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Local Educator Wins Reader’s Choice Award for Best Children’s Book

By Greg Ritchie

Messenger Reporter

HOUSTON COUNTY – Latexo ISD High School Counselor Leah Santa Maria has worked in Latexo for two years – first at the elementary and this year at the high school. Originally from the Dallas area, the decision to move to Houston County eventually came easy for her and her family. 

“Well, it was partly COVID and my husband realizing that he was able to work remotely as long as he had a phone and internet he could do most of his job since he buys and sells heavy equipment,” Santa Maria said. 

As she helps high school seniors achieve their dreams to enter the workforce or go on to college, Santa Maria gets reminded of the value of her new life every time she goes back to the big city. 

“We went to Dallas this past weekend,” Santa Maria said. “And it was just traffic and construction. You get back into it and you think, ‘Oh, this is why we left.’ You know, it’s so nice when you drive back into the pine trees! It’s kind of a sense of calm comes over you.”

Santa Maria had been a writer for most of her life – wiring journals and other informal works. Her career working with kids gave her the impulse to try her hand writing a book for children. 

“It was one of those bucket list things. I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book. I started in elementary education,” Santa Maria remembered. “So I was around lots of good elements – early childhood literature and teaching. And I just thought I really want to do this someday. I’ve always enjoyed writing even when I was younger.”

The book follows Olsen who loves Christmas, but wonders exactly when God’s birthday falls. Santa Maria said the idea came straight from real life. 

“Once you have kids, you get a lot of ideas which are very creative and imaginative themselves. My son actually gave me the idea for this book. The main character asks his mom at bedtime – which my son asked me when he was about three – when God’s birthday was. He has always been around. I didn’t really know how to answer that. And then I reached out to our pastor at our church to get some guidance from him. It is a little bit what I already told my son, but in the spirit of Christmas as well. It kind of merges the two,” Santa Maria said. 

“We teach our kids the true meaning of Christmas, Jesus’ birthday, but also that Santa is part of that, too. That’s why he gives gifts at Christmas to pass on Jesus’ love.  I’ve always wanted to merge those two ideas in my own family. I feel like society kind of wants to separate the two, but you don’t have to.”

Publishing a book is never easy and with so many options – many not very reputable and all expensive – Santa Maria reached out to some local help. 

“I reached out to some local publishers because I didn’t want to have to travel anywhere,” Santa Maria explained. “I found a really great publisher in Dallas Brown Books who who took this on. The process was just kind of long and tedious.”

The book is illustrated by Faith Padilla in a classic, timeless style adding to the story of Olsen and his search for truth. 

“The hardest part was finding an illustrator honestly, because I cannot draw with a dime. The illustrator was actually one of our son’s pre-K teachers in daycare. She would send the kids home with these beautiful drawings of superheroes and Disney princesses. And one day my husband said, ‘Why don’t you ask Faith to do it?’ And she did an amazing job!”

Santa Maria was featured in The Messenger’s “Reader’s Choice” awards for Best Children’s Book. Those results will be revealed next week, but in the meantime, Santa Maria is happy with the book’s acceptance among its target audience. 

“I’ve received very positive responses. My hope is that I can bring a positive message to somebody. Lots of compliments, ‘Oh, my kid loves this book, they want to read it every Christmas. That just makes everything worth it,” she concluded. 

Greg Ritchie can be reached at [email protected]

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