It’s been a hot minute, but here’s another exciting Picture Book Spotlight!  Today, we’re speaking with Mirelle Ortega, author and illustrator of “Magic: Once Upon a Faraway Land.”

Hi, Mirelle (what a pretty name)!  Tell us about yourself.

Hello! I’m Mirelle Ortega. I’m a writer and illustrator for kidlit and animation. I’m originally from Veracruz, Mexico, and I currently live in Los Angeles, California. I didn’t move to the US until I was in my 20’s when I came to do a Master’s Degree in Visual Development at Academy of Art University. I was raised in a very small rural town near my family’s pineapple farm, which is relevant because that’s what my author/illustrator debut picture book MAGIC is about! I’ve worked as a professional illustrator for over 30 titles now, and I’ve done stuff like picture books, chapter book series, and middle grade covers!

Do you have a favorite picture book?

I have a lot, but I’m going to say MADELINE, because it’s the first one that popped in my head. I just think it has so much charm!

How did you know you wanted to be an author?

I think after I finished my first story at 12, and I showed it to my mom and she really loved it. My mom and I both share a love of books, so the fact that she thought it was good gave me a lot of confidence, and it made me start thinking maybe one day I could be an author – even though back then it felt like a very far-fetched idea, because I grew up in a very small, very rural town in Mexico, so I had no idea how one went about becoming a published author. I’ve always written for fun; I’ve always loved to tell stories through words or artwork, or a combination of the two!

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Stop writing the book you think publishers want, and write the book that you want to write-the one that speaks to you, that you’re passionate about. I think a lot of the time when we go into creative professions we try to build a roadmap out of the success of others, but there is no roadmap. What worked for someone might not work for you, so just create things that make you excited – it’ll make working on your craft much more enjoyable!

Is there anyone who has been tremendously instrumental in your path to becoming a writer?

My mom, because I get my love of books from her.  My grandpa, because my mom got her love of books from him! My family in general.  I was very lucky to grow up in a home where artistic endeavors were considered very cool and very much worth pursuing. My teachers and professors through the years who were always supportive and never apathetic. My agent, James Burns, who’s always been supportive, honest, and willing to answer all of my weird questions about how publishing works! And honestly, everyone who ever gave me a chance to illustrate or write when I was starting out. I’ve worked with a lot of amazing people over the years and it’s really given me the chance to develop my voice as an author.

Tell us about your picture book!

My book is called MAGIC: ONCE UPON A FARAWAY LAND. It’s my debut as an author-illustrator, it’s a picture book for ages 4-8, and it’s based on my experience growing up near my family’s pineapple farm in Mexico.

Who do you hope to reach with this story?

The book is for everyone because at its core it’s about change. Change can be a thing of magic if you choose to view it through that lens. There’s change in life we can’t control, like the seasons, and change we can, like when we turn a blank page into a beautiful picture. And change isn’t good or bad, sometimes it just is. Things change for the better and for the worse all of the time, but at the end of the day things are what we make of them! It’s really for all kids, to let them know that the world they live in is filled with magic if you know how to look.

What is the goal of your book?

I think I’m just trying to share something that I truly believe: that there is magic in everyday things, we’re surrounded by it and we make it with our own two hands all of the time. I truly believe that! And I’d love for kids to take that away from reading MAGIC. And it’s also very important to have a book with characters that look like me and come from a place (cultural and geographic) that we don’t see that often in traditionally published books. I do think representation matters, and I’m really excited for kids from similar backgrounds to feel seen, especially in a book that is, at its core, so optimistic.

Tell us about some of the characters or pictures.

I have a Day of the Dead spread in there that I absolutely adore! I think it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever illustrated. There’s also this spread about Jarochas (pronounced hah-roh-chah) folklore dancers from Veracruz, Mexico, that I truly LOVE, because it’s something that I grew up thinking was so special and magical, and it’s not something I’ve seen represented before in a picture book.

What inspired you to write your picture book?

My hometown and my family, and the deep love I have for them. I’m often told that I have an enviable optimist outlook on life, and I feel I owe it to them. I’ve always felt that whenever people find something beautiful or moving about my work, it’s all them.

How long have you been working on this book?

I started pitching ideas for picture books to my agent back in 2018. I kept showing up with ideas and we kept noodling with them, and I kept thinking about what I really wanted to say and the kind of book I wanted to put out there in the world. After writing a lot of drafts for other stories, one day he asked for the story behind one illustration I have that he loves about a field of pineapples, and I was like… let me tell you that story! it was a story I knew so well that it really just poured out of me in one afternoon at the start of 2020. And from there came more noodling, and pitching, and actually making the book! I delivered final art at the end of 2021.

What were some things that surprised you about the book-making process?

I’ve been an illustrator before, so I really understood a lot about the book-making process by the time I started MAGIC. I think what has been more surprising to me so far is learning about book marketing! That’s definitely something I had never been involved with, and it feels a bit alien to me!

What other types of professionals helped bring your book to life?

My agent, James; the wonderful designer Melissa Greenberg; my editors Amy Novesky and Nina Gruener. They’ve all been instrumental and I’m so happy to have been able to work with such a warm and wonderful team. The whole team at Cameron Books and Abrams. I’m so grateful they came along on this journey with me!

What has been the most rewarding part of bringing this book to life and sharing it with young readers?

The book isn’t out until September 2022, so at this point my favorite part has been having people discover the book. I love it when I share art from it and people comment that they feel represented or seen. I think it’s so cool when we get to see ourselves in media and have our cultures celebrated. I also LOVED showing the manuscript to my mom and aunt.  This book is such a love letter to my family and the place I’m from, so I was incredibly happy that they loved it, too.

Learn more about Mirelle!

Thank you, Mirelle, for sharing such a beautiful and truly inspiring story with us.  We wish you much success with your September 2022 book launch!  In the meantime, check out Mirelle’s social media accounts: