Alumna publishes children's book with timely message

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Asia Grant’s 10th-grade English assignment, inspired by Greek mythology, was to create a backstory of how an existing word (echo, narcissist, etc.) came to be. Her chief protagonist was a llama called Poncho.

“I think I was wearing one that day,” the 2017 Penn State and Schreyer Honors College graduate said.

Six years later, Grant has self-published Poncho the Llama, a children’s book with themes that are applicable to audiences of all ages. 

Poncho is born in Peru in a village of white llamas. He is ostracized and made to feel ugly because his multi-colored coat of wool is the only one of its kind. After he is forced to leave his village, he encounters a stranger on the road who tells him that his wool is not only beautiful but also highly coveted, and they embark on a journey that exposes Poncho to other beautiful animals.

The book is available for purchase on, and the early feedback has been positive and has come from some surprising sources.

“I feel like people who are older have actually benefited more from the story of Poncho, because there’s different parts of the story that people relate to,” said Grant, who is currently working in New York as a digital consultant for IBM. “There is the overarching theme of being true to yourself, but I feel like there are also little lessons that stoke the empathy in each of us, which I found just from having other people read it and point it out to me.”

Grant, who graduated from the Smeal College of Business with honors in marketing, decided she wanted to publish the book during her senior year at Penn State as a “creative detox,” but first she needed to find an illustrator. After considering a few possibilities she found online, she connected with Carolyn Balch, an old friend who had been in the same 10th-grade English class and, more than fittingly, lives on a llama farm.

Grant said the pair went through six different renditions of what Poncho should look like, and the author was inspired by Guernica, one of the more famous works of Pablo Picasso. In a departure from most children’s books, none of the characters have faces.

“I feel like faces gave too much expression,” Grant said. “I wanted the reader to be able to experience it visually and have a pleasant aesthetic experience, but to mostly listen to the words and be able to create associations with the words and the pictures itself, rather than the faces telling them how the characters should be feeling.”

Poncho’s message resonated when Grant was in high school; her superintendent asked for a copy to take home to read to his children. Today, Grant — who is considering authoring a follow-up story on what happens to the village Poncho leaves behind — believes that message is even more relevant.

“As individuals, we very much like to highlight our differences, whether it’s differences in ourselves as individuals or differences within groups,” Grant said. “Culturally, racially, socioeconomically, we like to be able to point out those differences, as a sense of pride, but we also like to be able to point out those differences as a means to differentiate further. Through Poncho, I very much feel like it’s necessary to highlight those differences, and appreciate and acknowledge that there are those differences, but that they aren’t meant to differentiate. They’re meant to coexist and complement one another.”

Last Updated September 13, 2017