After what literary agent Adriana Domínguez describes as “a very enthusiastic auction” involving multiple children’s imprints at all five of the big houses, last month Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group acquired artist Juliet Menéndez’s middle-grade debut, Latinitas, a compilation of biographies of Latina women with accompanying portraits of them imagined as children. Laura Godwin, who describes herself as “the lucky editor” who acquired Latinitas, bought it for “well into the six figures” in a two-book deal.
Latinitas is currently scheduled for publication in 2020 under MCPG’s Henry Holt/Laura Godwin Books imprint.
The backstory to Latinitas is the kind of tale that most creatives dream of happening to them. It began with a serendipitous sequence of connections made between Menéndez—who divides her time between Guatemala, New York City, and Paris—and, first, Domínguez, and then Godwin.
Domínguez, who works at Full Circle Literary, an agency known for representing multicultural authors and illustrators, recalls that she came upon Menéndez’s work while cruising around the internet, checking out websites of children’s book illustrators and other artists, “seeing what’s out there.”
“I visited Juliet’s website [in early 2018] and her work jumped out at me immediately,” said Domínguez, who was formerly executive editor at HarperCollins, in charge of the Rayo imprint. “I was stunned. I didn’t see any representation here and shot her an email. She was quite responsive.”
For Menéndez’s part, receiving Domínguez’s email was a dream come true. She recalled that when she initially saw the email, “it was a complete surprise. I knew her because she represented some of my favorite illustrators and had been behind some of my favorite children’s books. She was literally my dream agent and I honestly couldn’t believe she was writing me.”
When the two spoke on the phone, Menéndez told Domínguez that, five years earlier, while working as an art teacher in a New York City public school that enrolled many Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Mexican students, she had created a series of posters celebrating Latinx historical figures.
“As I would walk through the halls of the schools and look up at the posters hanging,” she recalled, “I would see historical figures like Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Salvador Dalí. I asked myself: what if some fresh, new faces, that looked more like my students, were up on these walls?” While [researching Latinx figures, Menéndez noticed that Latinas too often were relegated to the sidelines as historical footnotes; she decided to focus on women because this oversight “brought out the feminist” in her.
“I had no idea at the time that this project would expand to include 40 women and become a book,” Menéndez told PW. “But I did realize that the stories of the incredible women I was finding needed to be told.”
A Writer Is Born
Domínguez was “definitely” the catalyst for transforming Latinitas from posters into book format, Menéndez said, explaining that she was trained as an artist and illustrator, and not a writer. But Domínguez encouraged Menéndez to write the profiles, and the two edited them together. “We included them in the proposal; hearing that the editors liked the writing was amazing,” Menéndez added.
For her part, Godwin, who is a children’s author as well as an editor, said that she first discovered Menéndez when she saw her artwork on Domínguez’s website while searching for an artist to illustrate a picture book written by Margarita Engle. During a subsequent meeting with Menéndez to discuss the Engle project, Godwin said that the artist mentioned her own project “highlighting Latina women in a personal way and in a global way.”
Godwin said that she “became obsessed with” Menéndez’s work, and was determined to acquire Latinitas when it went to auction.
“I really wanted that book,” Godwin recalled, describing it as a crossover book that will do well with the school/library market, but also in the trade, as it has “tremendous appeal” as a gift. “So I threw a second book—an untitled picture book—into the mix. Latinitas will be meaningful to people like me who need an education, but also meaningful to people who know about Latinx history and culture. People will have heard of many of the [women included] but not all of them.”
Furthermore, Godwin noted, Menéndez is a “charming writer” who touches upon the “most poignant aspects” of her subjects’ lives.” Godwin describes the profiles as “tiny little movies” that will prompt readers to want to learn more about the subject.
“You will want to have a cup of tea with each person,” she said. “The art initially captures your attention, but the profiles open the door. Her writing is deceptively simple. It’s not literary or studied, but it works. I wasn’t expecting that.”
A Work in Progress
Latinitas currently includes 40 full profiles, as well as mini-biographies or backmatter on another 11 women. MCPG executive director of publicity Molly Ellis points out that Latinitas is still a work in progress: more profiles may be added, while others may be deleted from the final compilation. The current list includes such luminaries as Mexican artist Frida Kahlo; Guatemalan peace activist Rigoberta Menchú; Chilean author Isabel Allende; Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor; and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; as well as less well-known notables, such as Policarpa Salavarrieta, a Colombian seamstress who was executed by the Spanish Royalists for being a spy in 1817, when she was only 23; Rosa Peña de González, a teacher and founder of schools in 19th-century Paraguay; and Matilde Hidalgo, an Ecuadorian doctor and councilwoman who died in 1974.
The list of Latina achievers included in Latinitas is not “comprehensive or definitive,” Menéndez explained, but she was committed from the beginning to include women from countries across Latin America with a broad representation of cultures, backgrounds, and professions.
It was easy enough to find biographical information on some of the more prominent women, Menéndez noted. For others, however, she had to reach out to historians and/or representatives of organizations associated with the women, or even their relatives, to obtain more information.
“For Gumercinda Paéz from Panama, for example, I had to find a congresswoman, a historian, and a woman who had written her thesis on her to get information,” Menéndez said, disclosing that each of them sent her pages from books “that were impossible to get” and other details that helped her piece together Paéz’s life.
“At first, I only knew that Gumercinda had been the first black congresswoman in Panama and had been integral in writing the constitution and putting in place laws that protected women’s rights,” Menéndez said. “With their help, I was able to fill out a bit more of who she was as a person and the ways she spread her ideas throughout Latin America.”
While Latinitas is a veritable Who’s Who of Latina women past and present, Menéndez admits that it is also a highly personal compendium of her heroines and role models.
“The stories I am choosing to write about are the ones that have particularly affected and inspired me,” she said. “Each of these women has not only made significant and impressive contributions to history but they are also beautiful people. Their attitudes towards life and the ways in which so many of them supported their communities is what led me to want to write their profiles.”