"I am so pleased to introduce her to the world": Pam Muñoz Ryan Brings 'Solimar' to Life

Seasoned author Pam Muñoz Ryan speaks to SLJ about the significance of intergenerational relationships, monarch migration, and community support in the shaping of her Latina princess story, Solimar: The Sword of the Monarchs

In her latest magical adventure of bravery and butterflies, Pam Muñoz Ryan tells the tale of Solimar: The Sword of the Monarchs, wherein a young girl grapples with a unique gift while trying to save her village and step into her role as princess. The seasoned author speaks to SLJ about the significance of intergenerational relationships, monarch migration, and community support in the shaping of this new Latina heroine.  

Photo by Disney Hyperion

With Solimar, you’ve created a magical heroine who must use her gift to save migrating monarch butterflies, while simultaneously saving her family and the entire Kingdom. What was the inspiration for this girl and her fantastical story?

In 2014, publishing executives at Disney, including editor Samantha McFerrin, invited me to meet to discuss a potential Latina princess story. That was the beginning of many discussions over several years. I was intrigued, and embraced the opportunity to sculpt a Latina heroine. As I researched settings, I was drawn to the oyamel forests and the monarch butterfly migration to central Mexico. I grew up in southern California where I often visited the Central Coast, one of the monarch butterfly overwintering sites. The monarch migration is remarkable, their importance to the natural world is profound, and there are myths and legends about the monarchs that many cultures hold close to their hearts. In Solimar’s fictional village, people believe that the ancestors of monarch butterflies inhabit the oyamel forest.

There are a number of unique characters who fill up Solimar’s magical world, including her sidekick and protector Lázaro the quetzal, and Zarita the magical doll. How did you develop these figures, and was it important to you that Solimar had a vibrant community?

Early in the writing, I knew that I’d be sending Solimar on a journey down a perilous river by herself. I wanted her to have a pet confidante. At first, I tried the chachalaca, which is a pheasant-like bird and quite raucous, but it didn’t quite work on several levels. I came upon the resplendent quetzal and it fit. It was colorful and unusual—the male has a three-foot long tail, and it is revered. Lázaro was conceived and became the wise voice of reason, reminding Solimar of the rules and cautioning against danger. Then came Zarita. I’ve had muñecas de trapo, rag dolls from Mexico, in my office for years. They’re bright and cheerful with ribbon-looped hair. Zarita became Lázaro’s counterpart, providing a different voice—one of unabashed moral support and enthusiasm.

The story opens with Solimar preparing to celebrate her Quinceañera, and it is an integral part of her Mexican heritage. Did you have a Quinceañera and if so, did your experience inform how you wrote about Solimar’s coming of age? 

The celebration is much more prevalent in Mexico. I didn’t have one, or know anyone who did. My grandmother came to the United States in the 1930s and her children were growing up in the 40s and 50s. At the time, the socially appropriate practice for most immigrants was assimilation—only embracing American ways, only speaking English unless at home, and leaving Mexican traditions behind. It was the same for many families from other countries as well. As the next generation, I wasn’t aware of events like a Quinces. I have to admit, I did live vicariously, just a little, through Solimar’s celebration.

Solimar’s bond with her abuela is a deep and important one. What was compelling to you about writing their relationship?

Many of my stories have grandparents in them. I’m sure it stems from my own childhood and being close to both of my grandmothers. My Mexican grandmother, Esperanza, lived around the corner, and I saw her almost daily. And as a family, we saw my dad’s mother, Grace, every Saturday without fail. In Solimar’s story, it also felt culturally appropriate to have Abuela live with them and have a respected position and presence in the family. I love, too, that grandparent characters provide an avenue to share wisdom, different perspectives, and family history and secrets, sometimes becoming a conspirator in the child’s life.

Solimar wants equality for women in their Kingdom, and she makes great strides towards this. How do you feel this resonates for your readers, particularly those who are Latina?

Solimar is living in an antiquated monarchy that has made her feel powerless. But she is curious and outspoken and when she sees inequality, she speaks up and is persistent. I hope this will resonate not only for the Latina audience, but for all readers.

You’ve said your motivation to write is to simply have the writer want to turn the page. What do you think grabs young readers today, and how has it changed, if at all, from when you first began writing?

I find that readers are still drawn to an intriguing storyline. I don’t think that has changed.

You’ve been the recipient of many literary awards, including a Newbery Honor and Kirkus Prize (Echo), two Pura Bepré Medals, just to name a few with your 40+ books written so far. Which books are your personal favorites, and what makes them stand out in your mind?

I have affection for each of my stories for different reasons. Riding Freedom will always have a special place in my heart because it was my first novel. I’m very sentimental about Esperanza Rising because it parallels my grandmother’s immigration story. I’m proud to have written Echo. It was a challenging labor of love, sweat, and tears over a number of years. The research for some of my books brought me to amazing places and left me with sentimental memories: The Dreamer—to Chile; Paint the Wind—to southwestern Wyoming to follow a harem band of wild horses; Becoming Naomi León—to Oaxaca, Mexico. Mañanaland was very introspective for me, about a young adult discovering startling news about his family and trying to figure out who he is and where he fits into the world. I drew from personal experience to write Max’s story. Now, there is Solimar, a poised and determined character with a desire to have a say. I am so pleased to introduce her to the world.

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