Q&A with Alexandra Alessandri about her new book Isabel and Her Colores Go to School, illus. by Courtney Dawson

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Today, we are chatting with author Alexandra Alessandri about her second picture book, Isabel and Her Colores Go to School, which is illustrated by Courtney Dawson.

The book just released yesterday! HAPPY BOOK BIRTHDAY!

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First, here is the publisher’s description of the book:

English, with its blustery blues and whites, just feels wrong to Isabel. She prefers the warm oranges and pinks of Spanish. As she prepares for class at a new school, she knows she’s going to have to learn–and she would rather not! Her first day is uncomfortable, until she discovers there’s more than one way to communicate with friends. This is a universal story about feeling new and making new friends.

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Now, here’s some information on the creators:

Alexandra Peñaloza Alessandri is a Colombian American poet, children’s author, and Associate Professor of English at Broward College. She received her BA and MA degrees in English from Florida International University, as well as a Certificate of Fiction from UCLA Extension. Her poetry has appeared in The Acentos Review, Rio Grande Review, YARN, and Atlanta Review, where her poem “Inheritance” was a Finalist in the 2017 International Poetry Competition. She is the author of Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela! (Albert Whitman, Oct. 2020) and Isabel and Her Colores Go to School (Sleeping Bear Press, Fall 2021).

Alexandra is represented by Deborah Warren of East West Literary Agency. When not writing or teaching, Alexandra spends her time daydreaming, relearning the piano, and planning the next great adventure with her family. She lives in Florida with her husband, son, and hairless pup, dreaming of Colombia.

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Courtney Dawson - Photo by Anthony Dekleine

Courtney Dawson is a children’s book illustrator of many titles including A Vote is a Powerful Thing (Albert Whitman) and The Stars Beckoned (Philomel). She is inspired by the world around her and all of the good in it. Courtney loves to work on projects that are empowering, inclusive, and whimsical. She also loves rainy days and painting to Sam Cooke in her California studio.

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Now, here’s our Q&A with Alexandra:


1. What was your inspiration for this story?

Isabel and Her Colores Go to School was inspired by my own experience of starting kindergarten in New York. We only spoke Spanish at home, and when I started school, I spoke almost no English. My story was a little different—I literally got lost in the hallways of my school because I misunderstood the teacher—but I wanted to channel those feelings into Isabel’s story.

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2. In the story, your character struggles with the first day of school and not knowing the language. What made you decide to incorporate colors, too? (I couldn’t help but think of the song De Colores while reading it.)

I hadn’t listened to “De Colores” since I was a kid! Thank you for this trip down memory lane.

Though I’m not an artist, I love color—the bolder and brighter the better—and I’m also fascinated by the different names for different shades (I love reading the names on paint chips!) When I started brainstorming for Isabel, I didn’t know I would incorporate color this way, but I knew Isabel was an artist, so I started asking myself, What would the different languages sound like to her? What would she associate them with? For her, Spanish would remind her of home, with the green of her mountains, pinks, yellows, and purples of her mami’s flowers, the brilliant blues of nearby rivers. And, because English is foreign—and scary—for her, she would associate it with storms. As I wrote and revised, I worked at strengthening this connection in both a literal and figurative manner.

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3. The story has the Spanish translation right on the pages. Was that part of your original vision for this story, so that Spanish speakers could read and enjoy it, too?

I’ve always wanted to have my stories translated into Spanish, so my family and Spanish speakers could read and enjoy them. For Isabel, though, I wrote and submitted the story in English with Spanish sprinkled in, as it’s what’s most natural for me. It was my brilliant editor Sarah Rockett who suggested having the book as a both an English and Spanish edition. I celebrated! I didn’t realize just how much I yearned for this, and I’m incredibly excited to be able to share this story with English and Spanish speakers.

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4. The artwork on the pages is beautiful. Did you have any input in the art process?

Courtney’s art is just so gorgeous! I love how she got the essence of who Isabel and the other characters are and how she captured the play of colors in the artwork. When I first saw her sketches, I knew the story was in great hands. I did get to see the art in a few parts of the process, like the cover sketches and interior pages, and I was invited to give feedback, which I appreciated. But most of my feedback was just me gushing about the illustrations—Courtney’s art just blew me away!

See for yourself….

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Congratulations to Alexandra and Courtney! Isabel and Her Colores Go to School is now available wherever books are sold. You can quickly find it here at Indiebound or through her publisher, Sleeping Bear Press.

Spotlight on Latinx Illustrators: Juliana Perdomo

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We are an affiliate with Indiebound and Bookshop. If If you make a purchase through these links, at no additional cost to you, we will earn a small commission.

By Cecilia Cackley

This is the ninth in a series of posts spotlighting Latinx illustrators of picture books. Some of these artists have been creating children’s books for many years, while others will have their first book out soon. They come from many different cultural backgrounds, but all are passionate about connecting with readers through art and story. Please look for their books at bookstores and libraries!

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Juliana Perdomo

Juliana Perdomo is a writer and illustrator. She was born in Bogotá, Colombia, surrounded by nature, bright colors, music, weird fruits, sunshine, animals, friends and a huge and loving family. She currently lives there with her wonderful son, Luca.

Having a background as a psychologist and art therapist, she discovered the positive effects that art and narrative had on the kids she worked with. She then found her passion in children’s literature, and being inspired by her culture, has been creating her own illustrations and stories ever since. Her work is very heartfelt and personal, folkish, a bit retro and joyful, with a Latin touch.

She has illustrated numerous books, including Somos lo que somos and Alcánzame una Pera for Penguin Random House Colombia, Rainbow Colours, What is Baby Going to Do? What is Mommy Going to Do? and What is Daddy Going to Do? for Quarto.

EL CUCUY IS SCARED TOO, written by Donna Barba Higuera, will publish with Abrams in 2021.

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Q: What or who inspired you to become an artist? 

A: I remember having a feeling when I was a little kid. I got it every time I was in my uncle Ismael’s art studio. The smell of the oil paints, the colorful splatters on the floor, the ceiling painted like a sky, the jungle of plants that intertwined with a thousand little quirky objects that made no sense. I felt a fire, a spark inside my chest. Something that told me I wanted to live like that, be like him.

I had the same warm feeling when I saw my grandma’s hands sewing, I sat next to her and explored the piled tin boxes full of buttons, and threads and shiny sequins. I wanted to use them all, somehow blend with them. It amazed me that everything Carmen Rosita (grandma) touched became beautiful.

Later on, I realized I could tune into that feeling when I looked through art and picture books, when I drew and colored my own scenes and characters, when I built little sculptures with wild berries, mud, and sticks in nature. 

Art made me a joyful kid, then saved me as a sad teenager, and finally gave me the chance to find peace and my path as I became a kid’s illustrator.

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Q: Tell us something about your favorite artistic medium–why you like it, when you first learned it, etc.


A: Right now I work mainly digitally. I use a tablet and a drawing pen. I like it because I can carry it anywhere, use as many textures, brushes and colors and make all the mistakes I want. 

I transitioned into digital art when I worked as a graphic designer some years ago, but from time to time I also give myself a day for playing with other art mediums. 

Crayons, pastels, watercolors, gouache, acrylics, they are all so much fun! 

It’s like a regression to my childhood when I use them. I also love that they open up a chance for me to connect with my 8-year-old son. We collaborate in improvised art projects that end up being precious conversations without words.

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Q: Please finish this sentence: “Picture books are important because…”

A: They provide a space where the reader can approach the world through visualization. 

This is especially important for kids. As they flip through the pages, the pictures and the sound of spoken words combined with written ones, allow a wholeness in the communication experience. 

Verbal and non verbal information is given at the same time as an emotional connection is created with the art, the contexts, characters, stories and even the person who reads the book.

Picture books are a wonderful tool for imagination, language development, thought patterns, identity exploration, personality, social and cultural behavior, empathy, among other important traits of humanity. 

This is why I feel there is a huge responsibility for all of us in the children’s literature industry, to create a spectrum of content, rich in diversity.

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Cecilia Cackley is a Mexican-American playwright and puppeteer based in Washington, DC. A longtime bookseller, she is currently the Children’s/YA buyer and event coordinator for East City Bookshop on Capitol Hill. Find out more about her art at www.ceciliacackley.com or follow her on Twitter @citymousedc