and suggested I introduce it to the Chief of Section at UNESCO who is leading the United Nations International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032). After reading the book and finding out I am also a professional linguist, UNESCO suggested we have a Zoom call and they offered to officially endorse the book in connection with the Decade and to act as a co-publisher of the book in as many languages as possible, including the English edition by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers for the USA/Canada/UK (rights to other territories are still available for English).

UNESCO saw the book as a great opportunity to amplify and spread, in a very tangible form, the message about the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, namely that Indigenous languages around the world need urgent support and attention from governments and people in general before they, and the beautiful cultures they are so intertwined with, disappear forever. 

The official partnership with UNESCO has been a welcoming factor by several publishers and governments who have decided to license rights to the book so far into their specific languages. I hope that the book gets published in a very large number of languages (including Indigenous Languages and other endangered languages) in partnership with UNESCO, since each additional language that the book gets published in directly contributes to spread the message in the book and for some languages, even towards revitalisation of those languages.

10. Can you share any upcoming projects or books you’re working on that you’re particularly excited about?

Anna Forlati and I are just a few days away from finishing our third book together, called Before I Forget, which has been selected for the dPICTUS Unpublished Picture Book Showcase 5 and will be displayed at their stand during the Bologna Book Fair now in April 2024. I think Before I Forget is our most emotional book so far, on a difficult topic, and it took us about twice as long to produce it than What Makes Us Human (I told you our books tend to get more and more complex every time . . . laughs). Rights to it are currently available in all languages and territories and we are currently looking for publishers who would like to acquire/license it.

I am also starting the development work of two new picture books, one to be illustrated by the Danish illustrator Anna Margrethe Kjærgaard (of Coffee, Rabbit, Snowdrop Lost, a 2022 USBBY Outstanding International Book and a 2022 Mildred L. Batchelder Honor Book) and the other by the Portuguese illustrator Catarina Sobral (current nominee for the 2024 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award).

Victor, it’s been an absolute pleasure diving into your world, and I can’t thank you enough for sharing these insights with both me and my audience. I’m genuinely excited to see what wonders you and your remarkable collaborators like Anna Forlati, Anna Margrethe Kjærgaard, and Catarina Sobral will bring to life next. Here’s to continued success and creativity on your journey ahead!

Victor D. O. Santos websitewww.authorvictorsantos.com

Victor’s Instagramwww.instagram.com/linguacious_llc/

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Victor D. O. Santos
Victor D. O. Santos
1 month ago

Thank you so much for the opportunity and for the good wishes, Natalia! And thank you for the amazing work you do in our field of picture books and for sharing your love and expertise in this area with all of us.

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