These Latina Moms Launched 'Lil Libros' To Address The Lack Of Diversity In Children's Books
The idea for Lil’ Libros books was born around the same time as Patty Rodriguez’s first son, Alexander, who’s now 10. She wanted him to grow up surrounded by books, which she never had many of as a kid.
“Equally important was … that I raise him appreciating, loving, and seeing his culture as an asset,” Rodriguez said, and that this “not take it as long as it took me to love myself.”
Part of this meant finding books for Alexander that reflected her family’s Mexican American culture, but Rodriguez had trouble finding bilingual books, let alone ones featuring Latino characters.
Out of this came an idea for a business. In 2014, Rodriguez, who works as a radio producer, teamed up with fellow Latina mom Ariana Stein to start their own bilingual children’s press, Lil’ Libros. At that time, according to the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin Madison, only 2% of new children’s books were either by or about Latinos.
“This was bigger than just a business,” said Stein, who then worked in real estate management. “It was a mission and a problem that we had to solve.”
Lil’ Libros reports that it has sold more than 1.5 million books since its founding, books such as “La Catrina,” in which a rosy-cheeked version of the skeleton figure introduces kids to emotion words — curiosa, scared, and sorprendida!
“The Life of/ La Vida de...” series of board books highlights cultural icons from Frida Kahlo to Selena and Cantinflas. The company also recreated the traditional Mexican lotería card game as a kid-friendly bilingual matching game.
“Our mission here is to make our community proud,” Rodriguez said.. “We understand there's a responsibility with what we're doing. And it's always ensuring that we represent our community.”
But ensuring this representation is more easily said than done in an industry that’s historically excluded the narratives of people of color.
A Longstanding Lack of Diversity in Children’s Books
Overall, Latino representation in new children’s books has increased — to 6% in 2020 — but still falls well short of matching the proportion of Latino kids living in the United States, which is 26%.
It’s part of a greater lack of diversity in children’s media that has existed for decades.
The Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin Madison began tracking the diversity of authors and stories in 1985. They started with the number of books by Black authors and illustrators that year: 18 of 2,500 books published — less than 1%.
“We were shocked,” said center director K.T. Horning. “But when we shared the info, what we found were communities of color were not surprised, just like the two mothers that you were talking about. They were looking for books for their children and not finding anything.”
Over the years, the center began tracking books by and about more ethnic and racial groups. The most recent statistics examine the representation of Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx, Pacific Islander and Arab communities.
“There are generally more picture books, in particular, about animal characters, or inanimate objects like trains ... than there are about children of color,” Horning said.
Without acknowledging diversity, children’s books can’t function as both mirrors for children to see themselves reflected in and windows into other worlds.
— From our friends at KQED: Diversifying Your Classroom Book Collections? Avoid these 7 Pitfalls (there are great tips for parents here too!)
— Non-profit We Need Diverse Books
— Common Sense Media's Books with Characters of Color list
— The Conscious Kid's book lists about confronting anti-blackness, Black history, passover and race, racism and resistance
“Broadening children's worldview through books is an excellent way to introduce children to the world that they live in, and the world that they'll be living in as adults,” Horning said.
‘Let’s Do This Together’
Patty Rodriguez’s first idea for children’s books was the series that would eventually become “The Life of/ La Vida de...” and she shopped the pitch around to publishers.
“Those that did get back to me just kind of said, ‘No, you know, this is not a good idea,'” Rodriguez remembered. “And I believed them.”
She stashed the idea away and focused on raising her family, and on her career as a producer for On Air With Ryan Seacrest.
Until, on Alexander’s first day of preschool, a fire tore through her Lynwood home. “Everything that I ever worked for was gone,” Rodriguez said. What remained was her resolve to create Lil’ Libros.
That was when she turned to longtime friend and sometimes business partner Ariana Stein. “I'm completely in, 110%,” Stein remembers telling her. “Let's do this together.”
Stein, who is also Mexican American, also had a young son, Ethan, and had been thinking about how to pass along her culture while raising him in a mixed household — her husband is white.
“My parents don't know how to speak English,” Stein said. “It was important for my son, for him to be able to communicate with my parents and my family.”
They started the company with their savings and wrote the books themselves with illustrations from artist Citlali Reyes, who was then a college architecture student in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Lil’ Libros entered a publishing industry that’s three-quarters white, according to surveys from multicultural children’s book publisher Lee & Low. Almost 8,000 people from 153 publishers, review journals, university presses and literary agencies in North America completed their most recent survey.
Lee & Low staff first analyzed the data in 2019 and last year, with help from Laura Jiménez and Betsy Beckert of Boston University's Wheelock College of Education & Human Development, found 76% of publishing employees identified as white.
“There's a small change, the number of white employees is down a little bit, but generally, the field is just as white today as it was four years ago,” said Hannah Ehrlich, the director of marketing and publicity at Lee & Low.
Ehrlich said small presses run by people of color champion diverse books, but large publishers dominate the field.
“A lot of diverse voices or authors have been shut out of the industry for a really long time,” Ehrlich said. “Their stories have sometimes been co-opted by white authors who have then told their stories.”
Last year, Lil’ Libros published “Super Torta” by Eric Ramos, its first title with an author other than Stein and Rodriguez.
“It was a conscious decision to ensure that we were giving opportunities to folks that look just like us,” Rodriguez said. “Lil’ Libros is going to be a space for underrepresented authors, and illustrators, so we can help them get mainstream success.”
There are four new authors among the publisher’s fall releases, including Mariana Galvez. Before she was an author, the Whittier mom of three and artist was a Lil’ Libros fan. Born in Zacatecas and raised in South L.A., she grew up with stories about La Llorona and the sitcom "El Chavo Del Ocho." Both inspired Lil' Libros books.
“I was so excited to see my culture, staring back at me,” Galvez said.
A Lil’ Libros’ editor first reached out to Galvez on Instagram. The forthcoming “Little Astrology Catrinas, a bilingual book of zodiac signs," will be her first. “I'm a self-taught illustrator, self-taught writer,” Galvez said. “And so if it weren't for them, I don't see a place for me in that world,” Galvez said.
“We Want to Invest in Something That We Truly Believe In’
A whiteboard in the Lil’ Libros office in Huntington Park lists their 2020 goals, a relic of the pandemic.
After “Make more children happy!” there are big aspirations such as “Think Disney!” and “USPS Stamps!”
The plan all along has been to grow, Stein and Rodriguez said. They would love to more than double their number of new titles next year. But that takes money. As small publishers, they found themselves searching for a way to come up with the funds.
I spoke with Caltech finance and entrepreneurship professor Michael Ewens to learn more about what it takes to grow a business. He said it’s common for small, newer companies to get capital through their founders.
For the two moms, that wasn’t an option: “We don't have a network,” Rodriguez said. “We can’t just call an uncle and be like, Hey, can you hand me a million dollars? I may or may not pay you back.”
Then, Ewens said, there are loans. Rodriguez thought about using her Lynwood home as collateral, but no way.
“This house is all I have for my son,” Rodriguez said. “If I lose this, we have nothing. There's just no way I can do that.”
Besides, the Stanford Graduate School of Business found the odds of loan approval from national banks are 60% lower for Latino-owned businesses compared to white-owned companies.
And while some businesses may turn to wealthy angel investors or venture capitalists, that’s a more challenging proposition for businesses owned by people of color.
One thing that did work in their favor was a change in federal law. Until 2016, only accredited investors making at least $200,000 a year or with a net worth of at least $1 million could invest in a company.
Now, thanks to the federal JOBS Act, almost anyone can buy in. This gave Rodriguez and Stein an idea: To raise the money to expand, why not sell part of Lil’ Libros to the community?
“Our community built Lil’ Libros, they should own it,” Rodriguez said.
Lil’ Libros launched its equity crowdfunding campaign on the platform Wefunder in July. It looks a lot like a Kickstarter or GoFundMe page, but Stein said there’s an important difference.
“You're not donating anything, you're buying shares of Lil Libros,” Stein said.
Those shares could one day net investors a profit, for example, if Lil’ Libros were to be acquired by a larger organization or become a publicly traded company.
Our community built Lil’ Libros, they should own it.
It’s an idea that could work, given their fan base and the kinds of books they publish, said Caltech’s Ewens.
“A lot of people are supporting the business as a pure investment opportunity,” Ewens said. “But there's also the sense that people are getting a stake in something they believe in emotionally, politically or otherwise. That is unique.”
More than 7,000 people have pledged over $2.5 million dollars so far. Rodriguez said they’ll have a chance to review financial information about the company before making a final decision to invest.
Two of those prospective shareholders are Monique Cruz and her husband Andres.
Their daughters Pilar, 3, and Tatiana, 6, have a Lil’ Libros library of more than a dozen titles.
“We hardly even had books in our house [growing up], let alone bilingual or Spanish books,” Monique said. “We always want to give our kids more than what we had.”
A few years ago, every child in their extended family got the Lil’ Libros lotería game for Christmas.
(Full disclosure, I lost a game of lotería with the girls to “Chip,” a kiwi-sized stuffed chipmunk, in the course of reporting this story.)
To help their daughter’s practice their Spanish, they use the playing cards like flashcards. Monique said they’re already “avid stock market investors,” but they plan to pitch in $1,000 to the Lil’ Libros campaign.
The proprietor of a small clothing business, she said most products and companies don’t reflect her family’s experiences as Mexican Americans: “We want to invest in something that we truly believe in."