When Pam Muñoz Ryan began writing her middle grade novel Mañanaland (Scholastic Press, Mar.), Barack Obama was midway through his second term as president and she had just won a Newbery Honor for Echo. But over the years it took her to finish the story of the Córdoba family, who secretly help refugees fleeing persecution “somewhere in the Américas,” current events caught up with her.

“As I kept writing, the administration changed and what was going on at the border came to dominate the headlines,” Ryan says. “But I didn’t set out to write something political. It’s an age-old story. It could have happened yesterday or decades ago. It will continue to happen in the tomorrows to come: people needing protection and those who help them. People forced to hide and the guardians who help them be seen.”

Ryan has written more than 40 books—a mix of novels, picture books, and easy readers—all of which have been edited by Tracy Mack, v-p and publisher at Scholastic. “Pam and I have been working together for nearly 25 years,” Mack says. “When I look back to our first collaboration, Riding Freedom, I can see that the breadth of her talent was evident from the outset.”

Mañanaland is arriving at a particularly charged political moment, but author and editor strove to minimize rather than highlight that coincidence. “Pam wanted to illuminate a timeless struggle between people living in neighboring countries, towns, or even houses who rival and judge and alienate one another, often based on certain prejudices and firmly held beliefs,” Mack says. “But above all, Pam wanted to shine a light on those people who rise above that to help others in need, who live and act from their hearts, who model goodness and empathy and the courage to do what is right.”

Mañanaland’s hero is Maximiliano, almost 12, who lives in a fictional Spanish-speaking country with his overprotective father; his grandfather, called Buelo; and a warm circle of aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Missing is his mother, an absence compounded by his father’s unwillingness to talk about where she might be. “Everyone usually tiptoed around the subject of my mother,” Max confides in the book, expressing more confusion than sadness about the situation. “It was a peculiar nothingness tucked behind a veil of secrecy that no one was willing to lift.”

That insight is straight from Ryan’s own biography. When she was 12, her mother asked if she remembered anything about her birth father, who left the family when she was four. “I grew up without knowing anything bad or good about him,” Ryan says.

When her mother remarried, Ryan took the last name of her stepfather—the man she has always considered her real father. Her biological father was never mentioned. “I have a faint remembrance that if something about him came up there was an eyebrow raised, or a finger shaken to stop any discussion,” she says. “[His existence] was something I wasn’t supposed to know about, and I internalized that. But because no one will talk about Max’s mother, he begins to question his own identity, and where he fits into the world.”

In Mañanaland, something else is missing: Max’s birth certificate, which becomes important when a new coach with a reputation as a stickler for the rules takes over the local fútbol club. Max wants to follow in the footsteps of Papá and Buelo, who both, in their day, starred on the national team. Max will not be allowed to try out unless he can prove his age.

While Papá travels to a different city in search of a copy, Max roots through his father’s things in search of information about his mother and inadvertently learns more than he bargained for. While his father is away, Max uses what he now knows to help a young refugee who shows up on his doorstop fleeing from an abusive situation.

“I began wondering what circumstance would make Max need to go on this journey, and I needed something dramatic to propel him,” Ryan says. “When I looked within, what I found was the memory of what happened to me when I was 12, wondering about the father who left.”

Though the setting is fictionalized, Ryan says the idea for the story began with a real photograph—an image of father and son stonemasons standing in front of a footbridge they had built. There were ruins visible in the background. Ryan needed a place for the Córdobas to hide the refugees they were helping. The ruins in Mañanaland include a towering stone monument known locally as La Reina Gigante. “She becomes the mother to the hidden ones, a sheltering womb,” Ryan says.

Local myths infuse the narrative throughout: La Reina Gigante may be haunted. A peregrine falcon is said to return to the ruins each year carrying the spirits of the refugees once hidden there. The townspeople claim that when a heavy mist falls on the town, the ghosts of those spirits can be heard whispering prayers to the giant queen, asking for protection and guidance. Max loves that he can see the crumbling tower from everywhere in town “as if she was always watching over him,” Ryan writes.

Mack says that because Ryan wanted the concerns of the story to have universal appeal, she made deliberate choices to give the narrative a fable-like quality. “I hope that while the story resonates strongly in these divisive times, readers will understand that the characters in Mañanaland are not simply stand-ins for refugees fleeing into the U.S.,” Mack adds. “They are all of us, everywhere.”

The process of writing Mañanaland continued something of a tradition for Ryan and Mack, one that began with their first collaboration, Ryan’s debut novel, Riding Freedom (1998). Mack says, “She submitted that manuscript as a picture book called One-Eyed Charley. It was a fun and fascinating read, but there was so much more to the story than the format could accommodate. So I asked her to expand it into a novel. She gamely agreed.”

Esperanza Rising, which won the Pura Belpré Award in 2001, also started as a picture book, entitled Zig Zag Rows. Scholastic reports the novel has more than five million copies in print in the U.S. alone; it has been translated into 12 languages.

The Dreamer (2010) also began as a picture book. So too did Mañanaland. “Therein lies some of the genius of Pam’s work: she begins with simple ideas and images that contain larger truths,” Mack says. “She knows, even if only subconsciously, the essence of her story long before she knows the plot.”

In the past three decades, Ryan has won just about every award a children’s author can win, including the Pura Belpré Medal (twice), a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor, the Américas Award, the Orbis Pictus Award, and the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award for Multicultural Literature. In 2018, she was the U.S. nominee for the international Hans Christian Andersen Award.

Ryan accomplished all of that after coming late to writing. She taught in a Head Start program after graduating from San Diego State, married in 1975, and raised four children while working as director of an early childhood program. It was only after she went back to school in 1985 for a master’s degree with the intention of someday teaching children’s literature that she became interested in writing it instead. In addition to its universal appeal, Mañanaland, like most of her stories, strongly reflects the Mexican half of her heritage.

Ryan does not remember how she came up with the title, which would not seem out of place on a Jimmy Buffett song list. It refers to a mythical land of promise where, in Max’s case, he will perhaps find his mother or at least come to understand why she left. When Max asks his grandfather if there’s a chance he will ever meet his mother, Buelo answers, “Solo mañana sabe”: only tomorrow knows.

Mañanaland represents what we strive for: safety for ourselves and our loved ones, life without fear or oppression, and a feeling of being seen and having worth,” Ryan says. “But Mañanaland is not only a place; it’s also a state of mind.”