As if it isn't hard enough to write a novel in one's native language, Mexican-born short story writer Maria Amparo Escandón decided to write her first novel in her adopted language of English. But that's only a small part of the story behind Esperanza's Box of Saints, which will be published in January both as a trade paperback original in English by Scribner Paperbacks and in hardcover in Spanish by the Plaza y Janes Spanish-language unit of Random House Inc. There's even a film on the way which, like the Spanish hardcover, will be called Santitos (Little Saints) and will be screened at the Sundance festival in 1999.

Esperanza's Box of Saints details the magical, spiritual and very comic journey of Esperanza, an attractive and pious Mexican widow, in search of a daughter she fervently believes has been kidnapped into child prostitution. Assisted along the way by her beloved Catholic saints -- it's a vision of San Jude Tadeo, patron saint of desperate causes, in the greasy window of her oven that launches this quest -- she sets out to search every brothel and sleazy sex dive in Mexico and Los Angeles to find her daughter.

The book was acquired by Becky Cabaza, executive editor of S&S trade paperbacks, for six figures in January. Cabaza, who also heads Libros en Espanol, S&S's Spanish-language unit. Cabaza told PW that the manuscript arrived in a box full of miniature Catholic saints, much like the one in the novel. "I read the manuscript in one sitting," she told PW, "and immediately -- there were four other houses after it -- put down a six figure offer." The 40,000-copy first printing, "unusual for a trade paper first novel," she said, indicates "how excited we are."

The book has 10 foreign rights sales, and Quality Paperback Book Club has chosen it as an alternate. There will be national advertising, and S&S has arranged for 16 bookstore reading groups (among them Vroman's, Hungry Mind and Powell's) to select the book before publication. There's also a contest that allows reading groups around the country to win a free carton of the novels. Of course there are Web sites (www.esperanzasboxofsaints. com and

The story behind the book is much like its plot: a fantastic series of events driven by an inspired woman. The novel began as a prize-winning short story called "Santitos." Later, after moving to Los Angeles from Mexico City, Escandon developed the story into a Spanish-language screenplay at Robert Redford's Sundance Filmwriters Institute, whereupon a consortium led by independent filmmaker John Sayles and noted Mexican film producer Alejandro Spingall quickly bought the rights and produced the film.

There's more. To celebrate her status as an immigrant, Escandon decided to develop her Spanish-language screenplay into an English-language novel. She then rewrote the book in Spanish and Plaza y Janes acquired it, published the book in Spain earlier this year and will do it in January for the Puerto Rican and U.S. Spanish market.

Theresa Zampino, director of the Spanish-language program at Random House Inc., cautiously compared the book's evocation of Mexican culture to Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate: "It's wonderful and funny. We have great hopes for it."