No stranger to the world of YA, Filipina American author Melissa de la Cruz has written several bestselling series for teens, including Blue Bloods and Disney Descendants, and several stand-alone novels. Next summer marks de la Cruz’s first foray into the picture book world. Doña Esmeralda, Who Ate Everything! (Scholastic/Orchard, July 26, 2022) follows a little old lady named Doña Esmeralda with a big bouffant hairdo, who eats the food children do not want to eat—until one day, she realizes she can eat other things, like the food children do want to eat, as well as zoo animals, children, and their parents. De la Cruz was inspired by the Filipino mythology of aswang—shapeshifting creatures that can take on a vampire-like appearance with long tubular tongues used to suck blood.
Writing a picture book proved to be a bit of a challenge for de la Cruz, she said, “because you have to tell the story in a very short amount of time with very few words and few sentences.” Not only does the story have to appeal to kids and the parents who are reading it, but should also lend itself to read-alouds. De la Cruz fondly remembers reading stories with her now 15-year-old daughter: “I drew on all the books that we used to read together when she was little and which ones were the fun ones. And I loved stuff where it was really funny and kind of surprising.”
Drawing from the story “Lilit Bulilit and the Babe in the Womb” by Nick Joaquín, de la Cruz wanted to put a funny twist on the darker tale. “Filipino mythology is really fun and wacky,” de la Cruz said. “Lilit Bulilit eats all the unborn babies and then explodes, and all the babies go back in the tummies. It was really dark and I liked the idea of somebody who is eating a lot.” Part of de la Cruz’s Filipino upbringing centered on the mythology and superstition that is integrated in her culture. “I grew up in the Philippines until I was 13 and my dad would say stuff like, ‘Oh the dwendes [small mischievous gnome-like creatures] are at it again. You guys gotta be nice to them and be polite,’ if anything got moved around the house or if you misplaced your keys,” she reminisced. “These were intellectual, educated people but who also really respected this superstitious other realm. It wasn’t you choose one over the other; both of them exist.”
Working with illustrator Primo Gallanosa, she said, was a piece of cake. “Primo’s great. He’s Filipino and the husband of a friend, Marie Lu, so I knew he was really talented. He has the same sense of humor and it was so much fun working together. You don’t have to explain anything because he knows. He knows that food. I sent him “Lilit Bulilit” and said, “Do a version of this.” And he did so many funny versions of Doña Esmeralda. It was a total joy.”
De la Cruz, who has an avid interest in fairy tales and mythology, has written several retellings of famous tales. But “Lilit Bulilit” in particular has a hidden underlying critique of Filipino history, she said. “That story was kind of a nativist response to the Spanish colonial mentality, because Lilit Bulilit looks like a Spanish Doña; so it’s actually about Filipino pride,” she explained. “We survive. It makes you really sad but then you’re also kind of proud. We’re still here!”
It’s a pride that de la Cruz hopes to share in the pages of her book, especially through the various types of food Doña Esmeralda eats. “I wanted to celebrate all the ethnic food, especially Filipino food. It was really fun to write about lumpia and pancit and adobo,” de la Cruz says, “especially from the ’80s growing up here with ‘oh what are you eating,’ ‘that’s smelly,’ or ‘weird.’ Now it’s not like that, which is great. My daughter, who is half Filipino—my husband is Caucasian—said ‘it’s cool to be an Asian mom, what are you talking about?’ ”
De la Cruz is optimistic for the future of Filipino culture in more mainstream media. “I feel like we’re getting a little bit more visible. There was the hot Filipino guy on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Olivia Rodrigo is Filipino or at least part Filipino. It’s funny because everybody is always Filipino [mixed with] Chinese, Spanish, German. So sometimes Filipino gets lost because we’re so mixed.
She also hopes to see more stories about Filipinos just leading their lives without the stereotype of immigration suffering. “Just a normal teen story but with a Filipino teenager in it. I think we definitely need more of that. Not so much where you’re representing the entire race because there are so many of us.”
The author’s fans can look forward to some new novels coming out as well: a YA novel titled Cinder and Glass and a sequel to the middle grade Never After series called The Stolen Slippers, which are both retellings of “Cinderella,” each with a different twist. Fans of Blue Bloods can also anticipate a new series addition, Blue Bloods Afterlife, which comes out in July.
Her advice to other Filipino Americans trying to break into the industry? Keep trying. “I think there’s a hunger for a lot of different kinds of stories, and people are a lot more open to our stories than they ever were.”