As with most of Pam Muñoz Ryan’s books, the writing of her latest middle grade novel, Solimar: The Sword of the Monarchs (out now), was something of a journey.
Ryan began thinking about the book eight years ago. At the time, Samantha McFerrin at Disney Publishing Worldwide was interested in teaming up with Ryan on a book about a Latina heroine with a unique vision. And, over the next few years, Ryan and McFerrin brainstormed various story lines for the novel.
“I had a few false starts,” Ryan says, “but Samantha and I ultimately agreed on Solimar’s story line.” But it wasn’t until late 2018, after she had completed Mañanaland (published in 2020), that Ryan was able to dedicate herself entirely to Solimar. For the next two years, she would develop a character named Solimar Guadalupe—a soon-to-be 15-year-old Mexican royal on the brink of her quinceañera and official coronation.
The result is a book about Solimar, a rough-and-tumble princess who discovers that she can predict the near future and has been given a critical task: protecting young, weak monarch butterflies until they can fly. If that weren’t enough, the young girl is also tasked with protecting her family and her kingdom full of rich natural resources from a greedy and dangerous king.
Like her two previous novels—Mañanaland and Echo (2015)—Solimar is a work of magical realism. Not surprisingly, Ryan enjoys weaving together fantasy and fact.
“I love the idea that otherworldly forces are at work in my characters’ everyday lives—enchantment, self-fulfilling prophecies, the deeply rooted acceptance of legends and myths,” she says. “Magical realism takes the imagination one step further, often giving the reader permission to suspend disbelief and wholeheartedly escape.”
In addition to magical realism, Ryan likes to create characters who, like Solimar, are empowered. “It’s important to me that all of my characters have or develop inner strength,” she says. “In the beginning of Solimar, she is caught in an antiquated monarchy that has made her feel powerless. But she is curious and outspoken, and when she sees inequality, she speaks up and is persistent.”
Central to the Solimar story line are monarch butterflies. In Solimar’s Mexican village, people believe that the ancestors of monarch butterflies inhabit the kingdom’s oyamel forest. Their inclusion in the novel was inspired by Ryan’s upbringing in Southern California.
“I often visited the Central Coast, one of the monarch butterfly overwintering areas,” Ryan says. “The monarch migration is remarkable, their transformation is mesmerizing, and as pollinators, their importance to the natural world is profound. Beyond all those good things are the myths and legends about the monarchs that many cultures hold close to their hearts.”
While Solimar is aimed at middle grade readers, Ryan is hopeful that her novel tells stories that people of any age can embrace. “I try to tap into a commonality of emotions that everyone experiences at one time or another,” she says. “I treat my characters, no matter their age or the likely age of the reader, as complex human beings who are trying to get through their particular circumstances.”
Ryan has written more than 40 books—a mix of novels, picture books, and early readers—and is a Newbery Honor winner. But despite the accolades she has garnered, writing Solimar proved just as challenging as writing her first book.
“Writing doesn’t get easier for me,” Ryan says. “I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the pressure I put on myself, thinking that everything should be as good as or better than what came before. Or the imaginary editors and reviewers who peek over my shoulder no matter how I try to brush them aside. Whether I succeed or not, I want the story to compel the reader to turn the page, and that’s a challenge and hard work. Writing continues to be, like many jobs, multifaceted—sometimes difficult, often frustrating, and fraught with do-overs and rewriting. It is satisfying and joyous, too. But not easier.”
While the author typically knows where her stories will begin and how they will end, she doesn’t always know how she will get from the first sentence to the last sentence of a story.
“I tend to be a recursive writer,” Ryan says. “I begin in the opening scene. The next time I sit down to work, I read what I have written, rewriting as I go along, and then I continue writing more to build the story. The next day, I start at the beginning again—reading, rewriting, and inching the story forward. On and on. For me, writing is more an evolution than a process.”
By the time Ryan’s editors see a draft of her work, she has rewritten the novel more than a dozen times. After feedback from her editors, she begins rewriting again. “Then there are the cold readers, sensitivity readers, and copy editors who weigh in, and more must be considered, addressed, and rewritten,” says Ryan. “For me, rewriting is a constant.”