Keaira Faña-Ruiz was talking with her husband, José, about the lack of representation for Afro-Latino kids in children’s books, when she threw out a wild idea — why not write their own?
“It was one of those rough quarantine days, where the whole house was a mess,” she said. “We just started talking about diversity in children’s books, especially younger children’s books.”
That conversation led Faña-Ruiz to publish “The Afro-Latino Alphabet,” an early reader book to help children practice their letters in both English and Spanish, with illustrations celebrating Afro-Latino family and culture.
While Faña-Ruiz has noticed children’s books getting more diverse, she wanted to create a dual-language learning tool that also celebrated Afro-Latino culture.
“There are Latino and Hispanic children’s books that are celebrations of the culture,” she said. “However, I felt like Afro-Latinos needed a little bit more representation in younger literature.”
Faña-Ruiz, who said she’s known since eighth grade that she wanted to be a writer, is an eighth-grade social studies and English teacher at Las Americas ASPIRA Academy, where she is also the step coach. In the days after that initial conversation, Faña-Ruiz began drafting up pages in the back of her mind at work.
“I remember calling my husband while he was at work, and I was like, ‘Hey, so I have letters A through J, but I’m stuck on K, because there’s really no Spanish words that start with K,’” Faña-Ruiz said. “He was like, ‘Wait, you were serious?’ And I was like, ‘Why not? We’re not doing anything else.’”
They went back and forth in the next few days, planning a page to match each of the 30 characters in the Spanish alphabet.
The next step was to recruit an illustrator, and Faña-Ruiz recalled the challenge of finding an artist who would fill all 30 pages within their budget.
“Some of those illustrators were sky high,” she recalled. “We were like, ‘We just want to produce a book for children. We’re not trying to pay your mortgage during the pandemic.’”
They eventually went with an artist found through Fiverr, an online marketplace for freelancing services. The illustrations took about three months to complete, and then Faña-Ruiz received an advance copy in the mail.
Faña-Ruiz recalled reading it to her own kids with tears of excitement.
“Our 3-year-old, he was proud of his mom and dad,” she said, and then added with a laugh. “My 1-year-old was kind of like, eh.”
After a very challenging year, Faña-Ruiz said that getting the book published feels like a big accomplishment.
“COVID was a time with a lot of just despair and sadness and death all over the world,” she said. “This was a major win for both my husband and I, that we created something so amazing that just resonates with so many people.”
Faña-Ruiz said the response has been overwhelming from supporters who appreciate the amount of love that was put into the book. She said that the significance, particularly for Spanish-speaking Afro-Latinos, cannot be overstated.
“People are emotional over the book,” she said. “They’re like, ‘I wish I had something like this, where I could see myself when I was a kid, but now at least I’m able to pass it on to my kids or my nieces and nephews.’”
Faña-Ruiz said that she and her husband are cooking up plans for additional dual-language children’s books.
For Faña-Ruiz, though, maybe the most important thing is knowing her work will impact readers, writers and any Afro-Latino kids who need to see themselves represented. She said she hopes to inspire other writers to follow suit.
“It was never about money or fame for us,” she said. “It was just so that our children and children like our children, families like our family could see themselves in a book in a loving, respectable manner.”
The book ($9.95) is available on Amazon.