Book Review: Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos by Monica Brown, illus. by John Parra

Review by Maria Ramos Chertok

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos, written by Monica Brown and illustrated by John Parra, is based on the life of one of the world’s most influential painters, Frida Kahlo, and the animals that inspired her art and life. The fascinating Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is remembered for her self-portraits, her dramatic works featuring bold and vibrant colors. Her work brought attention to Mexican and indigenous culture, and she is also renowned for her works celebrating the female form. Brown’s story recounts Frida’s beloved pets–two monkeys, a parrot, three dogs, two turkeys, an eagle, a black cat, and a fawn–and playfully considers how Frida embodied many wonderful characteristics of each animal.

MY TWO CENTS: Any story for children that involves a positive relationship with animals is captivating, and this story certainly is. It shows how animals played a supportive and nurturing role in Frieda’s life and also how they became her artistic muse. I enjoyed learning the names of her animals and about how she responded to the stresses of having to be bedridden at two separate times in her life by using imagination, creativity, and art to liberate her mind, find enjoyment, and express herself.

This book was published in both English and Spanish. Given that I like to read to my children in both languages, I often prefer having both languages accessible in one book. And, I can see the value in marketing to distinct audiences.  I experienced the Spanish language version as more layered and nuanced and that may be because Spanish is my second language, so I had to work harder and focus more to read it and, therefore, got more out of it.

The earth-toned illustrations by John Parra are a great accompaniment to the text and drew me into the story with ease, bringing the animals and characters to life.

At the end of the book, there is an Author’s Note that provides background information on Frieda and more information about her paintings and career as an artist. The book references Frieda’s close relationship with her father, who is described in the Author’s Note as German Hungarian. Throughout her life, Frieda described her father as Jewish, but neither the book, nor the Author’s Note mention this, which piqued my curiosity since, as a Latina Jew, that had been one of the things that drew me to Frieda Kahlo. In doing a small bit of research, it appears that a 2005 book traced her paternal lineage and concluded that she was from Lutheran stock. Yet, it wasn’t completely clear to me if that included a thorough examination of her paternal grandmother, Henriette Kaufman’s lineage. Regardless, it remains curious as to why Frieda talked about her father as Jewish. Various commentators have opinions on this issue. I did learn that she changed the spelling of her name to include the “e” during World War II, so that the spelling would more closely resemble frieden which is the German word for peace.

TEACHING TIPS: The first thing that came to mind when I read this book was the image of all young readers demanding that their parents buy them a monkey! From a teaching perspective, this presents a wonderful opportunity to discuss the history of animal rights, the distinction between domesticated and wild animals, and the importance of animals being in a habitat that promotes their long-term survival. While Frieda loved all her animals, her “domestication” of a fawn and a pair of monkeys should be stressed as something unique and not to be emulated, especially because any naturally wild animal that becomes domesticated is typically not able to return to the wild successfully.

I see a second opportunity to engage in a classroom discussion about support animals (Emotional Support Dogs/ESDs, Mental Health/Psychiatric Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs, Guide Dogs for the visually impaired/blind) and how animals are used in various ways to help people.

In the U.S., it is estimated that 44% of all households have a dog and 35% have a cat. This statistic could be used to launch a conversation about why people have pets and what role pets play in our lives. For older children, this discussion can lead to the role that zoos play in society and a debate about the pros and cons of zoos.

Some 2017 resources include the film A Dog’s Purpose (for children/teens). For teachers, reading the book The Zookeeper’s Wife or seeing the 2017 movie adds an interesting angle to zoos. The new release The Dogs of Avalon (August 2017) expands the conversation about animal rights and justice.

Another route to explore is Mexican art and the role that both Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera (who is referenced in the book) played in shaping the field through their contributions as painters. As a creative activity, it might be fun for children to do self-portraits with pets they have and/or with animals they like (the latter for children who don’t have pets).

WHERE TO GET IT: To find Frida and Her Animalitos, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

Click here for a Coloring Activity Sheet.

Click here for a Discussion Guide.

Click on the image below to see the book trailer!

 

monica6ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Monica Brown, Ph.D., is the award-winning author of Waiting for the Biblioburro/Esperando al Biblioburro, Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/no combina, and the Lola Levine chapter book series, including Lola Levine is Not Mean, Lola Levine, Drama Queen, and Lola Levine and the Ballet Scheme. Her books have garnered starred reviews, the Americas Award, two Pura Belpré Author Honors, and the prestigious Rockefeller Fellowship on Chicano Cultural Literacy. She lives in Arizona with her family and teaches at Northern Arizona University. Find out more at www.monicabrown.net.

 

Parra paintbrushABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: John Parra is an award-winning illustrator, designer, teacher, and fine art painter. His children’s books have earned many awards including, the SCBWI Golden Kite Award, ALA’s Pura Belpré Honors, The Christopher’s Award, the International Latino Book Award, and many more. In 2015, John was invited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to present a special event about his work and career in art and illustration and in 2017 John’s art will be seen on six new Forever Postal Stamps from USPS titled: Delicioso. He currently lives with his wife Maria in Queens, New York. John graduated from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Visit him on the web http: //www.johnparraart.com/home.htm, or follow him on twitter @johnparraart.

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Maria is a writer, workshop leader and coach who facilitates The Butterfly Series, a writing and creative arts workshop for women who want to explore what’s next in their life journey.  In December 2016, she won 1st place in the 2016 Intergenerational Story Contest for her piece, Family Recipes Should Never be Lost.  Her work has appeared in the Apogee Journal, Entropy Magazine, and A Quiet Courage.   Her piece Meet me by the River will be published in Deborah Santana’s forthcoming anthology All the Women in my Family Sing (Jan 2018) http://nothingbutthetruth.com/all-the-women-in-my-family-sing/.  She is a trainer with Rockwood Leadership Institute www.rockwoodleadership.org and a member of the Bay Area chapter of Write on Mamas.  For more information, visit her website at www.mariaramoschertok.com

 

CLICK HERE TO ENTER OUR GIVEAWAY. YOU COULD WIN FRIDA AND HER ANIMALITOS IN ENGLISH OR SPANISH! 

 

In the Studio with Illustrator John Parra

by Lila Quintero Weaver

Parra in the studio

John Parra in his studio in Queens, NY. All photos by Caitlin C. Weaver

8-1/2"x11" jacket mech.  Green is a Chile Pepper.Cover

Magic flows from the paintbrushes of John Parra, the award-winning illustrator of a growing number of Latino-themed picture books and other illustration work. Here at Latin@s in Kid Lit, we’re ardent fans of John’s art, drenched as it is in color and rich detail, and affirming in its depiction of positive community and family life within Latino settings. Plus, it’s gorgeous—plain and simple—and we can’t resist wondering what’s behind the magic. John invited us into his studio and we had questions.

Waiting for the Biblioburro.Cover

Lila: Every children’s book you’ve illustrated bears your unmistakable stamp. Developing a personal style doesn’t happen overnight. What’s the story behind yours? 

John: My art style really came together in my final year of attending art school. I was fortunate early in my art training to have some amazing teachers and mentors who taught me the traditional fine art techniques of realism, perspective, color theory, and composition. During my mid-college years, I began experimenting more with techniques, such as mixed media, collage, and printmaking. These techniques enabled me to open up and develop a more unique and distinctive visual palette and approach in my work. I also began studying different styles of art genres. I fell in love with folk and outsider art. However, I still felt something was missing as far as an emotional connection to the work I was creating. That changed after a conversation I had with a visiting artist to our school named Salomón Huerta. He was a graduate of our school whose work reflected his Hispanic background and culture. Immediately I felt a connection and a light bulb went off in my head that I, too, could infuse my background, culture, and personality into my work. The first project I did was a series of paintings based on El Dia de los Muertos. I was so excited about the project that I just never stopped. As years have gone by, my work has gradually been updated but still holds on to those inspirational roots from that earlier period.

Round is a Tortilla.Cover    My Name is Gabriela.Cover

Lila: It must take scads of research to achieve the “rings true” effect of your illustrations. For example, in P is for Piñata, the illustrations cover a wide range of subject matter, from Aztec deities to cacao pods to folkloric dance. What is your research process like? 

P is for Pinata.CoverJohn: The first step I do when beginning a project is researching for visual photo references, first through the web, then in books in my library. I tend to look for images not just about the main subject but also in its regional geography, architecture, plants, animals, and anything else that could be related and connected to the issue. I then may delve in and read historical and background info through articles and books. Sometimes there is a good documentary on the topic to gain some insight as well. If possible, speaking to someone with firsthand knowledge of the subject can also bring a wealth of ideas. To me it is very important to be true to the source material when working on a project. I feel blessed to be creating this art, but it is a responsibility to accurately portray the content, otherwise you might fall into stereotypes or misleading subject matters.

Folklorico Dance

Lila: The characters in your scenes include a wide range of skin tones, an important acknowledgment of ethnic diversity within Latino populations–kudos to you for that!  

John:. Growing up, I always had a diverse group of family and friends. To me, it seems pretty normal to extend that into my work. I also just enjoy seeing diversity. I think it’s important that all people are represented and as we say, invited to the party.

pg5.Ventanas

Lila: One fascinating component to your book illustration is the practice of hiding  “Easter eggs.” Please elaborate! 

John: I often add funny or inside references in my work for my family and friends to find. One example of this is that I always include a self-portrait character, representing myself as a child, in all my books. I will not give away which character it is, it will be up to the viewer now to find and guess.

Skeleton Dance

Lila: The world of publishing needs more highly skilled Latin@ creators. Based on your experience, what advice would you give to a young person considering illustration as a career? 

John: You could probably devote a series of articles to just this one question. Starting out as a new artist can be challenging, with many artistic directions and choices to make. Based on my experience working in the field of freelance illustration, I recommend developing the following four areas.

1. Focus on your artwork and make it as exceptional as possible. It should be a reflection of what you like and have interest in. Create your own voice and style that connects the work to you.

2. Use print promotion and social media to display your work. It is very important to get your art out there in the public. Your artwork should be easily accessible to view online. Blogs, Facebook, and illustration annual competitions can be very helpful for ideas, as well as for showcasing your work. Be consistent, announce successes, and bring awareness to your projects.

3. Include a group of artist friends and colleagues to meet with regularly.  This way, you can discuss ideas and potential projects to work on, perhaps even collaborative ones.

4. The business side: Learn as much as possible about contracts and billing. Whether or not you have someone to represent you, it is always important to read as best you can about what you are getting into.

Parra Stenciling Technique

 

Weathered effect CollageLila: If you could sit down for a long session of shoptalk with one or more illustrators, living or dead, who would they be, and what would you ask?

John: I am a fan of other illustrators as well as anyone else who loves the genre. One of the perks of my job is that I have been able to meet so many other artists whose work I have admired for many years. There are, however, two artists who have passed on whom I would have loved to have sat down and talked shop with. They are Virginia Lee Burton and Maurice Sendak. Both had such an impact on me at an early age, since their books were part of the first illustrations introduced to me. I would love to ask their ideas and intentions when they were working on their most famous stories, plus to see their studio space and how they worked would be wonderfully inspirational.

SylviaMendezVer.2  BiblioBurro.Reading2Kids

Lila: As you know, the diversity movement in children’s publishing picked up significant steam in 2014. What were opportunities like for Latin@ illustrators when you started your career? Have you seen changes? 

John: I believe the We Need Diverse Books initiative and Walter Dean Myers’ essay in the The New York Times came at a turning point in bringing awareness to examining and appreciating the beauty and diversity in multicultural books. When I began as an illustrator eighteen years ago, there did not seem to be as many projects geared to a diverse population. Over the last few years I have seen progress and greater opportunities for artists with varied voices and backgrounds to shine. I look forward to seeing even more done as we continue to expand and celebrate these wonderful talents.

Parra page layout

Printer markings indicate page borders. John often uses a limited palette of hues, individually selected for each book.

Lila: Not long ago, I came upon a museum exhibit of Mexican retablos and ex-votos. Is it my imagination, or does your art contain echoes of this beautiful sub-genre of naive art? 

Yes! I am a big fan of retablos and ex-votos art. These paintings have that wonderful folk-art tradition of weaving in harrowing stories and miraculous tales.  Many of them actually weave text right into the works themselves. A favorite of mine is Mexican retablo artist Alfredo Vilchis. You can find many of his pieces in a great little book entitled: Infinitas Gracias: Contemporary Mexican Votive Painting.

Lila: We’re looking forward to the next John Parra book! What’s in the pipeline? 

Parra sketches

Sketches from John’s newest project., Marvelous Cornelius.

John: I do have a new children’s book that I finished recently coming out this summer (2015) with Chronicle Books. It is titled: Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans, written by Phil Bildner. The story is about a real-life gentleman named Cornelius Washington, a sanitation worker in New Orleans. He was considered a local folk hero and known in the neighborhood and the French Quarter by his positive and charismatic personality. As the book develops, the story goes into the events of Hurricane Katrina. We then see the effects on Cornelius and his neighborhood, as he reacts and resolves what to do after the storm.

Marvelous Cornelius 1.Cover[Note: Catch more views from Marvelous Cornelius on the Latin@s in Kid Lit Pinterest boards!]

John: Another exciting event will be an artist presentation scheduled this coming year in June. It will be an artist lecture, workshop, and book signing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York City. I am really looking forward to it. It is a dream to be a part of such an amazing and historic institution.

As for new work, I am also starting a big new illustration project with details that I hope to share soon.

Parra paintbrushJohn Parra is an acclaimed illustrator, fine artist, designer and educator. His children’s book illustrations have  received many awards, among them, The Golden Kite Award from The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators; The Pura Belpré Honor Award; The Américas Book Award; Commended Title from CLASP, The International Latino Book Award; The Christopher Award. John grew up in Santa Barbara, California, where his artistic life began. He now resides in Queens, NY, with his wife, Maria. Keep up with John’s work through his website.

Studio views

Views of the studio reveal original pieces, as well as John’s guitars from a band he played with in California. Although he holds on to a few illustrations that he feels especially attached to, many are sold in galleries or through his website. A recent exhibit of originals in Brazil sold out!