A Studio Visit with Author-Illustrator Lulu Delacre, one of the most prolific Latinx artists working today

 

By Cecilia Cackley

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“I’ve decided that this is going to be my best decade!” declares Lulu Delacre. She has just turned sixty and after thirty-eight years in the publishing industry, she has written or illustrated over thirty different books for young readers, making her one of the most prolific Latinx artists working today. Her latest book, Turning Pages is an autobiographical picture book by Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor and arguably Delacre’s highest profile collaboration to date.

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Delacre was born in Puerto Rico to Argentine parents who encouraged her love of drawing. After beginning her college career in the Fine Arts department of the University of Puerto Rico, she transferred to L’Ecole Supérieure d’Arts Graphiques in Paris, France. Delacre says she was inspired to apply for the school after learning that a famous Puerto Rican artist had trained there. Her father was skeptical, telling her she wouldn’t get in because of the quality of work required, but she was accepted into the third year of the five year program and eventually received a full scholarship to finish her degree after her family ran into financial hardship. Delacre studied many different artistic disciplines at the school, including typography and print-making, and the course included real-world assignments such as designing a new currency that she remembers as challenging and fun. Some of the more traditional European assignments had amusing results for a student from the Caribbean, she says.

“[For] one of my first assignments we had to illustrate the four seasons, and of course, I was coming from Puerto Rico. So, winter—I did something in pastel pinks and blues and everyone laughed, but of course it was a matter of perspective! I came from an island, I had never witnessed winter before, never in my life.”

Delacre says that she had no idea at that point that you could become a children’s book illustrator. “Books that we got in Puerto Rico were mostly fairy tales from Spain, which didn’t speak to me. The concept of the picture book was entirely foreign to me.” She discovered picture book illustration at an American gallery in Paris which was showing art from the book In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak. “That was a revelation. I had no idea before that moment what I wanted to do.” Delacre had been focusing on graphic arts because she wanted to earn a living and recognized, “I was not at the level of a Picasso,” but now she had found the work that would become her passion.

After finishing school, Delacre moved to San Francisco with her husband, who was in the military. She had no contacts, but started knocking on doors and found work doing textbook illustrations and commercial artwork. When her family moved to Massachusetts, she started giving to the children’s section of the public library and taught herself to create picture books by analyzing examples such as Where the Wild Things Are. With no connections in publishing, Delacre had to hustle to break into the industry.

“In order to get into the field, I went to New York. I created two identical portfolios and made twenty-two appointments in five days, stayed at the Y, and by that Friday, I had my first job illustrating for Sesame Street magazine. From there, [I moved to] Simon & Schuster when they had Little Simon. I started illustrating public domain material like these [nursery rhyme] board books.”

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Delacre’s first book to incorporate Latinx culture was inspired by the birth of her daughters, to whom she wanted to introduce to traditional Latin American children’s rhymes.  “I went to the library looking for a book of our folklore, from Latin America, our nursery rhymes, and I couldn’t find anything. Why do American kids get to have these books and kids that come from Spanish speaking countries don’t?” Delacre had recently published the Nathan and Nicholas Alexander books with Scholastic, so she went to her editor there and suggested the book of songs and rhymes that eventually became Arroz con leche, which turns thirty this year and is still in print.

Delacre’s first books with Simon and Scholastic were done in colored pencils, over a thin layer of watercolor to make the process go a little faster. In her home studio in Maryland, she has two large art tables surrounded by materials, including colored pencils, acrylics, watercolors and collage materials. “I do everything the old-fashioned way,” she says. “I like to touch materials. I try to do things that the computers cannot do yet. That’s why I use collage and the textures, pressed leaves—things that the computer doesn’t do or doesn’t do as well.”

Delacre pushes herself to try new art styles and materials for each project she takes on. Salsa Stories has linoleum cuts because the stories are being told by characters who would have been familiar with that style of art in Puerto Rico in the 1950’s. Her book US in Progress pairs short stories with illustrations created from collaged newspaper, pencil drawings on acetate and texture created from tiny holes in rice paper. Olinguito A to Z, a Spanish alphabet book, was based on scientific information about the different animals who live in the Ecuadorian cloud forest. The different species were painted in flat colors, a graphic version of each animal that reaches back to Delacre’s work as a graphic designer. The background paper for each spread was created from actual leaves from the cloud forest. She also created the typography for the letters that appear on each page. “I created the letters because I wanted them to fit in a square to mirror the shape of the book. I wanted to show the kids what the mist looked like. In the cloud forest, you would see everything through the mist, so to reveal the true colors of the species, I gathered the mist in the squares surrounding the letters.”

Delacre’s most exciting recent project is the picture book autobiography Turning Pages by United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She explains that the process of getting the assignment was a bit unusual. “I got an email from [editor] Jill Santopolo asking if I had an agent, and I said not any more, and so she goes, “I need to talk to you, can I call you tomorrow?” and I said sure and gave her my number. I get a call the next day and she begins by saying, “I have a somewhat secret project that needs to be fast tracked and we want you for it.” And then she explains about the project and I pause, it’s sinking in and I said “Why me?” I had never worked for this publisher, and I had never worked with her. And she answers, “’Because she chose you,’ meaning the justice. This is very rare—this is the very first time that the author handpicks me.” Delacre goes on to explain that Sotomayor was given a stack of picture books to look at when selecting an illustrator and that one of the reasons she chose Delacre was because the justice wanted the illustrations to be lifelike. “I know that one thing that was very important to her was to portray her mamá and her abuelita as close as possible to reality.” Sotomayor also appreciated that Delacre has a strong relationship with the island of Puerto Rico. Although the book mostly takes place in urban settings such as the Bronx, Delacre began each oil wash with a layer of green sap oil, because Sotomayor wanted the island to be present in the illustrations. The original artwork from Turning Pages can be seen in the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University through March 17, 2019.

Delacre says that her advice to Latinx illustrators trying to break into publishing is “Follow your heart. Tell the story that you really have within you and you really must tell. Don’t feel like you have to be like someone else. Just be yourself.” Delacre points out that unlike other children’s book illustrators such as Tomie DePaola, she doesn’t have a specific, recognizable art style. “In the beginning of my career, I thought it was a flaw because I understood if I didn’t have a certain style, I wasn’t as recognizable name wise. But I can’t be that way because I get bored doing the same thing over and over again. I have to push myself to try new things because each project is about learning for me. What can I do with this that I haven’t done before?” She is talking about using mono prints for her next project, in black and white, a major departure from her usual paint and colored pencils. “Now it’s like I don’t have to prove anything. You know, this is going to be my best decade and after that who knows? Maybe I’m not going to do another book. I’ll be creating, but something different. Every single project I do is really to reach a community that perhaps wasn’t finding their image in books. I’m always trying to create what is needed.”

 

 

cecilia-02-originalCecilia 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

 

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! 

 

Book Review: Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe

Reviewed by Sujei Lugo and Lila Quintero Weaver

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Jean-Michel Basquiat and his unique, collage-style paintings rocketed to fame in the 1980s as a cultural phenomenon unlike anything the art world had ever seen. But before that, he was a little boy who saw art everywhere: in poetry books and museums, in games and in the words that we speak, and in the pulsing energy of New York City. Award-winning illustrator Javaka Steptoe’s vivid text and bold artwork that echoes Basquiat’s own introduce young readers to the powerful message that art doesn’t always have to be neat or clean—and definitely not inside the lines—to be beautiful.

OUR TWO CENTS:

Radiant Child is a heartfelt and vibrant picture book about the childhood and life of Puerto Rican-Haitian American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Written for young children, it celebrates Basquiat’s art and traces the early steps of his artistic formation, as he makes his way toward the pinnacle of fame. From boyhood, he begins developing his own “messy” style of art-making, one that evokes powerful personal emotions, while addressing the sound and fury of social and cultural politics. Javaka Steptoe received the 2017 Caldecott Medal for his work as the book’s illustrator, a fitting recognition of the dynamic and engaging art seen in these pages.

The story in Radiant Child shifts through various New York City settings, including interiors of the Basquiat family home in Brooklyn, the exhibit spaces of an art museum, the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and the artist’s studio. As a boy, Basquiat sees art everywhere he looks, not just in the museums he visits with his mother or in the poetry books she reads to him, but also in everyday objects that he encounters around the city. Early on, while other children in the neighborhood skip rope, young Basquiat “dreams of being a famous ARTIST.” You can tell how seriously he has devoted himself to this dream by the pencils, papers, and drawings scattered all over his bedroom.

Throughout childhood, the primary influencer on Basquiat’s art is his mother, Matilde, a Puerto Rican woman who “designs and sews,” and sometimes even joins her child in the act of drawing. Her artistic influence on him is not always intentional. After a car accident leaves Jean-Michel injured, Malide introduces him to Gray’s Anatomy. Her hope is to teach the young boy how the human body is knit together. Little does she anticipate that the diagrams from this book will seep into his catalog of artistic imagery and emerge as motifs in his mature work. In addition to taking Jean-Michel to museums, Matilde also conveys the message that art can be found in ordinary things, including the “messy patchwork of the city.” This sets up an interesting parallel, in which Basquiat, an Afro-Latino child of humble beginnings with no formal education in the arts, is shaped by the traditional, elitist, and largely white institutions of the New York art world, yet simultaneously absorbs the powerful visual elements inherent in his own cultural milieu. In the book’s museum scene, it is fascinating to note that his favorite work of art is Picasso’s “Guernica,” an immense painting that depicts the horrors of the Nazi bombing of the Basque people during the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps it is before this very painting that the boy begins to develop ideas about artistic self-expression as a major force in the world.

Tragically, when Basquiat’s mother suffers debilitating mental illness and is hospitalized, this shatters the circle of love that fed the young boy’s artistic growth. He continues living with his father, Gerard, but “things are not the same,” and as a teenager, Jean-Michel runs off to live on his own in the “concrete jungle where only the tough survive.” There, he begins his career as a graffiti artist. Signing his work with SAMO©, Basquiat creates street art that captivates the city and propels him from the streets to the galleries. Fame follows, just as the young boy dreamed, and this is where the story portion of Radiant Child ends. The book’s back matter, however, includes a substantial section that acknowledges Basquiat’s drug addiction and untimely death at 27.

How does a children’s illustrator depict the life and oeuvre of such a celebrated artist? As explained in an author’s note, Javaka Steptoe answers this challenge not by reproducing, but by reinterpreting Basquiat’s work. The result is original and memorable, yet strongly evocative of Basquiat’s signature style. Steptoe achieves this by employing the graffiti and collage methods that his subject used, in combination with traditional painting techniques, and by incorporating symbols and motifs associated with Basquiat, such as stylized human skulls and femurs.

Each page spread in Radiant Child is a small construction consisting of a scene painted over a textured background. For his background materials, Steptoe relies heavily on found objects, primarily throwaways. Due to their worn condition, these objects call to mind the crumbling cityscape of 1980s Lower East Side—one of Basquiat’s stomping grounds. The repurposed materials include wooden slats salvaged from dumpsters, and Steptoe glorifies the raw condition of these slats by assembling them into rough jigsaw-puzzle surfaces, in which each nail hole and splintered edge contributes to the painted illustration’s lively texture. Steptoe enhances the textured effect by collaging photographs over select areas, presenting pockets of visual intrigue for readers to explore.

Although this is a picture book, the rich inspiration it offers should not be denied to older kids. Native children and children of color stand to benefit the most from such exposure. In witnessing Basquiat’s artistic journey, we also arrive at a greater appreciation of the soothing power of art. We see that artistic creativity can act as a therapeutic exercise in the face of pain, fear, separation, and insecurity. Radiant Child also delivers the unmistakable and essential message that messiness and art-making go hand in hand, and that although the results may be “sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, [it’s] somehow still beautiful.” Indeed, this message is joyously inscribed on every page, in every scribble, and through every splintered and splattered collage.

THE AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR

As the son of award-winning illustrator John Steptoe, Javaka Steptoe grew up surrounded by art and children’s books, and went on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. In his own career, the younger Steptoe has captured many honors, including the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, as well as recognition from the NAACP Image Awards, and the 2017 Caldecott Medal. Read more about him at his official website.

 

FURTHER READING AND VIEWING

In its final pages, Radiant Child appends information on portions of Basquiat’s life not covered in the story, including a section detailing motifs and symbols that appear in his work.

The publisher Little Brown provides an informative page on Radiant Child. There, you can view a book chat with Javaka Steptoe and watch an embedded video of a live art demo he shared on New York Times’s Facebook page.

Here is an additional interview with Steptoe, conducted by Travis Jonker, of School Library Journal, for the series “The Yarn,” which looks closely at how kids’ books are made.

For anyone interested in further exploration of Basquiats’s world, abundant online and print resources exist, although they are primarily aimed at adult readers. Here is a sampling.

Basquiat’s friend and one-time roommate Alexis Adler talks on video about photos she took of him. See it here.

Read an illuminating conversation with Basquiat, published in Interview Magazine in 1983.

The estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat maintains a website devoted to his life and work. Visit it here.