Melissa de la Cruz is best recognized for her numerous young adult books, including the Blue Bloods and Disney Descendants series, as well as several stand-alone novels. Her latest project, a humorous picture book illustrated by Primo Gallanosa, is quite a departure for the seasoned author. Doña Esmeralda, Who Ate Everything! (Scholastic/Orchard) is about a very small, very old lady with very tall hair who develops an enormous appetite for pretty much everything. De la Cruz spoke about the Filipino children’s stories that helped inspire the project and about the enriching experience of writing within the picture book format for the first time.
You’re such an accomplished YA author. What made you decide to write a picture book?
It has always been my dream to write a picture book! When my daughter was young, we devoured and read so many together—we loved the Elephant and Piggie series, Jon Scieszka, Dr. Seuss. So I really wanted to write something for kids that age, who are reading books with their parents. It’s one of my favorite memories of my daughter’s childhood.
What did you find most challenging and rewarding about writing a picture book?
The most challenging aspect was how to tell the story in a limited number of pages. A picture book is essentially a short book. As someone who writes novels, it was a challenge to try and tell a full story in that way. You really have to be concise and also get right to the point but also be entertaining.
Tell me about your character, Doña Esmeralda.
Doña Esmeralda is partly inspired by my maternal grandmother, Lola Eleng, who was mischievous and loved to eat leftovers and just great food in general. She was fabulous and funny and a great cook. And Doña Esmeralda is also an homage to Lilit Bulilit, a character from a famous Filipino picture book that I loved to read growing up.
You’ve spoken to PW before about the Filipino mythology you drew from as you were creating the book. What is it about these stories that inspires you and what’s the appeal for kids?
I think the appeal for kids is the mischief and the naughtiness. Also, that Doña is always stymied. In a way, she’s a kid herself. Someone who has to scrounge in the shadows and then eats too much and has no self-control. So it’s funny to see that. She was also inspired by Pigeon from the Mo Willems books for sure.
Primo Gallanosa’s illustrations bring such life to the pages! How closely did you connect with Gallanosa as you were working on the project together?
Primo is literally the best. He has such a great sense of humor, so we had a shorthand way of communicating. We’re both Filipino, so we bonded on that, and then he’s so talented, he brought the story to life and imbued it with so much charm. Primo is one of my favorite people, and I asked him from the beginning to work with me because I knew it would be so fun and easy to work together.
There are so many different types of foods in the book. What role do they play in the story?
Oh, my goodness! I love kids who are fearless and voracious eaters. I am always sad when I see picky eaters. There is so much to eat out there and enjoy! So go get tikka masala and adobo and lumpia! Also, when I was a kid, I hated certain foods and hid them in napkins and under my plate—and how I wished there was a character like Esmeralda who would eat my unwanted leftovers so my parents would never know!
I bet you’re looking forward to in-person read-alouds! Do you have events planned?
I believe so! I’m excited to meet readers at this age!!! They are the cutest!!
What do you hope readers take away from Doña Esmeralda?
I hope they have a lot of fun reading aloud and then also that they are encouraged to try new foods and expand their culinary tastes that way. I also hope to introduce a little Filipino culture and humor to the mainstream culture.