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.

 ——————-

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.

A Note For Authors on Jumping Genres

By Stephanie Guerra

Writing in a new genre after successfully publishing a book (or books) can be intimidating; why change what works? Some agents and publishers actively discourage genre-hopping, while others are interested in quality rather than consistency or brand-building.

TORNI debuted in 2012 as a YA author of realistic fiction (Torn) and followed up in 2013 with a 90-degree turn to humorous, heavily-illustrated middle grade: Billy the Kid is Not Crazy. I have two more YA coming out next year and I’m finishing a picture book.

If you’re a writer drawn to similar genre shifts, I encourage you to follow your gut. The process can be both freeing and useful in developing range. You may have to rebuild your audience from scratch, which is intimidating. But you’ll end up with a broader audience, a reward in itself.

Billy the KidYou’ll also need to adjust your voice and mentality for your new audience. Transitioning from YA to MG, I had to get in touch with my booger-fart-joke side (it wasn’t that hard) and cut all edge out of my writing (a touch harder). Again, the work builds its own reward: increased range.

But I want to focus a spotlight on the positives, which I believe are the real essence of shifting genres. It’s a form of creative stretching, a way to access a different age or voice inside you, and a way to reengage with the “play” of writing. A YA author may discover a new sense of fun in MG or picture books. An MG author may find freedom in exploring the romance or more mature content possible in YA. A picture book author used to practicing economy with words may relish stretching out into a luxurious novel.

Consider one of the most beloved Latin@ authors of our times, Gary Soto. He’s produced excellent picture books, poetry, middle grade and YA novels, short stories, and adult works. Pam Muñoz Ryan, another Latin@ star, has ranged from picture books to award-winning YA. Jack Gantos, my personal hero, has created picture books, delightful middle-grade (Joey Pigza!), adult novels, and urban memoir.

Some other marvelous children’s authors who’ve changed genres: Madeleine L’Engle, Mark Twain, Roald Dahl, and Laurie Halse Anderson. Literary superheroes like E. B. White jumped from Charlotte’s Web to One Man’s Meat. Roald Dahl dabbled in memoir, adult short stories, suspense, erotica, and of course, children’s fiction. And C. S. Lewis wrote everything short of picture books. What better models could we have?

I like to view jumping genres, too, as an act of defiance to The Market. Conventional wisdom has it that it’s savvy to develop a brand and stick with it, to build an audience and churn out book-clones at the rate of one per year. Many authors do this very successfully, and there’s nothing wrong with it, if it’s fulfilling to the artist in question. But I’m unsettled by branding as a lens for the arts and as a concept imposed on authors by publishers. Branding seems to compete with the essence of what art is or should be. So I advocate stretching the brand. Or better yet, losing the term altogether.

I’d like to share a short (30 second) video of a really articulate 11-year-old reviewing my MG. Thank you, Garrison. Your review gives me confidence that jumping genres was the right choice.

Changes I’ve Seen, Changes I Hope to See

 

For our first set of posts, each of us will respond to the question: “Why Latin@ Kid Lit?” to address why we created a site dedicated to celebrating books by, for, or about Latin@s.

By Lila Quintero Weaver

Lila, the bookworm, way back in the day.

Lila, the bookworm, way back in the day.

1963, Small Town, Alabama: I’m an immigrant kid in the second grade, well in command of English by now and eighty percent Americanized. Nobody brown or trigueño whose last name isn’t Quintero lives around here. Matter of fact, we’re one of the rare foreign families in the whole of Perry County—a bit of exotica, like strange but harmless birds that show up in the chicken yard one day.

With our nearest relatives in Argentina, seven thousand miles removed, my mother’s best friend is a war bride from Italy whose nostalgia for the old country goes hand in hand with Mama’s pining for Buenos Aires. Their conversations are peppered with overlapping terms from the Romance languages of their backgrounds. My father has his own ways of navigating the cultural void. He’s no communist, but he listens to Radio Habana Cuba on the shortwave radio. Fidel’s propaganda is something to ridicule, yet nothing else on the dial delivers Spanish. And he craves Spanish. That’s what your native tongue does—transports you back to the place you sprang from.

In 1963, nobody uses the terms Latino or Hispanic. Diversity may be in the dictionary, but if anyone’s applying it to ethnic groups, it hasn’t reached these backwaters of the American South. And as far as I know, the word multicultural hasn’t been invented; for that, we’ll have to wait another twenty years.

When I, the second-grade immigrant kid, drop by the Perry County Public Library, it’s to a creaky old clapboard house whose floors sag under the weight of books. The library at my elementary school is much the same, dusty and clogged with outdated materials. Luckily, my dad’s faculty status at a local college gives me library privileges. There, a small but gleaming collection of children’s books entices me up to the second floor.

I’m a bookworm. I devour everything published for kids. The books I love best entrance me through the power of story, not by how well their characters reflect me. Even so, I can’t help but notice that none of the characters has snapping brown eyes and olive skin. The girls in the books I read have names like Cathy and Susan. No one stumbles over these girls’ surnames and their parents don’t speak accented English. The closest thing to a Latino character I come across is Ferdinand, the Bull. ¡Olé!

Thirty-eight years later, when my youngest daughter is in fifth grade, we read aloud together almost daily. In Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising, it’s wondrous to encounter a Latina character that feels like a real girl, not a shadow puppet with easy gestures that stand in for Hispanic. Fast forward to 2013, when Dora the Explorer is almost as well known as Mickey Mouse, and authors with names like Benjamin Alire Saenz and Guadalupe Garcia McCall show up in the stacks of the local public library with regularity. Compared to the Latin@ offerings of my childhood, this feels like an embarrassment of riches.

IMG_1291

Lila, the bookworm and author, today.

In March 2012, just after publishing my coming-of-age graphic novel, Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White, I find myself at the National Latino Children’s Literature Conference. There, my eyes are opened. I discover that the exploding population of young Latin@ American readers is still under served. On the whole, children’s publishing favors a model that reflects the Anglo world familiar to most editors, agents, and booksellers. The terms diversity and multiculturalism roll off the tongue easily now, but books about minority kids are still not rolling off the presses in sufficient numbers to match the need.

Through this blog, together with my younger collaborators— all of whom grew up in an era far more open to diverse cultures—I have the glorious opportunity to make a difference. I can celebrate the Latin@ characters that do exist in children’s books. I can help promote authors and illustrators who incline toward such stories or whose heritage broadcasts the message to Latin@ youth that they too can write and illustrate books. I can connect parents to new offerings in the biblioteca and hunt down librarians, scholars, and teachers eager to share their expertise with a non-academic audience. That’s what I’m here for—to dig out books, authors, and experts that affirm Latin@ identity and give them a friendly shove into the limelight.