By Beth S. Pollak
Tania Gilinksi has always admired children’s picture books. “They seem easy to create because they’re short, but it’s actually very hard to make these books,” she said. “The authors are communicating with an audience that doesn’t read yet. They have to be very creative in what they say and what they show.”
Gilinski is one of the creators of Juana La Iguana, a friendly cartoon which began as a live-action video program, and is now an animated Spanish/English bilingual character featured in books, apps, online programming, and more. Three Juana La Iguana books are available in the Caribu app—Contemos Los Elefantes, Los Pollitos Dicen, El Misterio De Las Notas Musicales—along with dozens of puzzles and coloring pages. The books are based off of traditional Hispanic folks songs and melodies.
“Our first series of books are called Una canción en un cuento, a song in a story,” Gilinski said. “The idea was to take traditional songs and convert them into picture books inspired by the songs.”
One of Gilinski’s goals was to bring traditional Latinx culture to a contemporary audience.
“Juana is a Latina; she’s energetic, she’s funny, she loves to sing, and she’s the best friend that anyone can have,” Gilinski said. “Juana celebrates the rich Hispanic Heritage shared throughout Latin America and Spain. In everything we’ve done—books, videos, apps— we take that Heritage and modernize it for a new audience. So it’s not just to communicate something that is there but to make it so that readers can really enjoy it for the moment that we are in.”
A Song In a Story
Originally from Cali, Colombia, Gilinski attended Wellesley College and Stanford University before eventually settling in Miami. When Gilinski had children, she felt the absence of Hispanic voices and heritage in children’s media, which inspired the vision for Juana.
“I saw that there were a lot of things in television that didn’t take into account my culture,” she said. “So I started writing.”
Gilinski partnered with producer Amanda Quijano and musician/preschool teacher Anita Katz to create Juana as a children’s program. “We each brought our expertise to the project. The goal was to celebrate our culture and make it universal. We wanted the characters to have Latin names. We chose the iguana because it was an animal common in parts of Latin America, and we chose other animals to include in the stories that had to do with the lands where we came from.”
When the Juana team decided to create books, they worked with illustrator Wladimir Reina to make sure that the images would appeal to young kids, even those who cannot yet read.
“When you can see young kids ‘reading,’ they are often making up the story as they go,” Gilinski said. “That’s why the illustrations are really important: They need to tell a story on their own so they can be read without any text.”
Although the books are based on traditional Hispanic songs and nursery rhymes, they tell stories that extend beyond the lyrics.
“We wanted to use the songs as starting points to inspire creativity. We mixed the Juana characters with the characters of the songs, and this created a new story that makes the song interesting for kids.”
Gilinski said the books are meant to feel musical even though they do not actually play music, allowing children to bring in their own creativity. “The illustrations offer a rhythm to the words. We wanted to convey that in the pictures without having music.”
Making The World A Better Place
As Hispanic Heritage month comes to a close, Gilinski says she wants to make sure she can share her culture in a way that connects with a global audience.
“In Hispanic communities, we celebrate our songs, our values and our rich cultural traditions. We value deep friendships and family gatherings. We want to share our traditions so that any child, no matter what language and background, can identify with them.”
Since the books include both Spanish and English text, they can support dual-language learning. “Children at this age are like sponges,” Gilinski said. “They can learn languages very easily because they’re building their vocabulary. If we expose them to both languages, they make connections.”
With Juana La Iguana in the Caribu library, family members from across the globe can enjoy the books and activities in a virtual playdate. “Caribu gives us an excellent venue to reach our audience,” Gilinski said. “We can reach kids, we can reach parents, we can reach grandparents. Caribu does a wonderful job and is able to connect people in different places.”
And the more that readers connect over Juana’s stories, the greater positive impact they can have on families and communities, Gilinski says.
“Our mission is to make the world a better place one child at a time. If one kid becomes kinder because of one of our stories or videos, we are making the world better.”
You can find all of the Juana La Iguana books in the Caribu library, in the “Spanish Books” section. Plus, try the Juana La Iguana coloring pages and puzzles in the ‘Activities’ section of the Caribu library. Sign up for Caribu to read, color, and play together in an interactive video-call.
Beth S. Pollak is a writer and educator based in California. In addition to working with Caribu, she consults with educational organizations and EdTech companies. Beth has worked as a teacher and journalist in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. She holds degrees in journalism, bilingual education, and educational leadership. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, biking, picnics, and dance.