Pepita Meets Bebita: How This Mother/Son Picture Book Came to Be by Ruth Behar and Gabriel Frye-Behar
We started writing the first draft of Pepita Meets Bebita just three weeks after Gabriel’s first daughter and Ruth’s first granddaughter, Mila, was born in New York on the last day of Hanukkah in 2020. With our family gathered to celebrate (and help with the new baby!), we noticed how Eloise, who had been the “baby,” or the “bebita,” of Gabriel and his wife, Sasha, before Mila was born, looked confused and seemed to feel left out. But Eloise was also clearly curious to understand who this baby was that had arrived at their home and changed all their lives. We decided to work together to create a story about transitions, love, family, and heritage, all seen from the tenderhearted and pragmatic perspective of a spunky and thoughtful dog we renamed Pepita.
Mila was a pandemic baby, and our book was born in that terrifying moment full of uncertainty and tragic loss. Bringing new life into the world seemed like an enormous act of hope. Travel was difficult, but Ruth and David, Mila’s grandfather, couldn’t bear to miss seeing their newborn granddaughter. Firstthey had to figure out how to get to New York from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Flying was iffy. Driving was an option, but David was in need of cataract surgery and Ruth was terrified of driving on highways for hours. Frantically, Ruth reached out to everyone she could think of who might be heading to New York. She was about to give up when one of her former students, who was driving to Rochester, offered to take her and David to Brooklyn. It was hundreds of miles out of his way, but he wanted to help. And so they crammed into his Jeep, making the eleven-hour drive on a snowy January morning, with a portable air filter, all three wearing masks.
Finally in Brooklyn and together as a family, we felt grateful for the gift of kindness that allowed us to be together, when Covid was keeping so many families apart. In this emotional context, we were attuned to the vulnerability of the moment we were sharing. And we all quickly noticed that Gabriel and Sasha’s beloved dog was adapting to the change from being the center of attention to the “older” sibling, from being the baby of the family to there being “la bebita,” and it dawned on us that there was a touching and, ultimately, very human story to tell from her point of view.
We began to think about the cultural setting for the story and agreed that we wanted the family to be Cuban/Latinx and bilingual to honor our heritage. In her previous books for young readers, Ruth has written about the family’s migration to Cuba and her story as an immigrant child who came from Cuba to the United States and struggled to learn English. Gabriel grew up visiting Cuba with her and speaking Spanish with his Cuban grandparents in New York. We chose to weave in this background lightly to keep the story focused on Pepita. We used Spanish words in the book that she would have heard often, likecariño— love. We wanted to create a book in which Latinx children would feel seen, but also one in which children of diverse backgrounds could identify with Pepita and her desire for recognition. Like any older sibling, Pepita has to make room, both physically and emotionally, for the little one who joins the family. It isn’t easy for Pepita when Bebita is taking the spotlight, but it’s an essential part of growing up—learning not only to be loved but to love.
Families around the world consider dogs to be core parts of the family. For many young couples, they learn to be parents by raising a dog before a child, which was very much the case with Gabriel and Sasha. And now in real life, Bebita (Mila) is two years old, and she has a baby sister, Colette, who arrived just a few weeks ago. Bebita is grappling with the feelings Pepita once had, both adoring the new little one and feeling upstaged by the attention she’s getting. Bebita understands Pepita a lot more than before, and she sneaks her choice bites of her dinner whenever she can to show that she cares.
We loved writing this story together, going back and forth on revisions, and sharing the joy of seeing this book come to life, and how it has been a mirror to our own lives. It was a pleasure to work with artist Maribel Lechuga, who captured our characters and setting so warmly and brought Pepita gorgeously to the page. We hope readers will like the many layers of Pepita Meets Bebita—the sweetness of a caring dog, the happiness of bringing a baby into the world, and the beauty of knowing there is no shortage of love in a loving familia.
Ruth Behar is an anthropologist and writer of books for young people. She won the Pura Belpré Award for Lucky Broken Girland is also the author of Letters from Cuba and the picture book Tía Fortuna’s New Home. She teaches at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Gabriel Frye-Behar is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and photographer. He has a BFA in film and TV production from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and an MFA in creative writing from The New School. He teaches in the drama department at NYU/Tisch.