[Review and Author Chat] Jorge Argueta on Olita y Manyula: The Big Birthday/El gran cumpleaños

Look who’s here! 🙂

By now, most of you know I’m a big Jorge Argueta fan. I’ve previously featured four titles from his fabulous bilingual Cooking Poem Series here at Alphabet Soup: Rice Pudding/Arroz con leche (2010), Guacamole (2012), Tamalitos (2013), and most recently, Salsa (March 2015), all published by Groundwood Books.

Today, Jorge is here to talk about Olita y Manyula: The Big Birthday/El gran compleaños (Luna’s Press Books, 2015), a new bilingual picture book that represents yet another milestone in his esteemed literary career as author, poet, publisher and bookstore owner — a semi-autobiographical story that’s especially close to his heart.

Since founding Luna’s Press about 20 years ago, Jorge has published a number of chapbooks by San Francisco poets, but Olita y Manyula is the press’s first children’s book. This charming story features a young girl named Holly (Olita) who travels from the U.S. to visit friends and family in El Salvador. Once there, her aunt, cousin, and two friends excitedly escort her to a special birthday party for Manyula, whose house is within walking distance.

On the way, they stroll through the San Jacinto neighborhood with its colorful painted houses under the “tik-tik, tok-tok” of warm, intermittent rain, laughing and jumping in mud puddles. Rather than divulge any details about Manyula’s identity, the boys instead focus on pointing out several notable landmarks en route (the San Salvador volcano, beautiful Alcehuate River, a cement statue resembling a big handkerchief).

As they get closer and closer, Olita can hardly contain her excitement. Just who is Manyula? And why aren’t they bringing her a birthday gift?

In the park right outside Manyula’s house, they pass “a river of food vendors” and of course treat themselves to a few snacks from the many available:

They’re selling cotton candy, coconut candy, guayaba candy, crazy corn cob, cashew nuts, fried yucca, sliced green mangoes, horchata and tamarind drinks.

Venden dulce de algodón, de coco y de guayaba*, elote loco, semillas de marañón, yuca frita, mango en rodajas, refrescos de horchata* y de tamarindo*.

Yum! There are so many people! Manyula must be very important to have such a big birthday party.

When they finally reach Manyula’s house, Olita is astonished to discover Manyula is actually an elephant! Beautiful Manyula dances for all the children and eats her huge birthday cake while everyone cheers. This is one birthday party Olita will never forget!

Since I’ve always been fond of elephants, I was tickled to learn there was a real Manyula who lived at the San Salvador Zoo for over 50 years. This gentle giant, much beloved by young and old, was a wonder to behold, a calming symbol of permanence in a country beset by wars, political upheavals and natural disasters. She was called, for good reason, “queen of the zoo.”

Olita y Manyula is a lovely celebration of her life, Salvadoran history and culture. Jorge’s simply told story perfectly captures a child’s joy and anticipation in a setting of natural beauty, close community, and warm family ties. El Aleph Sánchez’s lush illustrations rendered in rich jewel tones accented by halos of light provide an interesting glimpse of regional flora and fauna, and his vibrant depictions of Manyula and the children will pull readers right into the story, making them want to walk, run, and dance along. And what a glorious birthday cake!

“Here comes the birthday cake. It is huge, it is made of jicama, carrots, tomatoes, watercress, lettuce, corn cobs, bananas, oranges, mangoes and watermelon.”

So, did Jorge visit Manyula when he was growing up in El Salvador? Want to know more about Luna’s Press and Bookstore? And who is Holly and where can we get this new book? Read on to find out! 🙂

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Welcome, Jorge! Why did you decide to open your own bookstore and publish books?

Luna’s Bookstore

The idea of the bookstore comes from me walking around San Francisco and people greeting me and asking me if I have books to sell. I thought it would be great to have a store/slash office where people could come visit and buy my books. Then I thought to include my friends’ books like Rene Colato Lainez, Francisco Alarcón, Maya Christina Gonzalez, Yuyi Morales, Lucha Corpi, Duncan Tonatiuh, Juan Felipe Herrera, Alma Flor Ada, Isabel Campoy and so many other amazing multicultural authors and illustrators across the United States. Also, the idea of the bookstore is something that had been roaming in mind for many years. Growing up in El Salvador I never had many books, instead I had stories – the oral tradition and the beauty of the Salvadoran landscape.

Jorge with his wife Holly Ayala (photo by Lydia Chávez via MissionLocal)

I decided to open Luna’s Press and Bookstore because I wanted to give to my community a place where families could enjoy and buy multicultural bilingual books written and illustrated by Latino authors, books where children could see themselves reflected and feel proud of their culture, books written in their language, Spanish, and in the language they are learning, English, books that address their realities and talk about our heroes.

I enjoy seeing children’s books written and illustrated by Latinos(as). We are a large literary force.

Reading the new book at Luna’s Press Bookstore

Luna’s Press Books

Throughout the years, we have published a number of poetry chapbooks. During our annual travels to El Salvador to organize and participate in a Children’s Poetry Festival, René, Holly and I would talk about publishing books with Salvadoran themes for children. I had written this story already, Holly has 20 years experience in publishing, and René has experience in creative writing, so we thought we could do this – take the plunge and start producing books for our kids, with Olita & Manyula – the Big Birthday, which is really the effort of several people, including artist El Aleph Sánchez, children’s book author René Colato Lainez, and Holly Ayala, designer and production artist of the book.

More than anything I consider this book a labor of love, an effort to collaborate with the need to publish multicultural children’s books for the growing population of Latino children in San Francisco and throughout the United States, and at the same time our bilingual books can be enjoyed by the children in El Salvador and Latin America.

Tell us about Manyula, the most beautiful elephant in the world. Did you see her when you were a child?

Manyula arrived to El Salvador in 1960, she was 5 years old. This beautiful elephant born in India, since her arrival in El Salvador, she stole the hearts of the Salvadoran people.  She became so popular, the government made her a Salvadoran citizen.

I met Manyula when I was a young boy, so did my friends and parents, from my house near the San Jacinto Hill, we lived about a 20 minutes walk to the zoo. ­I had never liked animals in cages, but Manyula had a free spirit, she made us forget our sadness, misfortunes and we felt like Manyula was one of us.

Manyula was the happiness of the humble people, when I was a little boy and wanted to have some fun, my family and friends would go see Manyula. Seeing this magnificent animal made us so happy, there was something so special about Manyula, I felt that she was my friend.

Holly, the main character, is called “Olita” by her friends and family in El Salvador. In what way did your wife Holly inspire this story?

The main character is Olita, Holly, friends and family call her Holita, I thought Olita, little wave, what a great name for a character. The story was inspired by an actual trip to the zoo I took with Holly, my cousin Juan and one of my best friends, Chepito. A few years ago, because Holly wanted to meet Manyula, Holly’s family would mention Manyula throughout her visits and one day she said she had to finally go see her. We took this walk from our home near the San Jacinto hill to Manyula’s home. We passed the landmarks mentioned in the book.

Why did you choose El Aleph Sánchez to be the illustrator? Could you tell us a little more about his work as an artist?

El Aleph is my good friend and he has gifted me with many of his amazing paintings, one of them being of Manyula. We thought it would be a great collaboration and an example of two Salvadoran artists building bridges from the US to El Salvador.

Did you grow up in San Jacinto? Were the street scenes based on your old neighborhood?

I am very fortunate I grew up between two amazing places, the San Jacinto Hill and neighborhood where this story takes place and Santo Domingo de Guzman, my hometown in the province of Sonsonate.

Walking with Holly, my friends and cousin from my house near the San Jacinto Hill over to Manyula’s house was quite wonderful, magical and nostalgic. I walked again my childhood streets, I was going to visit an old friend. How wonderful to see Manyula again, we greet her by calling her name just as we used to, so many years ago, we greet her with smiles, we cried, we call her name, she heard us. I said Manyula meet Holly, “Olita, we call her”.

The park in front of the zoo.

I love the part when the children walk by the food vendors. When you visit El Salvador, what are some of the foods you most enjoy eating?

Luckily in El Salvador there are fruits all year long. I enjoy papaya, *nances, *anonas, ummmm, mangos, is hard to say they are all so tasty….

I also enjoy eating tamales with sancochado beans and homemade tortillas.

How can those of us who don’t live in the San Francisco area purchase this book?

Our books arrive at the end of September. We are currently working with a few distributors including East West Discovery Press, and hope to have our book available all over the country, in bookstores, schools and libraries.

We will have the book available at our bookstore in San Francisco at 3790 Mission Street, and we can also ship out (please send us an email at lunaspress4@gmail.com).

What other plans do you have for Luna’s Press? What has been the best and most challenging parts of opening your own bookstore?

We plan to continue organizing poetry readings, children’s poetry festivals, we plan to continue with our Author of the Month events, with our Book Club and publishing books. The most amazing part of having the bookstore is meeting our community: children, parents, teachers and librarians.

The challenge has been manpower. Holly and I wear multiple hats in order to keep the store open – but we love what we’re doing.

As a press, we have about 3 book concepts we are currently working on.

Our 2nd [children’s] book is Telegrams to Heaven, the Story of Monsignor Romero as a Child, story by René Colato Laínez and illustrations by Pixote Hunt.

This is an amazing book that narrates the life of Monsignor Romero as a child. Romero was a beloved Salvadoran priest who defended the poor during the civil war in the 1980’s. This year Monsignor Romero became a Saint.

We want to work closely with artists and writers from El Salvador and US and want to bring diversity to our books.

Is there anything else you want us to know about Olita y Manyula?

We hope people enjoy learning about El Salvador and Manyula. A librarian in San Francisco mentioned that this book will be enjoyed by children getting ready to visit Latin America for the first time and children who have recently immigrated from Latin America to another country.

We hope to to obtain retail support possible so that we can continue with our mission and vision: to promote our culture and history by promoting positive role models and stories.

*Nances, Anonas* Tropical fruits

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Today’s Special: Sopa de cumpleaños (seasoned with joy, surprise, and elephant dancing)

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OLITA Y MANYULA: The Big Birthday/El gran cumpleaños
written by Jorge Argueta
illustrated by El Aleph Sánchez
published by Luna’s Press Books, 2015
Bilingual Picture Book for ages 4-7
Text in Spanish and English
*Also includes a Note about Manyula and a short Glossary
**Perfect choice for Hispanic Heritage Month

Purchase this book at Luna’s Press and Bookstore:

3790 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Phone Orders: (415) 795-0024
By Email: lunaspress4 (at) gmail (dot) com

* Visit the Luna’s Press and Bookstore Facebook Page for Updates and Store Events Info

** Enjoy the book trailer:


*Interior spreads posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2015 Jorge Argueta, illustrations © 2015 El Aleph Sánchez, published by Luna’s Press Books. All rights reserved.

*Copyright © 2015 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All right reserved.



16 thoughts on “[Review and Author Chat] Jorge Argueta on Olita y Manyula: The Big Birthday/El gran cumpleaños

  1. What a wonderful treat to read this post. From the artwork, photos, poetry, and the story of the Luna Press and Bookstore there is so much to take in.


    1. It’s truly inspiring to read about people opening their own bookstores, isn’t it? I know this is a subject close to your heart. And kudos to Luna’s Press for their commitment to publishing bilingual multicultural books for kids!!


  2. Reblogged this on Creative Chaos and commented:
    Once again, Jama Rattigan has a lovely post over at Alphabet Soup. This one features a bilingual book The Big Birthday/El gran cumpleaños, written by Jorge Argueta, illustrated by El Aleph Sánchez, published by Luna’s Press Books, 2015. Enjoy!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There is a large population of Latinos in my city of Denver, & it would be wonderful to have such a bookstore near. Love hearing all about this new book, Jama, & the special elephant, Manyula. Thanks to all the creativity-looks wonderful.


    1. Wish we had such a bookstore in our area too! Love not only the books, but the fostering of community ties. Nice to hear that Luna’s Press & Bookstore hosts poetry workshops for kids. 🙂


  4. Wow — I was so caught up looking at the gorgeous illustrations I almost forgot to read the post. Loved learning about the press and bookstore.


    1. I loved hearing the backstory about this book and learning about Manyula, whom I probably never would have known about if not for this story.


    1. The intense colors are beautiful. This artist is also known for the way he uses light in his paintings. You can see the halo of light surrounding some of the subjects in the illustrations in this post.


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