The Bookshelf: Isabel Sanchez Vegara Of Little People, Big Dreams
Written by Erin Feher
Photography by Isabel Martínez
When Isabel Sanchez Vegara’s twin nieces were born, she had a hard time finding children’s books about brilliant, brave little girls. So, she decided to write them herself. A fashion-obsessed child named Coco Chanel was the first subject in her “Little People, BIG DREAMS” series (which debuted in 2014), and she has since written the biographies of nearly 30 girls, from Anne Frank to Frida Kahlo to Amelia Earhart to Josephine Baker and so forth. This month, she added some boys to the club: Stories about little Stephen Hawking and tiny Muhammad Ali were released in early February, with Mahatma Gandhi and Rudolf Nureyev (the first male ballet dancer to ever perform in tights) to roll out later this spring and summer. Just recently, the prolific author showed us around her simple yet inspiring workspace—a sunny studio inside a 200-year-old house just outside of Barcelona—and told about us her creative process and the 18 (!) new books she currently has in the works.
Tell us about your home and studio.
“I used to live in a tiny apartment in El Raval, in downtown Barcelona. Three months ago my boyfriend and I moved to a beautiful old 19th-century house near the beach in Badalona, a nearby town. Here days are nice, quiet, and simple with Dirk, my boyfriend, and Lupe, our dog. It’s nice walking with her to the beach in the morning, when the sun is just rising up. Our new place has a little more room, and I now work from a lovely space there at home. My studio is still quite empty after the move. It is a work in progress, but I get inspired by the high wooden ceilings and our little garden my work space looks out on.”
What would you consider your tools of your trade?
“My MacBook and a glass of water that I move around the house following the sun light: from the studio, to the kitchen, to the garden, and back to the studio.”
Do you have regular hours that you work?
“I do my best to start at 10 a.m. and work for six to seven hours with an hour lunch break. But sometimes I get inspired at night, after dinner, while watching or reading about someone.”
What inspired you to write children’s books?
“In the case of ‘Little People, BIG DREAMS,’ it was my twin nieces’ birth that inspired me. I went to look for a book for them and found that everything was still a bit like when I was a little girl. There were not many cool stories about heroines to choose from. That’s when all the real heroines in history came to my mind. I realized these stories were missing from the children’s shelves, and I decided Alba and Claudia had to know about them.”
Tell us a little about your background.
“I was born in and have always lived in Barcelona, and I went to college in this city, too. I always loved reading. I studied advertising and worked at some agencies as a copywriter and a creative director for almost 20 years. There, I met illustrators, photographers, writers, filmmakers, art directors—people that showed me how powerful one single idea can be if you find a simple way to express it.”
Is writing now your full-time job?
“I quit my job almost three years ago, after four crazy years working simultaneously on both my clients at the agency and my books at home. I couldn’t even find time to cut my toenails.”
Tell us about the process of how you got your first book published.
“It was called ME. The Book of Your Life. It’s a book with one hundred questions, one per page, that you had to answer. The idea was that every book was different because every person had a different story to tell. I self-published one thousand copies of it in 2012. It took me almost a year to sell them.”
What’s your creative process like?
“Right now I’m mostly focused on the ‘Little People, BIG DREAMS’ series, and it really takes most of my time. Since each book is based on a real person, I just keep reading and watching everything I can about her or him. I get quite obsessed. Then I try to find the perfect illustrator to capture the character’s personality, and I start working on the text. I try to keep it short and simple and discuss ideas about the illustrations with the artist once the text is ready. Then we’ll go for sketches and a character study.”
Some children’s books can seem strange to adults but be beloved by kids. Why do you think that is?
“Because as we grow we forget who we were. We need to read children’s books with children’s eyes if we want to get it. When I write, I try to remember myself when I was little and read what I’ve written as if I was six years old. If I like it, then it works.”
What children’s books did you love growing up?
“When I was a little girl I was obsessed with Gnomes by Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet. It was an encyclopedic book that covered every aspect of gnome life, from marriage to medicines. I was fascinated by the beautiful artwork and its magical knowledge. Then, I grew up, and became a big fan of Michael Ende’s work. I read Momo and The Never Ending Story over and over again for years. But I also loved Le Petit Nicolas, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda…basically everything that fell into my hands.”
What would you consider your big break when it comes to the children’s book world?
“In 2014, when the first ‘Little People, BIG DREAMS’ title was published in Spain, no one at the bookshop knew where to place that little pink book about Coco Chanel. It was a game changer, the first picture book biography series written for the joy of children.”
How many books have you published so far?
“By the end of 2019 we will have 30 books in the ‘Little People, BIG DREAMS’ series. And I published six other books—some for children, some for adults—before that.”
Tell us about your most recent books.
“There are four new titles for the ‘Little People, BIG DREAMS’ series: The first two are dedicated to male figures: Stephen Hawking and Muhammad Ali (published this month) and the second two feature Vivienne Westwood and Maria Montessori (both coming in March). I had the honor to work with illustrators Brosmind for Muhammad Ali’s story and Matt Hunt for Stephen Hawking’s and they created such incredible artwork. Both books are just beautiful. I’m really lucky to work with so many talented illustrators.”
Why was it important to you to cover the stories of inspiring men?
“I started writing about amazing women because I thought there was a lack of real feminine role models available for children. But the series is a celebration of the uniqueness of humankind, and any extraordinary woman or man deserves to be there. It’s just this time we reversed the order and started with the ladies. Having a dream is universal to girls and boys and people of all ages, and the series is about encouraging every kind of dream one can have.”
How do you choose which subjects to cover?
“In my case it’s an easy choice: I go for people I’d have loved to meet when I was a child.”
What do you think it is about your books that appeal so strongly to children?
“We all dream big when we are little, and these are stories of children making their dreams come true. All children love stories like that. The message from the books is that by being true to yourself you can achieve anything. I hope they help children to grow their self-confidence. For adults, I believe every time you read a children’s book, you get an extra hour of life.”
What advice would you give to an aspiring children’s author?
“Never forget what it feels like to be a child.
Are you working on anything new that you can tell us about?
“You won’t believe it, but right now I’m working on 18 new titles. I guess I’m a bit of a workaholic, but working on this series just makes me happy. I’m just used to doing 20 things at a time. I think it also helps that the women and men I’m researching and writing about are so fascinating.”
Where would folks find you “off the clock”?
“You could find me eating in Un’Altra Storia, a Sicilian restaurant in Barcelona run by my friend Peppe and his mum. There, I feel at home. I’m sure you would, too.”
For even more kids’ book inspiration, check out our previous studio tour and Q&A with author Yuyi Morales, and peep our round-ups of great black history books for kids, books to give as gifts and the best children’s books of 2018.
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