When you think of best-selling children’s books, you probably don’t imagine nonfiction. Well, maybe it’s time to start.
As adults, we tend to forget how alluring true stories are to kids. We assume, perhaps incorrectly, that children prefer to be plied with fantastical tales unlike anything they might see in the real world. Thankfully, Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara is not one of those grown-ups. Perhaps more than any other modern children’s author, Vegara is keenly in tune with the profound impact true stories can have on children.
Her celebrated book series, Little People, Big Dreams, includes more than 80 titles and counting. Working alongside a different illustrator for each book, Vegara acts as both writer and creative director, ensuring aesthetic continuity between releases. Each book details the dream of one extraordinary public or historical figure, following their journey from childhood to adulthood.
Learning to Be True
We like to tell kids, “Just be true to yourself,” when trying to inspire their creativity or individuality—but do we really know what that means? It’s hard to believe that such platitudes hit in a meaningful way or truly encourage achievement. Examples—true stories—can be much more powerful.
Although the figures Vegara’s books spotlight are no doubt exceptional, being exceptional or successful is not actually what the series is about. Success means something different to everyone and can be interpreted in myriad ways, which is why Vegara focuses more on the character’s self-directed path than on the outcome.
“I don’t think the series is so much about people achieving a great dream and being the best in their areas, but more about people trying to be themselves, just trying to be true to who they are,” Vegara says. “I think at the end, behind every story, is a cool lesson to learn or somebody to look up to, or maybe somebody you feel is a little bit like you are.”
Rather than biographies of accomplishment, Little People, Big Dreams are stories that show there is power and beauty in authenticity. To a child, trying to identify what makes them unique and why that’s important, these stories are invaluable.
Someone Like Me
“When I started with the series and it was very small, it was very easy,” Vegara says. “I just wrote about people I would have liked to meet when I was a kid.” However, as her production pace continued to accelerate, Vegara made it a point to be more intentional. She started sitting down with her editors each year to make sure the next 15 to 20 books contained stories from people of various backgrounds, ethnicities and genders.
“We kind of try to look for a balance, but at the end, I still feel that the way we choose the characters is pretty much the same as it was at first,” she explains.
Vegara understands the necessity of representation among children’s role models—from Michelle Obama to Dolly Parton, Megan Rapinoe to Nelson Mandela. When selecting each illustrator, she also takes into account the way a person’s experiences shape their perception of the world.
“It brings a lot of richness to the series because every time you open a book, it is kind of like a surprise because there are really many different kinds of illustrators involved,” she says. “I have worked with so many people from all over the world for these books, and I always tried to look for a relationship between the illustrator and the story.”
To Owe Each Other the World
Little People, Big Dreams has garnered high praise from readers, critics and publications alike. The series has been translated into more than 20 languages and sold millions of copies across continents, ushering in a veritable renaissance of children’s nonfiction.
It’s not difficult to understand why Vegara’s books are so popular; each is uniquely illustrated yet aesthetically connected, succinctly told and poignantly rendered. But even more than that, these books are tremendously pro-social. The messaging is honest yet positive; the representation is even-handed and thoughtfully curated for inclusivity. Although Vegara is thankful for the positive impact her books have had on families and children, she is honest about the fact that it wasn’t her primary intention.
“When I see something that I did that people think is good for children, then I think, ‘Wow, this is amazing—what else can I ask for?’” she explains. “But it’s not that I think that every artist needs to owe anything to anybody.”
Entrepreneurs, however, are a different story.
Making an Impact
Vegara says that, although artists don’t necessarily owe society, businesses do owe something to the preservation of the world.
“To me right now, the biggest issue is the environment, right?” Vegara muses. “Because, I don’t know, I sometimes think, ‘Oh my god, my nephews and my nieces—when they grow up, what will be left?’”
Vegara is thoughtful about the climate on a personal level; however, she sees a business’ responsibility to stop climate degradation as larger, proportional to its potential for destruction.
“If I ever put money into a business, I’m gonna make sure that this is a business that is eco-friendly and one that takes care of the future of this planet,” she says. “Especially more than to other people, we owe [it] to the planet.”
The stories we tell our children shape the parameters of their world; they can encourage limitless potential, or they can relay fear and skepticism. Vegara’s decision to include challenging, meaningful subjects such as Anne Frank, Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai speaks to her series’ ability to present real life—its hardships and joys—as fecund ground for growth.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 Issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photos by Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara.