Original post by the incomparable Melissa Gomez for LA Times:
Patty Rodriguez and Ariana Stein started Lil’ Libros in 2014 because they had trouble finding children’s books in both English and Spanish. The Huntington Park company now has 14 titles, all written by the co-founders, and brought in $1 million in sales last year, a feat the pair never thought possible, Rodriguez said.
Spanish as a first language
Both Rodriguez and Stein, whose last name was Sauceda before she married, learned Spanish first because it dominated their home lives. That meant studying English as a second language, or ESL, at school.
“Other kids will shame you for it,” Rodriguez recalled.
They soon grew out of the ESL classes but embraced their culture at home, Rodriguez said. Her family had frequent parties, watched soccer games on TV and spent Saturdays watching old Mexican movies, she said.
Rodriguez and Stein met in seventh grade in Lynwood, where they grew up. Stein, who was new to the area, introduced herself to Rodriguez and asked if she wanted to be friends. They became inseparable, hanging out at each other’s homes. They shared a similar upbringing — children of Mexican immigrants who came to the U.S. to give them a better future.
“It was just a good sisterhood,” Stein said.
After they graduated from high school, their paths diverged, but the friends remained close.
Stein had aspired to attend art school, but her parents told her it wasn’t practical. She landed as a business major at Cal State Dominguez Hills, and she worked full time to pay for her education.
Rodriguez didn’t plan to go to college, but her mother told her a common refrain: I didn’t work this hard for you not to continue your education. So Rodriguez enrolled in community college and worked full time while continuing an internship at KIIS-FM (102.7), which she had started in high school. She was soon offered a part-time position at the radio station and dropped out of school to pursue it, with her mother’s support and approval.
Feeling like an imposter
Stein became a facilities manager for a commercial real estate company. Rodriguez eventually became a full-time producer at the radio station alongside Ryan Seacrest, and she still works there today.
Despite their success, both Rodriguez and Stein constantly felt that others would realize they weren’t good at their jobs — the all-too-common “imposter syndrome.”
“You doubt yourself, and I think it’s part of growing up as a first-generation Latina,” Stein said.
“Yeah, you can’t go home and talk to anybody about this,” Rodriguez said. “You’re working in these spaces that are so hard to reach.”
Brainstorming, failing, restarting
Rodriguez and Stein pursued some business ideas together.
They founded a bilingual celebrity news website, but it quickly flamed out. They tried to create a public relations firm, but after one potential client turned them down, they moved on.
The pair tried to break into the retail industry by making shirts with David Beckham when the soccer star came to L.A.’s Galaxy, but the only one who wore one was Stein’s husband. They almost got into street vending, going as far as scouting out a spot in downtown Los Angeles, but it never panned out.
Still, Stein says, “It was natural…”
“To always go to each other whenever these ideas would come to us,” Rodriguez continued.
“And we still do it,” Stein added.
“Yeah,” Rodriguez finished with a laugh, “’Cause we still have so many ideas.”
Finding the courage
Rodriguez was pregnant with her first child when she first started looking for quality bilingual books for children. When she found none, she considered creating a manuscript herself and began pitching a bilingual book to publishing companies.
In 2013, Rodriguez received a response from one company representative, who said, “Reaching out to Hispanic mothers is a very appealing idea, but I am afraid I just find the range of subjects a bit disparate and challenging.”
Discouraged, Rodriguez gave up on the plan until a fire destroyed her Lynwood home, and she and her family lost everything. She began to wonder what legacy she would leave for her son and came back to the manuscript idea. “I’m going to find the courage inside me to do this,” she told herself.
This time as she pitched the idea, Rodriguez was told that Latinos don’t read to their children.
“You realize that as a person of color, you’ve heard this in many, many shapes, ways and forms,” she said. This time, she doubled down.
Stein, who was pregnant, also wanted to make sure her child was bilingual. In 2014, the pair established Lil’ Libros. They started with three titles, including a picture book about Frida Kahlo and one on Loteria, a bingo game popular in Mexican culture. They used their savings to start it, finding a printing company and hiring an illustrator. They commissioned 6,000 copies of the three books, thinking the supply would last years.
The interest was immediate. At a book festival in East Los Angeles, they walked away with 1,000 pre-orders, Stein said. They soon landed a deal with Target, where they have six shelf spots in the books section. Their books have also been featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Something to call their own
Stein left her job to work for Lil’ Libros full time, a risk that has paid off. The company is looking for investors to help increase its yearly output, she said, from four titles to 12, including working with other authors. The company’s books are aimed at children 5 or younger, but the two want to cater to older kids as well.
“Our goal is to grow with a child,” Stein said.
Their books have been featured on social media by celebrities including comedian Ali Wong and actress Jessica Alba, and even made an appearance at rapper Cardi B’s elaborate baby shower. They have a bilingual board game and will soon be putting out a doll of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Through the company, Rodriguez said, they have seen how the Latino community has connected with the bilingual products.