Cover Reveal and Interview with Victor D.O. Santos: What Makes Us Human
“I make you human”.
Here is the gist of the matter. In Germany there is a library. Not simply any library either. An International Youth Library. One of the finest in the whole wide world. And from this library, every year like clockwork, there is a booklist. Not just any booklist. A list of literature from around the world. It’s called the White Ravens List and it’s worth looking into if you truly believe in finding the best children’s books of a given year. When books from Americans make that list it is something to pay attention to. And now I must tell you that today’s guest, one Mr. Victor D.O. Santos, made that list with his book What Makes Us Human. Haven’t heard of it? That’s because it isn’t even out yet.
Here’s the description:
A poetic riddle about language, history, and culture, released in partnership with UNESCO in honor of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032).
Can you guess what I am? I have been around a very, very long time. You hardly knew me as a baby, but now you cannot get me out of your head. There are thousands of me, all over the globe, and some of those forms are disappearing. I can connect you to the past, present, and future. Who am I—and why am I so important to humanity?
Clever and thought-provoking, What Makes Us Human is an accessible introduction to how language connects people across the world. This unique book celebrates all the amazing ways communication shapes our lives, including through text messages on phones, Braille buttons in elevators, and endangered languages at risk of disappearing.
I had the chance to read through this book and it’s a strange and intoxicating consideration of the connections between language and humanity. I really can’t explain it any better than that, so maybe I need some help. Maybe, I need to talk to author Victor Santos about it directly. And as luck would have it, today I’m going to do precisely that:
Betsy Bird: Victor! Thank you so much for answering some of my questions today! To those
who are only just hearing about WHAT MAKES US HUMAN right now, could you tell
us a little bit about where this book came from?
Victor Santos: Thank you, Betsy! I have long admired you and your deep knowledge of picture books, your 31 Days, 31 Lists, and your very entertaining podcast Fuse 8 n’ Kate, so it’s a real treat for me to talk to you.
What Makes Us Human came from my passion for languages, cultures, diversity, and for
children’s books. My love for the first three led me to pursue an entire education (B.A., M.S.,
and Ph.D.) in Linguistics, to live in six different countries, to study ten languages, and to
have worked with over thirty languages so far. It also led me to marry my beautiful Ukrainian
wife and to end up raising two multicultural and trilingual children; although, there is more to
that story (laughs!).
I have witnessed and experienced firsthand the power of language, in all its diverse forms.
I’ve seen language shape the identity of an entire country, an entire people, a whole
individual, and open doors to additional ways of viewing the world and understanding
ourselves. I figured I was in a lucky position, as both a linguist and a picture book author, to
hopefully impart to readers some of the beauty of language. I also wanted to do it in a way
that would be emotional and engaging for readers, which is why I decided to write in a more
lyrical style and to frame the book as a riddle in which the theme of the book is not revealed
until the very last page. Clues as to the theme are scattered throughout, both in the text and
in the illustrations (spoiler: including on the cover . . .)
BB: Let’s talk a little bit about “language survival”, a topic that’s had a fair amount of
attention in the adult literary world, but may be an entirely new concept to young
readers. What, to your mind, is the advantage of letting kids know about the diversity
of language and its preservation at a young age?
VS: At least half of the world’s estimated 7,168 living languages are expected to become extinct by year 2,100. This is such an alarming loss rate, and when a language dies an entire way of living, an entire culture, an entirely unique way of thinking and understanding the world dies with it.
The death of a language has many parallels with the death of an animal or plant species,
and I believe it is by no means less sad or less of a loss to humanity. In the same way that
we keep discovering new medicines and finding solutions to many of humanity’s problems
in biological species, many of which are endangered, every language holds secrets and
knowledge passed down through uncountable generations of speakers and can hold many
hidden possibilities. For example, think of how the amazingly complex Navajo language
(Diné Bizaad), featured in the book, was crucial to the success of the USA and its allies
Each language also has immense value to those who speak it, to their identity. I would ask
this to kids: can you imagine if the language you speak, the language you learned from your
parents and that you use to think about everything suddenly stopped existing? Can you
imagine no longer being able to read the children’s books you love so much in your own language? Or can you imagine being the last speaker of your language? How would you
Most of us are lucky we do not have to worry about this, but it is happening all the time with
other people. Helping kids understand the value of language survival and preservation is a
way to help children understand the importance of diversity and the right that every person
and every people have to use and maintain their own language and, consequently, their
own culture if they so wish.
If kids understand this basic human right, they will become better world citizens who
appreciate differences, diversity, and who can put themselves in the position of others and
better understand how they feel. Just as with biological diversity, the more languages we
have, the more colorful and enriched our world is. And there is no better time to understand
and appreciate this than when we are young.
BB: I’ve learned that WHAT MAKES US HUMAN is a “key part of the International Decade
of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032).” What is this Decade and how does it connect
to WHAT MAKES US HUMAN?
VS: The United Nations General Assembly declared 2022 – 2032 the International Decade of
Indigenous Languages. This is a rare period of ten years during which the United Nations
(especially through the leadership of UNESCO) aims to create sustainable and effective
changes in social, cultural, and governmental dynamics in order to increase awareness
about the importance of and the need to preserve Indigenous languages around the world.
After hearing about What Makes Us Human and seeing the book, UNESCO decided to
officially associate the book with the Decade as a way to significantly spread the word about
the Decade and its message in a very concrete, physical form, especially to children.
UNESCO is a co-publisher of the book in many editions, including the English one. That, of
course, was a huge honor for all involved in the creation of the book.
Although the book is a celebration of language in general, it also aims to convey the idea
that many languages are quickly disappearing, which is a loss for all of humanity. Several of
the languages and groups depicted in the book are Indigenous since Indigenous languages
are among those at the highest risk of disappearing, given that so many of them have only a
small number of speakers left. Unless concrete, swift, and immediate actions are taken to
safeguard their survival, most of these languages and cultures will not survive.
BB: What, to your mind, is the role that children’s literature can play in entrusting
languages to future generations?
VS: When it comes to language survival, a key factor is the extent to which young children are
learning the language as a native language. Children love reading children’s books, and
when such books are not available in their own language, they start to think that their
language has less value than other languages in which such books are available. When that
happens, these children feel less motivated to learn and keep the language of their parents, grandparents, etc. It’s a simple matter of representation when it comes to children’s
By having children’s books available in their native language, children not only remain
engaged with the language but also have an actual record of the language that can be
preserved for future generations and help others become fluent in the language. This is
especially important for languages with few speakers left.
Even if we are talking about English-language children’s literature, having the topic of
language—especially language preservation—featured and discussed in children’s books
will hopefully help raise awareness of this important issue with both young people and
adults. Without support from society at large, it’s less likely that many of these languages
will have enough means to survive. After all, governments tend to listen to taxpayers.
Also, I firmly believe that every positive attitude, by anyone, towards any language, is a tiny
victory for that language. In striving for a future existence, every person—either for your
cause or against it —counts.
BB: This book is already slated to publish in 19 languages. Do you envision it casting an
even wider net and publishing in more?
VS: Absolutely. The more languages the book gets translated into, the more the message will
spread, directly contributing to language preservation and the International Decade of
I would especially love to see the book translated into Indigenous and minoritized
languages, which may themselves lack resources in the language. Right now, the book has
already been translated into two Indigenous languages (Mapuzungun in Chile and Hñähñü
in Mexico), which makes me really happy. The Mapuzungun edition of the book in Chile was
even endorsed and promoted by Yalitza Aparicio, an actress of Indigenous descent
nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in 2019 for her lead role in the movie Roma.
BB: Congratulations on the book’s inclusion already in the White Ravens catalog! Plus
you’ve some incredibly impressive blurbs from everything from Sydney Smith to
Jihyun Kim and Felicita Sala (amongst others). That kind of positive feedback right
from the start must be enormously gratifying. How has it felt?
VS: Thank you, Betsy! I am, indeed, beyond happy that What Makes Us Human was selected
for the prestigious White Ravens catalogue in 2023 and truly honored it has received blurbs
from such amazingly talented picture book creators. I have learned so much about picture-
booking by reading their beautiful books, so they have all had a great influence on me. I am
a newcomer in the picture book scene and such positive feedback is a very effective way to
assure me that I am on the right track. Having your own idols appreciate your work feels
really good, and I will forever be grateful to them for their support.
BB: Finally, what are you working on next?
VS: I am currently finishing a picture book called Before I Forget, which is about a delicate and
emotional topic. It’s also illustrated by Anna Forlati, illustrator of What Makes Us Human as
well as another book of mine titled My Dad, My Rock (coming out in the USA in March 2024
In 2024, I will start developing at least two other picture books. The first will have themes of
immigration and friendship and will be illustrated by the Danish illustrator Anna Margrethe
Kjærgaard (Coffee, Rabbit, Snowdrop, Lost—a 2022 Batchelder Award Honor Book). The
second will be a fun picture book about the quirks we all have. It will be illustrated by the
Portuguese illustrator Catarina Sobral (current nominee for the 2023 Astrid Lindgren
Memorial Award). I so can’t wait to bring these books to young (and not so young!) readers
in the USA and in other countries.
Great thanks to Victor for answering my questions today. Thanks too to Amy Storey and the folks at Eerdmans Books for Young Readers for facilitating our conversation. You can find What Makes Us Human by Victor Santos, illustrated by Anna Forlati, on U.S. shelves March 5, 2024.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network