Author Tehlor Kay Mejia Shares Why Representation in Literature Matters

Mimi Fong

by , Director, Communications and Public Affairs, Consumer Products, Games and Publishing

This month, we have enjoyed bringing you stories that highlight the contributions, customs and traditions of the Hispanic and Latinx community.

Today, we are excited to share a conversation with author, Tehlor Kay Mejia, who has embraced her Mexican heritage throughout her career, and most recently, in the second novel in her Paola Santiago series, “Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares.” In her first Paola Santiago novel, Tehlor leverages the spooky Mexican folklore tale, “La Llorona,” to tell a fun yet frightful and adventurous story about how the main character faces her fears and finds her hero within.

Tehlor’s latest book is a follow-up to 2020’s “Paola Santiago and the River of Tears” and is published under the “Rick Riordan Presents” imprint, which aims to publish great authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds so they can tell stories inspired by the mythology and folklore of their own heritage. 

Paola Santiago book series

We took some time to chat with Tehlor to dive further into her books, her career and why representation is critical in literature and storytelling. See what she had to say below:

Q: How did you first get started with writing?

A: When I was in second grade and I won a poetry contest, I started thinking, “Man, this is something I could really do….this is fun, writing is fun!” People enjoyed my writing from such a young age, which was really motivating as a kid. I didn’t actually complete a novel until I was probably 30, so it’s been a long ascent, but I am proud of the journey.

Q: Tell us more about your Paola Santiago book series.

A: The series is about a science-obsessed girl named Paola who is really skeptical of her mom’s superstitions and folktales. But when her best friend goes missing, all of the monsters straight from her mom’s stories begin appearing in her little Arizona town, and she has to admit to herself that the world is more than black and white. Throughout the three books, Paola learns more about the supernatural world and her connection to it, and continually battles the folklore monsters that are constantly threatening her town and all the people she loves.

Q: What was the inspiration behind the series?

A: The initial inspiration stemmed from stories I remembered most from my childhood, and I remember that all of them were terrifying! “La Llorona,” for example, was a huge part of my childhood. I was afraid of every body of water I encountered to an embarrassingly advanced age. In the book, Paola uses fact-finding and science to try and prove her feelings of fear, which is definitely something that I also do. This book was partly me diving into my old fears and asking, “What are the roots of these fears?” and then creating the kid who could be brave enough to face them.

Q: Tell us more about the Mexican folklore tale, “La Llorona”?

A: It is really scary! It’s about a grieving woman who drowns her kids in a river and as a divine punishment, she returns to Earth as a ghost to perpetually wander the riverbank and cry for them. As the story goes, if she encounters any other kids near the water, she drowns them too. “Llorona” in Spanish comes from the word “llorar” which means “to cry” so that is where she gets her name — “The Crying Woman.” 

Q: How do you infuse your culture and background into your stories?

A: It’s really so instinctive; I don’t think I even realize I’m doing it. I read a lot as a kid and I loved books. I was lucky enough to sometimes see books with characters that looked like me, but they never reflected what my family felt like. At the time, I wasn’t old enough to critique books, so I used to think, “Oh, I guess books aren’t supposed to feel like home for people like me.”

So when I first started writing, I erased all those defining details because I thought that I was supposed to write what everyone else wrote about. At a certain point, I finally gave myself the freedom to write what felt good to me. Now, it feels much more freeing, and I trust that people will find something to relate to universally in my books even if they don’t particularly identify with my background.

Q: Why is representation important in literature and storytelling?

A: Not to be dramatic, but I feel like representation can literally be life or death. When we don’t have representation, it is so much easier to dehumanize people who are different from us because we don’t see them as real, complex, nuanced people. For so long, we’ve been seeing these two-dimensional, stereotypical forms of representation for marginalized communities, if we see them at all. This actually makes it harder for people to believe in themselves, and for people outside those cultures to see them as uniquely human. This can lead to issues like crisis of confidence or inequality and can even lead to violence being perpetrated in those communities. On top of that, being able to see yourself as the hero of a story is an experience that every kid deserves.

Q: How do you think your stories make readers feel?

A: I hope that other Mexican-American kids can get a chance to feel at home in a story. Some people may not know this, but kids like me often have to do this “two-step separation,” where they feel like they have to separate themselves into a different world they may not relate to. For example, they will have to imagine themselves as a wealthy suburban kid first, and then shift that mindset to imagine themselves fitting into a story they don’t relate to.

I want them to feel like they can be the hero of a story. I am thankful that I have received lots of positive fan reaction from kids who are not Mexican-American, who read the book and are shocked by how much they found in common with this character and how fun the story is. So I would say, if you’re part of this culture, I hope you feel at home. And if you’re not, I hope you find something you can relate to in this story and learn that there’s always something you can relate to in all people, and in all stories.

Q: What’s a personal motto you live by?

A: Reminding myself that I’m worthy! I struggle with feeling like a total imposter sometimes because of all of the great experiences I’ve been able to have throughout my career, which makes me think “why me?” So when I self-doubt, I always try to remind myself I’m worthy of my successes.

Q: What advice would you give your younger self?

A: I would tell myself, “you deserve to see yourself in stories and you deserve to write them and show people how you see the world.” Growing up, I never thought I would be able to reach this point, because I rarely saw people from my culture doing what I do. You’re allowed to imagine yourself having this big life and succeeding!

Q: What advice would you give to young aspiring authors?

A: I would give the same advice I would have given myself. But as far as writing advice goes, I think being an author is about being an observer of the world. Your unique perspective is going to be different than anyone else’s, so cultivate that! Observe the world and notice the things that only you see — those little details other people may miss. Those are the things that really make a story personal and help it come to life.