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By Romy Natalia Goldberg
Set in ancient Peru, Run, Little Chaski!: An Inka Trail Adventure follows the ups and downs of Little Chaski’s first day as a royal messenger for the king of the Inkan empire. Authored by Mariana Llanos and illustrated by Mariana Ruiz Johnson, Run Little Chaski! will release with Barefoot Books on June 1, 2021. English and Spanish versions are available. We hope you enjoy this interview with the author on the process of creating this unique picture book.
Mariana, congratulations on your picture book Run Little Chaski!: An Inka Trail Adventure / ¡Corre, Pequeño Chaski!: Una aventura en el comino Inka. What was the inspiration for this book?
I was inspired by my peruanidad and my desire to represent the amazing pre-columbian culture of my country, Peru. I think this book is the result of many years admiring our legacy and wishing more people knew about it.
There is so much going on in this book, from the role chaskis (royal messengers) played in the Incan empire, to the artifacts used in both daily life, to the flora and fauna of the Andes. Although, as a Peruvian, you probably grew up with knowledge of these things, I’m sure this book took a lot of research. Can you tell us how you prepared to write this manuscript?
I wrote the first drafts using what I already knew about chaskis and the Inka empire. Research came later, once I had the story I wanted to tell. Actually, because I am Peruvian, the pressure to “get it right” felt very strong. I thought I knew a lot, but I doubted myself many times. I read books about the Tawantinsuyu, like History of the Tawantinsuyu by Maria Rotowroski, a renowned Peruvian author, and History of the Conquest of Peru by William Prescott, among others. I also visited many websites like the American Indian Museum- Smithsonian. I read many articles in Spanish and English with specifics about the Inka Trail and the role of chaskis. I watched documentaries on YouTube as well. I grew up knowing about this, but I needed to have a better historic understanding especially for writing the back matter.
Did you ever consider writing this as a non-fiction book, or was it always a fictional picture book?
No. It was always a universal theme. It was always about kindness with the rich backdrop of the Inka culture.
Are there details you would have liked to include but had to edit or remove to better suit the picture book format? How did you decide what belonged in the back matter (which is extensive and very informative) vs, in the story itself?
The story is a universal story, only that it is set in a historic time period. So I always knew what belonged there, but I did want to offer additional information about the Inka empire. Originally, this info was contained in an Author’s Note, but my editor, Kate Depalma, wanted to break it into different topics. This writing process for the new back matter came after working on the story itself.
From the original story, we removed a part where I mentioned coca leaves as the content of his ch’uspa (bag). As you may know, coca leaves are sacred in the Andes and are used to give people energy, but it was decided that it might be a distracting issue for parents. But we did add this detail in the informational part of the book.
This is one of the first picture books published in the United States featuring a significant amount of Quechua. Do you speak Quechua? Can you talk about what went into ensuring the Quechua was accurate?
I do not speak Quechua, although I’ve attempted to take classes. I know a few words and terms. Many Quechua words are integrated in Peruvian Spanish. But since I needed this to be very accurate, I enlisted the help of a person who is an expert in the Quechua language and Andean culture. He revised my manuscript and came back with some valuable suggestions. Our main concern was about the spelling of Quechua words (like Inca or Inka). For this book we went with the standardized spelling of the language to be respectful to Quechua speaking people.
Did you find it hard to sell this manuscript because of the setting or the language?
You would’ve thought that a novel book like this would sell in a minute, but in fact, it was very hard to sell! Most editors didn’t have a vision for it. We were so lucky to find Barefoot Books who are willing to take on challenges and do their best to produce truly diverse books. Their commitment to diversity is admirable. At every level, I felt like they respected my work and the culture I represented, so I’m glad with the way things turned out. Still, I wonder what is it going to take for this industry to finally look at the rest of the world as part of this world?
Can you talk a little about being considered an “own voices” author for this particular book? I imagine it is complex, given that being Peruvian is not the same as being Incan and even the Inca themselves were a civilization made up of several indigenous peoples.
I’ve been asked several times if this is an “own voices” book. I have an issue with the label because, even though I am Peruvian, I did not live in the times of the Inka, so how could this be an own voices story? The Inka empire fell 500 years ago. It’s very hard for people from Latin America to fit the concept of this label. We’re made of so many cultures and races. And in this book specifically, you’re correct. The Inka weren’t one group of people; they were many pueblos, many cultures. And I believe this is where we can feel the lack of authentic and diverse Latinx representation at the publishing level. The only way I’d ever use an own voices label is if I write a book about my life.
About the author: Mariana Llanos is a Peruvian-born poet and author of children’s books. Her book Luca’s Bridge/El puente de Luca was a 2020 ALSC Notable Book and Campoy-Ada Award Honoree. Eunice and Kate (2020, Penny Candy Books) is a winner of the Paterson Prize Books for Young Readers. Run Little Chaski/Corre Pequeño Chaski is a JLG Gold Standard Selection. Mariana visits schools to encourage the love for writing and reading. She’s represented by Clelia Gore of Martin Literary.
Romy Natalia Goldberg is a Paraguayan-American travel and kid lit author with a love for stories about culture and communication. Her guidebook to Paraguay, Other Places Travel Guide to Paraguay, was published in 2012 and 2017 and led to work with “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” and The Guardian. She is an active SCBWI member and co-runs Kidlit Latinx, a Facebook support group for Latinx children’s book authors and illustrators