Mariana Llanos has been a writer her whole life. The Peruvian-born Oklahoma author remembers being accused of copying an assignment in third grade — except she had written it entirely on her own. “I was always a big reader,” she said with a smile. “I had all the words.”
Having grown up in Lima, Peru, in the 1980s, Llanos recalled years of armed conflict between the government and two domestic terrorist groups. “I would hear bombs blasting near my house,” she said. “I often went to the news studio with my parents — both journalists — and I was always aware of the violence happening close to me, as well as other places in the world. I was afraid that my mom might not come back from work one day. I found my shelter in books.”
Her childhood fear inspired the theme of her upcoming picture book for children, Benita and the Night Creatures, which tells the story of a girl who encounters monsters from Peruvian folklore while she reads at night in bed. “The monsters are trying to terrify this child, and she will not be scared,” Llanos said.
The book will be released Sept. 5, just before Latinx/Hispanic Heritage Month. The author’s previous book, the 2022 Oklahoma Book Award-winning Run, Little Chaski!, addressed the significance of Indigenous Peruvian culture with the goal of inspiring young readers to learn more about the Inca Empire.
Llanos studied theater at Cuatrotablas in Lima, and she’s also an artist and poet, but she said she found a time in early motherhood when she could not create. “I lost art for a while when I had young children. I loved my children, but I lost myself. I lost art. Then one day a phrase came to me: Tristan was a loner. His long hair, raining. He was a child raised by wolves. This phrase, this piece of story, came to me in English. And so I wrote it.” The idea developed into her first book, Tristan Wolf, which was released in 2013. Since then, Llanos has written more than a dozen books, with many titles in both English and Spanish.
Llanos came to Oklahoma in 2002 at age 28. “As an immigrant, I had to field so many questions, and I grew a thick skin,” she said. “I know that I represent my community. I write books that open up the world a little.”
She insists that it’s possible to be an artist and a writer without being published or winning awards. She said she has many teenagers message her on Instagram for writing advice. “I tell them that if you want to write poetry, you are a poet. You discover your own voice in writing. Be at peace with not being lauded. Even if you don’t have to have the credentials to call yourself a writer, you are still a writer.”
Through surviving great political unrest and turmoil in her birth country, immigrating to a new country and facing the challenges of early motherhood, Llanos uses writing to find peace in life and reach out to others. “Books are great tools to help children cope with the hard things in life,” she said. “It would mean so much to me if one of my books could be shelter for a child.”
Mariana Llanos can be found on Twitter @marianallanos, Instagram @marianawritestheworld, Facebook @marianallanosbooks and her website marianallanos.com.