Illustrator Joe Cepeda Talks to Latin@s in Kid Lit, Part 1

By Lila Quintero Weaver

Long before I met Joe Cepeda at the National Latino Children’s Literature Conference in 2012, a post card of the cover illustration of Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising was tacked to my then-11-year-old daughter’s bedroom wall. Every time I glanced at that soaring figure, my spirits lifted. Surely part of the book’s enormous success can be traced back to Joe’s luminous cover painting of Esperanza floating above the California earth, but that’s hardly the end of his contribution to children’s literature.

Lila: Welcome to Latin@s in Kid Lit, Joe! Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk art and books. Let’s start our conversation with Esperanza Rising. How did you come up with the concept?

Joe: After seeing the title, it wasn’t too difficult to imagine young Esperanza in the air. My first sketch depicted Esperanza with her hair and dress floating behind her as if she were flying. Almost immediately, however, I changed it and flipped her dress and pretty dark tresses to sweep in front of her. What I realized is that I didn’t want to show Esperanza as if she were navigating in the air on her own. I wanted her to be swept away by the wind. Everyone who has read the book knows that Esperanza’s life changes from one day to the next and I wanted the image to reflect that life-altering event, as well as the hopefulness her story and name literally implies.

EsperanzaJacket72 copy 2Lila: What does it mean to you to have your work as the cover of such a powerful story?

Joe: A great deal. It’s never a bad thing to have your work associated with a story that has such resonance. In contrast to doing an illustration for a magazine, which has a very short life, a book hangs around longer. A book that continues to reach so many readers, year after year, is wonderful for the life of the image as well. Beyond that, one is always striving to create work that might emotively uplift the reader. It’s a beautiful story and if the cover helps to do just that, it’s very gratifying.

Lila: Your list of children’s books includes quite a few with Latino or African American characters. Does being Latino influence your development of minority characters and the worlds they inhabit? SideBySide_04_72

Joe: This is always a bit of a difficult question to answer, perhaps because I think very little about it when I’m illustrating books about people of color. I’d say the books that I see that seem to miss the mark ethnically/culturally seem to overthink it. There are a lot of things I may consider in developing a character before I get to their ethnic depiction. Does she wear glasses? Is she thin? Short? Should he be neat or a bit of a slob? Is he forgetful? Would he wear a hat? Many of the of the character’s inclinations and look are not included in the manuscript. By the time I get to the character’s cultural look, it kind of takes care of itself.

I wrote a story, The Swing, that took place in a neighborhood just like the street I grew up on. I’m Chicano, and I could write and illustrate that story about Chicano neighbors from a very immediate and intimate place. East Los Angeles isn’t Spanish Harlem, though, nor is it Little Havana. It seems to me illustrating stories about those Latino communities wouldn’t be all that different than illustrating a story about Inuits in the Arctic, Mongolians living in Yurts, or a story set in the Deep South. I’m respectful of the content and information that presents itself in illustrating stories of people of color, but I don’t live there that long. My preference is not to develop minority characters as much as illuminate the story that’s being told. For me, every step toward “development” is one toward information, accuracy and specificity, which is all fine and good, but it might also be one more step away from grandness and magic… and the informal joy of uncertainty and open-endedness.

MiceAndBeans4_75 copy

Lila: What’s on your drawing board right now?

Joe: Starting a new bilingual book based on a kid’s song. Writing a story for a picture book. Lunch.

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And that’s not the end of Joe’s fascinating interview. Please stay tuned for tomorrow’s  follow-up post!

 second_pic_4x6_72Joe Cepeda is an award-winning illustrator of children’s books who also works in magazine illustration. He lives in California and serves as president of the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles. For more information, visit his website.

Diversity in Kid Lit was ‘On Fire’ at National Latino Children’s Literature Conference

My signed conference poster! The gorgeous artwork comes from Laura Lacamara's new book, Dalia's Wondrous Hair.

My signed conference poster! The gorgeous artwork comes from Laura Lacamara’s new book, Dalia’s Wondrous Hair.

By Lila Quintero Weaver

Let me float down to earth, grab a keyboard and pound out a report about the National Latino Children’s Literature Conference. That was my self-talk on March 15. The two-day conference, held at the University of Alabama and headed by mover-and-shaker Dr. Jamie Naidoo, had wrapped up at 4 pm the previous day.

Sixteen hours later, my whole being still felt tingly with the residual vibrations of what we’d experienced: great dialogue, stimulating talks, and warm connections with people passionate about the same thing, increasing diversity in children’s books. And it’s amazing how many presentations referenced last year’s incendiary New York Times article on minority characters in kid lit. The conference stirred my juices, but before I could touch my keyboard to write about it, Marianne Snow posted a great recap on her blog. There’s no way that I could improve on her account. 

That’s not the end of the story. Over the same weekend, The New York Times published a pair of essays from prize-winning YA author Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher, an author-illustrator of note, on the scarcity of characters of color in children’s books. Spine tingling, timely, and powerful. Clearly, diversity in children’s books is a topic on fire!

And now, back to the conference. Since Marianne’s recap covers only the second day, here are select quotes and highlights from the first day:

NLCLC LogoLiterary agent Adriana Dominguez outlined some of the challenges facing Latin@ children’s literature: “Many editors think about Latino books as niche or institutional.” Neither of these spells the huge sales figures that the industry has become hungry for. She pointed to the Harry Potter phenomenon as a watershed moment in children’s publishing. Previously, marketing departments targeted libraries and schools, but the commercial success of Harry Potter and other blockbusters has shifted the dynamics.

Members of the audience asked how to best advocate for Latin@ children’s literature. Librarians can push these books, Dominguez said. She cited the late Rose Treviño as a personal mentor and a role model in the field of library services to children. Ms. Treviño was a beloved Houston public librarian who served the local Latin@ community and brought Latin@ books to the attention of a wider audience. Her passionate advocacy was captured in this extensive interview by Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Someone else asked, would more Latinos on the “inside” of publishing help to balance the equation? Yes, Dominguez said, because “you’re a stronger advocate for something you truly believe in.” She pointed out that graduate programs in publishing are recruiting zones for the “big five.”

In her keynote, recent Pura Belpré winner Meg Medina raised the topic of universal themes, those that address the experiences of all children, regardless of demographic labels. She reminded us that “Latino” is a uniquely American concept. Many Latin@ children grapple with the additional challenges of biculturalism. She shared that in her work, she strives to present a range of Latin@ characters, a “whole tapestry,” not merely those that the public has come to expect. (In her Monday post, Meg offered a terrific conference recap of her own.)

7789203Author-illustrator Laura Lacámara gave the day’s final keynote. Her journey into publishing has taken some interesting turns. She was first an illustrator of children’s books. Then came her debut as a writer, Floating on Mama’s Song, a story inspired by her mother’s devotion to opera. But Laura didn’t illustrate it; Yuyi Morales did. Now, hot off the presses is Laura’s newest book, her first to write and illustrate, the delightful Dalia’s Wondrous Hair (see the conference poster image, above). Count on a book talk in the near future!

The variety of breakout sessions boggled the mind. Thursday, I sat in on Lettycia Terrones’s illuminating talk on image-making in Latin@ children’s literature, followed by Araceli Esparza’s “Roots of Race in Chicano/Latino Picture Books,” another enriching experience. The next day, I heard an expert presentation by Catalina Lara on the Latin@ child and language.

Social media is an excellent tool, but let’s not forget the value of face-to-face meetings. They spark connections like nothing else. Next time you hear about a conference that addresses diversity or Latin@ children’s books, consider attending.