Here, Dr. Sonia Rodriguez and Dora M. Guzmán talk about OCTOPUS STEW by Eric Velasquez.
ABOUT THE BOOK: The octopus Grandma is cooking has grown to titanic proportions. “¡Tenga cuidado!” Ramsey shouts. “Be careful!” But it’s too late. The octopus traps Grandma!
Ramsey uses both art and intellect to free his beloved abuela.
Then the story takes a surprising twist. And it can be read two ways. Open the fold-out pages to find Ramsey telling a story to his family. Keep the pages folded, and Ramsey’s octopus adventure is real.
This beautifully illustrated picture book, drawn from the author’s childhood memories, celebrates creativity, heroism, family, grandmothers, grandsons, Puerto Rican food, Latinx culture, and more.
With an author’s note and the Velasquez family recipe for Octopus Stew!
Click on the link to watch the book talk and then add your comments below to join the conversation. ENJOY!
Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on decolonial healing in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Sonia is a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader.
Dora Guzmán is a bilingual reading specialist for grades K-5 and also teaches college courses in Children’s Literature and Teaching Beginning Literacy. She is currently a doctoral student with a major in Reading, Language, and Literacy. When she is not sharing her love of reading with her students, you can find her in the nearest library, bookstore, or online, finding more great reads to add to her never-ending “to read” pile!
As a children’s librarian at a public library system in the U.S., and in a neighborhood with a high percentage of Latinxs (mainly Dominicans & Puerto Ricans) and Spanish-speakers, I’m oftentimes being asked for children’s literature in Spanish, de allá. Allá being our islands and archipelago in the Caribbean that we want our children, and ourselves, to feel connected to in different ways including children’s books. Yes, it is a challenge to acquire books from Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and limited vendor options and collection development policies that present more restrictions and barriers that opportunities to expand our collections don’t make this endeavor easy. It is usually through my trips to Puerto Rico and with the help of outside funds and grants that I’m able to get children’s books in Spanish directly from local bookstores, authors, and illustrators in Puerto Rico. I wonder about the experiences and challenges of fellow library workers and educators to get relevant and important children’s literature in Spanish into the hands of our children. Barriers aside, it is important to also highlight, promote, and support Puerto Rican children’s authors and illustrators that are creating, working, and surviving in Puerto Rico. Here at Latinxs in Kid Lit, we will try to continue to review and showcase children’s literature written in Spanish (sometimes available in English) from Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries.
Today we are highlighting a review of the picture book Pelo Bueno, written by renowned AfroBoricua author Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro, and illustrated by Brittany Gordón Pabón. The review is written by two fellow Puerto Rican librarians, Mercy Delgado Cordero & Jeanmary Lugo González, who don’t only give their insights about the book, but also discuss their participation in an activity where Pelo Bueno was used as a conversation piece about racism in Puerto Rico, afroamor & afroreparación. This is our second review written in Spanish.
La abuela Petronila demuestra todo el amor que siente por su nieta, al contarle historias familiares. También brinda lecciones sobre la defensa del cabello natural. Este es un cuento que resalta las raíces de la afropuertorriquenidad y que infunde orgullo para que crezca la autoestima en nuestros nietos y nietas, hijos e hijas.
Reseña por Mercy Delgado Cordero y Jeanmary Lugo González
Pelo bueno es un cuento infantil que busca combatir el racismo desde la afroreparación concientizando sobre el llevar el pelo natural como símbolo de respeto, identidad, autoestima, orgullo, cuidado y valoración. Este hermoso y cálido cuento, en voz de su autora, es un llamado al afroamor y a la afroreparación.
Consideramos este cuento uno de justicia racial empoderado por dos personajes femeninos afrodescendientes. La portada del libro y los colores de las ilustraciones son de tonalidades verde, negro y marrón, proporcionando un contraste de la naturaleza (lo natural) con la piel evidentemente negra. Los dos personajes del cuento son femeninos, personajes que cuestionan sus propias realidades incluyendo sus semejanzas. El cuento es narrado por una niña que es evidentemente negra, quien describe la relación con su abuela como una de amor, comprensión, sabiduría y diversión. La relación de los personajes es semejante a la de la autora con su abuela, llamada Petronila. Por eso en cada página podemos sentir esa cercanía y ese sentimiento de amor, cuidado y protección.
La portada del libro nos presenta una persona mayor, por sus codos arrugados, peinando el afro de una niña con rostro sonriente. Los colores presentados en la portada los vamos encontrando en las otras páginas del libro ilustrado por Brittany Gordon Pabón.
“Me gusta cuando la abuela Petronila peina mis caracolitos. Así le dice ella a mi pelo rizado rizadito“, es la primera línea del cuento. El acto de peinar y ser peinado es una conexión de amor, cuidado, respeto, confianza, y cuando se tiene el pelo bueno, también es un asunto de conocimiento, sabiduría y ancestralidad. La abuela Petronila, personaje femenino evidentemente negra, representa la sabiduría y el amor. Desde el comienzo de la narración se expone la relación de la abuela con su nieta. La importancia de la herencia, lo heredado como símbolo de unión y fuerza.
Acto seguido, se ve a la niña buscando refugio en su abuela, el conflicto: la burla por su pelo en la escuela. En la conversación de la niña con su Abuela, podemos ver como la pequeña ha sufrido de bullying o acoso escolar, recibiendo comentarios de sus compañeros refiriéndose a su cabello como “pelo malo” o Afro. Agresiones racistas que están institucionalizadas y enraizadas en el imaginario de la sociedad puertorriqueña. Petronila con la sabiduría de los abuelos, le pregunta con suspicacia si su pelo había hecho algo malo, y la invita a ignorar a quienes la molestan, pero sobre todo comienza a detallarle las maravillas de su pelo bueno y todas sus posibilidades. En forma de un divertido juego se peinan, hacen trenzas, ponen turbantes, y va explicándole toda la magia, la alegría y los misterios que esconde cada peinado, con referentes históricos de la cultura afropuertorriqueña.
Pelo Bueno es una invitación desde la ternura a desaprender el tan mentado “Pelo malo” con el que nos criamos las afrorizadas. Es deconstruir la frase más utilizada por años, llamar al pelo afro “pelo malo”. Cuestionando entonces por qué es malo, si no ha hecho daño a nadie. “Tu pelo no es malo, tu pelo no es travieso, tu pelo no es desobediente. Tu pelo no se porta mal, no miente, no ofende, no humilla, no se burla. Por eso tu pelo no puede ser malo. Tu pelo no ha hecho nada malo” (p.10).
Es una historia que infunde valores de respeto, autoamor, aceptación y orgullo ancestral. Es por esas razones una herramienta social poderosa para educar desde la sensibilidad y la fantasía, la magia y la alegría, que nos evoca un momento especial entre abuela y nieta. Entretiene, pero a la vez, es puro aprendizaje de lo que significa ser afrodescendiente, con los referentes históricos a los que alude la autora. Por ejemplo, cuando le comenta que se puede hacer trenzas, le dice: “Recuerda que las trenzas para nuestras abuelas eran muy importantes. Con las trenzas se dibujaban mapas de escape cuando nuestras ancestras eran esclavizadas” (p. 12). Las historia de nuestros afros, es la historia de una raza cimarrona que lleva siglos luchando por su libertad, justicia y respeto, y este cuento lo trabaja desde la ternura y cuidado del cabello.
Pero es sin duda el momento de la historia en el que la niña le devuelve el cariño, las atenciones y lo aprendido, haciéndole lo mismo a su abuela en su pelo rizado rizadito, blanco, blanquito. Un mensaje de que este libro cumplirá su misión, cuando tras disfrutarlo y aprender del afroamor, compartamos ese conocimiento con los demás sobre el respeto al cabello natural.
El hecho de que la niña no tenga nombre permite que cualquiera pueda verse reflejado en ella, identificarse, ponerse en su lugar. Este aspecto es clave y convierte al libro en uno único en su clase en cuanto a la pertenencia que debe apelar la literatura infantil. Poder vernos representados en un libro, ver a personajes similares al lector, le hace sentir parte del mundo. Convirtiéndose entonces en una herramienta para la justicia racial que buscamos apelar en nuestra sociedad.
El libro de Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro logra conectar con quien lo lee, es imposible no recordar nuestras afrovivencias en cada página, reconocerse en ellas e ir sanando en cada palabra, con la carga emocional y de poder ancestral que recoge, con las memorias de las agresiones racistas sufridas. Sobre todo para quienes comienzan un proceso de aceptación a su cabello natural, este hermoso y sonoro libro les da un empujoncito. Pelo bueno es un viaje a la aceptación de lo afro, al conocer sus orígenes y enaltecer el orgullo de la negritud, es un proceso de fortalecimiento interior desde la significancia de la experiencia de cada lector. Es un mensaje de respeto al otro y su diversidad racial y cultural, es la respuesta a una búsqueda de redención personal produciendo un sentimiento por conocer y enorgullecernos de nuestra historia, de nuestros ancestros. Este es un libro infantil, con una historia que trasciende edades y generaciones. Lo puede leer un niño o una niña de 6 años, como una joven adulta de 38 años, y ahogarse en un llanto tierno y nostálgico. Son todas posibilidades que evoca esta lectura.
Por esta razón en Puerto Rico se ha utilizado este libro como herramienta educativa y afroreparativa, para hacer actividades, foros, conversatorios, entrevistas, lecturas en voz alta. Ocupa un lugar privilegiado en salones de belleza de cabello afrorizado y poco a poco va llegando a los salones, bibliotecas y hogares puertorriqueños.
Este libro puede ser utilizado en las clases de español e inglés ya que recientemente fue traducido al inglés. Además en tópicos de:
inclusión y diversidad
historia y afrodescendencia
cuidado del cabello natural
Se puede leer en grupo y desarrollar un diálogo afroreparativo con discusiones sobre la autoestima, sanación y aceptación. Una posible actividad es ir leyendo el cuento en voz alta e ir recreando los peinados que le hace la abuela a la niña. También, es importante resaltar para los educadores la campaña #ennegrecetuprontuario con la que la autora promueve que se incluyan en los currículos recursos sobre afrodescendencia y afrodescendientes. Mientras que el llamado a los bibliotecarios debe ser que #ennegrezcansuscolecciones. Pero, además de la adquisición del mismo, las bibliotecas lo pueden incluir en los clubes de lectura y llevar a cabo diversas actividades creativas, para grandes y chicos.
Un ejemplo de una actividad es la realizada por la Biblioteca de la Universidad de Puerto Rico en Bayamón el 23 de abril de 2020: “Pelo Bueno: Lectura y conversatorio sobre el cuento infantil que busca combatir el racismo desde la afroreparación”. En la misma, celebrada durante la Semana de la Biblioteca, que este año su lema era Encuentra tu lugar, se leyó en voz alta el cuento y luego se dio paso a un conversatorio con 15 afrorizados. Un diálogo desde el corazón sobre lo que les evocó la lectura del cuento Pelo bueno desde su experiencia personal y desde sus diversas trincheras como educadores, bibliotecarios, profesores, estilistas de pelo rizado, influencers del movimiento afropuertorriqueño, chef y artistas. Un cuento infantil desde la perspectiva de 15 adultos emocionados por los recuerdos que les evocaba escuchar el relato. Risas y lágrimas fueron testigos de un hermoso evento de amor y afroreparación. Dando lugar al lema de Encuentra tu lugar que es lo que busca el cuento infantil, ofrecernos un lugar común para vernos y encontrarnos, ir sanando.
Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro es directora del Departamento de Estudios Afropuertorriqueños, proyecto performático de Escritura Creativa que responde a la convocatoria promulgada por la UNESCO de celebrar el Decenio Internacional de los Afrodescendientes. Dirige la Cátedra de Mujeres Negras Ancestrales con sede en EDP University en San Juan, Puerto Rico y ha sido invitada por la ONU al Programa “Remembering Slavery” para hablar de mujeres, esclavitud y creatividad en 2015, y presentar el Proyecto de la Cátedra en Harvard University en 2017.
La autora es madre de una preciosa hija de nombre Aurora, en quien se ha inspirado para escribir poemas, cuentos cortos y novelas. El blog virtual de la autora en internet se titula Boreales, y ha sido provocado por las hermosas luces boreales y australes que se pueden ver desde el Polo Norte y el Polo Sur, también en claro homenaje a su unigénita. Sus escritos promueven maravillosas lecciones que denuncian la justicia social y la igualdad entre todos los seres humanos. También visibilizan apasionados enfoques sobre la discusión de la afroidentidad y la derogación del racismo.
Esta activista a la que le encanta escribir sobre las lanchas de su pueblo natal, Cataño, ha ganado los siguientes galardones: Premio Nacional del Instituto de Literatura Puertorriqueña en 2008, Premio Nacional de Cuento PEN Club de Puerto Rico en 2013, y Premio del Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña en 2012 y 2015. Fue elegida como una de las escritoras más importantes de América Latina en 2007 durante la iniciativa Bogotá 39 y ha sido elegida Escritora del Año en Puerto Rico en 2016. Ha publicado los libros infantiles y juveniles: Thiago y la aventura del huracán. (Editorial EDP University, 2018) Las Reyas Magas (Editorial EDP University, 2017) Negrita linda como yo: versos dedicados a la vida de la Maestra Celestina Cordero (Cátedra de Mujeres Ancestrales, 2017) Oscarita: la niña que quiere ser como Oscar López Rivera (Cátedra de Mujeres Ancestrales, 2016) María Calabó (Cátedra de Mujeres Ancestrales, 2016) Las caras lindas (Editorial EDP University, 2016) Capitán Cataño y las trenzas mágicas (Editorial EDP University, 2015) Thiago y la aventura de los túneles de San Germán (Editorial EDP University, 2015) Mis dos mamás me miman (Editorial Boreales, 2011) La linda señora tortuga (Ediciones Santillana, 2017).
Mercy Delgado Cordero: La Dra. Mercy Delgado Cordero es una apasionada bibliotecaria con 12 años de experiencia en el contexto universitario, tanto público como privado. Es la encargada de la Colección Puertorriqueña y el Archivo Histórico de la Biblioteca de la Universidad de Puerto Rico en Bayamón. También es profesora del programa graduado de Bibliotecología en Cambridge College. Pero sobre todo se considera una líder cultural. Ha dedicado su vida académica y profesional a estudiar y trabajar con libros y por los libros. Tiene la convicción que la lectura y la educación tienen un poder único de transformación social y personal, que nos asegurará tener un mejor País. Tiene un bachillerato en Literatura Comparada e Historia del Arte, un postgrado en Edición y Artes Editoriales, una maestría en Ciencias de la Información-Bibliotecología y un doctorado en Liderazgo de Organizaciones Educativas; todos de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Río Piedras.
DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: For Ren, home is his grandmother’s little house, and the lush forest that surrounds it. Home is a place of magic and wonder, filled with all the fantastical friends that Ren dreams up. Home is where his imagination can run wild.
For Ava, home is a brick and cement city, where there’s always something to do or see or hear. Home is a place bursting with life, where people bustle in and out like a big parade. Home is where Ava is never lonely because there’s always someone to share in her adventures.
When Ren moves to Ava’s city, he feels lost without his wild. How will he ever feel at home in a place with no green and no magic, where everything is exactly what it seems? Of course, not everything in the city is what meets the eye, and as Ren discovers, nothing makes you feel at home quite like a friend.
Inspired by the stories her father told her about moving from Puerto Rico to New York as a child, Zara González Hoang’s author-illustrator debut is an imaginative exploration of the true meaning of “home.”
MY TWO CENTS: Ren, an imaginative young boy, lives at the edge of El Yunque, a tropical rain forest whose lush vegetation is the perfect setting for daily magical escapades. A move to the city (location unspecified) leaves Ren homesick and lonely. He sees no room for magic in the urban landscape. Ava, on the other hand, is at home in the city. Equally imaginative, she delights in the hustle and bustle.
When she meets Ren, Ava is determined to help him see the city through her eyes. But her enthusiastic city tour only makes Ren more homesick and they part ways frustrated with each other. From his apartment window, Ren observes Ava, noticing she is as happy and at ease in the city as he used to be in El Yunque. When they meet up again, Ren apologizes, explaining how everything feels different to him. Ava listens first, rather than barreling into action. Armed with a new understanding of Ren, Ava takes him on yet another tour of the city. This time, Ren is able to see the magic she was trying to show him all along.
I thoroughly enjoyed A New Kind of Wild’s take on how the unfamiliar can become familiar with the help of an understanding friend. It would have been easy to simply have Ava show Ren around, resulting in him immediately seeing all the magical possibilities he missed before when experiencing the city alone. The message there would be “All it takes is a friend!” However, González Hoang’s approach is different. When Ava first approaches Ren, she eagerly bombards him with questions, so many “he thought his head would explode.” When Ren explains his discomfort with his new surroundings, “all Ava heard was a challenge.” Ava enthusiastically shows Ren her world, but it is only after she has truly listened to Ren and understood where he came from that she is able to connect with him and help him feel welcome. In a time when we are (too) slowly realizing good intentions aren’t always enough, the lessons this book imparts can be powerful and useful both at home and in the classroom.
I also appreciate A New Kind of Wild’s depiction of magic in a working class, urban setting. Often the “positives” of urban areas are all upper class signifiers, but González Hoang’s delightful watercolors show us children finding inspiration and fun in basements and on rooftops, rather than on outings to museums or large fancy parks. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many garbage bags in a picture book, but I loved it.
TEACHING TIPS: A New Kind of Wild could be used to start a classroom discussion about moving, be it from one country to another or simply one type of community to another. Where would students take Ren if he moved to their community? Another possible activity is to take a photo of an everyday place (a street corner, a storefront) and have students use mixed media to overlay imaginative elements.
A New Kind of Wild releases April 21, 2020.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: (from her website): Zara González Hoang grew up in a little bungalow in the frozen tundra of Minnesota. Surrounded by snow, she spent her days dreaming, doodling and listening to the colorful stories of her Dad’s life growing up in Puerto Rico while trying to figure out where she fit in as a Puerto Rican Jew in a sea of Scandinavians. (She’s still figuring that out.)
These days, she lives outside of DC in a magical suburban forest with her Mad Man husband, human-shaped demon, and curly coated corgi. She still spends her days dreaming and doodling, but now instead of listening to stories, she’s starting to tell some of her own.
To learn more about Zara González Hoang, click HEREto get an inside look at her studio and HERE to for a brief Q&A as part of our Spotlight on Latina Illustrators series.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Romy Natalia Goldberg is a Paraguayan-American travel and kid lit author with a love for stories about culture and communication. Her guidebook to Paraguay, Other Places Travel Guide to Paraguay, was published in 2012 and 2017 and led to work with “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” and The Guardian. She is an active SCBWI member and co-runs Kidlit Latinx, a Facebook support group for Latinx children’s book authors and illustrators. Learn more at romynatalia.com
DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Five friends cursed. Five deadly fates. Five nights of retribución.
If Lupe Dávila and Javier Utierre can survive each other’s company, together they can solve a series of grisly murders sweeping though Puerto Rico. But the clues lead them out of the real world and into the realm of myths and legends. And if they want to catch the killer, they’ll have to step into the shadows to see what’s lurking there—murderer, or monster?
MY TWO CENTS: As soon as I read about Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal (Tor Teen), I was determined to get my hands on a copy. YA horror-crime set in Puerto Rico? Everything about this called my name.
Lupe Dávila is a “Gringa Rican” spending her summer in Puerto Rico, leaving her alcoholic dad in Vermont to explore his homeland on her own for the first time. The niece of the police chief, Lupe finds herself attempting to solve a mysterious murder case when it seems like her missing cousin, Izzy, might be the next victim. One of Izzy’s oldest friends, Javier, is trying to make peace with himself and his sobriety, but when his old pals, Los Congregitos, keep being murdered in gruesome and inexpiable ways, all on their 18th birthdays, he fears as his own draws near. Can Javier and Lupe track down a vicious murderer before it’s too late?
First things first: I could not put this book down. I seriously considered taking a personal day from work to finish it (I tweeted this and both Cardinal and Tor Teen told me I was allowed to). The book combines mythology, crime, and a stark look at addiction, all set in the greater San Juan, Puerto Rico area. Each page sparked a new question in the best way possible. Is El Cuco real? What’s the deal with the ominous abuelita? I was pulled into the stories and backgrounds of the various characters and could not inhale the book quickly enough. The last few chapters felt slightly rushed, but there is so much action and detail packed into the climax, the racing could have just been from my own heartbeat.
One of Cardinal’s greatest strengths came through her characters. In particular, Marisol was one of the most fascinating and complex characters I’ve encountered in YA literature. She is bold and electric and passionate about her country and community. There is a sincere depth to her, and I would love nothing more than to see her succeed. Another character who I truly felt like I was getting to know as a human being was Javier. His struggle and battle with his addiction, his relationship with Padre Sebastian, and even his relationship with his family, all felt whole. The text even went as far to explain the socioeconomic misunderstanding of addiction; a favorite line is “My dad is a g—d—n lawyer.”
The world that Cardinal has created in San Juan was so tangible, painting both the stunning aspects of the city like the Spanish blue bricks of Old San Juan and the harsh realities of an island struggling to come back from a devastating hurricane and a corrupt government. Five Midnights invites readers to the captivating supernatural realm of an island just as mystifying with the resilience and heart of its people. I fully plan to champion Tor Teen to pick up a sequel—there is more havoc for El Cuco to cause and more stories to be told from Puerto Rico.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ann Dávila Cardinal is a novelist and Director of Recruitment for Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). She has a B.A. in Latino Studies from Norwich University, an M.A. in sociology from UI&U and an MFA in Writing from VCFA. She also helped create VCFA’s winter Writing residency in Puerto Rico.
Ann’s first novel, Sister Chicaswas released from New American Library in 2006. Her next novel, a horror YA work titled Five Midnights, was released by Tor Teen on June 4, 2019.
Her stories have appeared in several anthologies, including A Cup of Comfort for Mothers and Sons (2005) and Women Writing the Weird (2012) and she contributed to the Encyclopedia Latina: History, Culture, And Society in the United States edited by Ilan Stavans. Her essays have appeared in American Scholar, Vermont Woman, AARP, and Latina Magazines. Ann lives in Vermont, needle-felts tiny reading creatures, and cycles four seasons a year.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mimi Rankin received her Master’s Degree with distinction in Children’s Literature from the University of Reading. Her thesis, on which she received a rating of First, centered around claims to cultural authenticity and representation in Hispanic Children’s Literature. She currently works in the publishing industry as a marketing manager. Her reviews do not reflect the opinions of her employer.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Cecilia Cackley: This is your twenty-first picture book! You’ve written three of them yourself, but you’ve also worked with a wide range of collaborators. How do you feel like your process has evolved as an artist?
Lauren Castillo: It feels like I’m choosing a different medium for each project, but somehow it ends up looking like the same type of art to others. Imagine for instance, doesn’t look too different from Nana in the City, but to me, I definitely worked in a lot of different ways to make the art. For example, because this book had so many landscapes, I really wanted to embrace that imperfect, texture-y feeling in a more abstract way. I wanted to have a looser style, so I used something that I had been playing around with in workshops with children—printmaking by painting on foam. It’s really fun because you don’t know what you’re going to end up with until you run the print. That’s kind of the beauty of printmaking, that nothing is going to be exact and precise. I think my art, over the years, felt like I was tightening up and it felt a little too crafted. I think it was because my drawing wasn’t as strong at first, so it gave this energetic, free feeling to the work and I liked that. I’ve been trying to figure out ways to trick myself into loosening up. For this book it was helpful to use this type of printmaking for the backgrounds. I would paint on the foam and then flip it over and stamp it on the paper. I work in a much smaller scale so when it’s enlarged it gets even more texture. With each book I need to use different types of materials to keep things interesting.
CC: Is this your first non-fiction picture book about a living person?
CC: How was the research process different than for, say, your book about E.B. White?
LC: It was very different! I did not interact at all with Juan directly. I sent some questions through the publisher Candlewick because it was a poem and it was non-descriptive in terms of the locations and the years and that sort of thing. I had this vision for it so I didn’t want to know too many details but I wanted to gauge the era, the decade and the locations that he was speaking about. I had looked at some photographs of him and most were current so I decided, although I probably could have gotten some childhood photos of him, to do my own version of him and what I imagined he looked like when he was younger. So the character development was done without photo reference. But they gave me some locations to work with so I could get photos from the computer for those. It was a lot freer than working on E.B. White’s life, for example, because that was very descriptive and specific, even down to the animals that were in the barn.
CC: Would you say this is the most poetic text you’ve ever worked on?
LC: Probably. I would definitely call some of the other books I’ve worked on poetic, or poems but this feels most definitely like it was pulled out of a poetry book and it’s gorgeous. The first time I read it I thought “Well, I have to illustrate this!”
CC: Tell us a little about your own Latinx family background.
LC: My dad’s father is Cuban, and my mom’s mom is Puerto Rican.
CC: Is this the first book by another Latinx author that you’ve worked on?
LC: It is, which I was very excited about. I grew up asking a lot of questions about my grandparents’ lives and their parents’ lives, coming to the United States, and it seemed like I was more interested in my background and culture than a lot of my friends. I did a lot of reports as a kid, interviewing my grandparents. I would be curious to see how connected to my art Juan Felipe was, if there was anything that reminded him of his own life or if I took liberties that were very different. It would be interesting to have a conversation about it.
CC: Do you think that you’ll ever make any work connected with your own family history?
LC: My Puerto Rican great-grandfather was a musician, and when he moved to New York, his family lived in the Spanish Harlem area. My grandmother told me stories about when she was young and he had a band that would play around different venues in Spanish Harlem. So when I moved to New York for graduate school, we had to do a book project, and I decided I wanted to do a visual journalism project about this really old music store in Spanish Harlem called Casa Latina. I went there and asked them if I could spend a month coming in and out of their store and do drawings, so basically I did this whole visual journalism project that I turned into a book about the people in the store and how they interacted with each other and their customers. I would have conversations with them and take notes, so it was kind of like a diary, but it included drawings from the shop and portraits of people that work there, and I called it Casa Latina. I’ve wanted to turn that into a picture book at some point because when I was going to the store I had it in my mind that although that store wasn’t around then, that’s the same neighborhood that my great-grandfather was spending a lot of time in and playing music in. So I got really invested in that area, and for a while, I’ve been keeping some drafts of stories that I want to do, some ideas to turn that project into a picture book. So yes, I definitely want to do a project that connects to that Puerto Rican background.
CC: What are you working on now?
LC: At the moment I’m working on a very unusual project for me, which is completely imagined, because so far, my three picture books have all come from some sort of life experience, and so I’m working on this early chapter book. It’s about the hedgehog character that I had drawn that kept popping up in my sketchbook, and it’s all animals and one human character, and it’s very much a made up story. And also it’s a long format book, which is a lot of fun since I don’t have a lot experience with that!
MORE ABOUT LAUREN CASILLO: Lauren studied illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art and received her MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She is the author and illustrator of the 2015 Caldecott Honor winning book, Nana in the City, as well as The Troublemaker and Melvin and the Boy. Lauren has also illustrated several critically acclaimed picture books, including Twenty Yawns by Jane Smiley, Yard Sale by Eve Bunting, and City Cat by Kate Banks.She currently draws and dreams in Harrisburg, PA. You can find out more about her at http://www.laurencastillo.com/
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
Zara González Hoang is an illustrator who is just beginning her career in children’s literature. She created the art for the picture book Thread of Loveby Kabir Sehgal and Surishtha Sehgal and recently sold her book A New Kind of Wild which is inspired by her father’s experience moving from Puerto Rico to the United States as a child. We met at her studio in Falls Church, VA to talk about her journey to becoming an illustrator.
Cecilia Cackley: Tell me a little about your path to becoming an artist
Zara González Hoang: When I was little my dad was really artistic and he used to draw with us. Some of my favorite memories are of me and my dad just laying on the floor in the porch or something and just drawing horses. My mom was a teacher so we always had paper and pens and I just always drew as a kid. And I think, too, everybody has things in their growing up that are probably not all that fantastically awesome and for me drawing was my escape. I would go hide in my room and draw and make up all these different worlds. I really liked to combine animals into new animals. My favorite was the “horseger”—it was a horse and a tiger which were my two favorite animals.
I’ve always been doing art, but I never considered doing it seriously. I went to college and took art classes but I also studied computer science and that was the practical side of me. There’s always been these two parts of me, the very logical side and the creative side. I’ve always been drawn to computers, and I’ve always been drawn to art. I majored in art, but then I worked doing network administration and web design—merging art and computers in a way. I didn’t start seriously drawing until the iPhone came out and I started a company with some friends making apps for kids and I illustrated them.
I never wanted to do kids books, it’s so weird! And it’s because I was afraid. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to be consistent, that it was too much work, that I just wasn’t good enough. After I had my son, and I was reading all these picture books, I came back to this place I really loved that I thought I couldn’t have anymore. I always looked at picture books and wanted to buy them, but I always thought, I don’t have any kids, I can’t buy them, which is such a silly thing. There’s no reason why you can’t have these things you want just because you’re not a child. It doesn’t mean they’re any less beautiful or valid. I’ve always been someone who hid that part of me. I always hid my sketchbooks. It was such a personal part of myself that I felt I couldn’t flaunt it.
It wasn’t until I had my son that I felt like I really had permission to do this. I was looking for something to do with more meaning, and I realized–or my sister realized for me–that I have this gift for art and for writing. So I started putting together my portfolio for children’s books, and then I started going to SCBWI conferences, and I realized that everyone there was just like me: super nerdy about books and picture books! My friends talked me into submitting my work to agents, and I got a super awesome agent who I love. When I queried agents, I queried them as an illustrator who wanted to write, and I sent my portfolio but not any writing. The reason I knew she was the right agent for me was that she read my story A New Kind of Wild, and she told me how to make it better, and we spent the next year working on it to get it to a place where we could send it out. I feel like I finally came back to where I was supposed to be.
CC: You started out working digitally, but in your studio, you showed me more traditional media like pen, ink, and watercolor. How has that process gone?
ZGH: When I did Thread of Love, I didn’t think I’d want to do anything the traditional way. I didn’t think I was any good at it. I liked digital, I liked the control of it. So when I got the manuscript of Thread of Love, that was how I was going to do it. I could see the color palette as soon as I read the manuscript. I don’t know if it’s my background in graphic design or what, but I saw the color palette first. It wasn’t until after that project that I started moving into more traditional media. Two things happened. One, I started thinking about the things that I liked and the illustrators and artists who I love the most work traditionally. There seemed to be a disconnect for me between what I did and what I liked, and I wanted to bring that closer.
When I started writing A New Kind of Wild, it had originally been digital to me, and that’s how I submitted my dummy, but I wanted to do it traditionally because in my mind that’s how it was. So I was doing all these studies of my characters traditionally and posting them on Instagram. My editor was creeping on me, and she saw them and she asked me if I would consider doing it traditionally. It was like she was seeing into my mind or my heart because that’s what I wanted, but I didn’t feel comfortable enough to say what I wanted. I’m not at the point of making the art yet, so it may end up being digital, but it may end up being a hybrid mix. And that’s fine because I have a lot of comfort with the ability to erase mistakes digitally.
I’m a perfectionist in some ways. I don’t like the mistakes and even when I’m working traditionally because I’m using watercolor and colored pencil and ink, the things I love about watercolor I also hate. If you have a big swatch of color, you’re going to see the way the water moves in that swatch of color and those imperfections are the things that make it interesting. I’m constantly fighting with myself to be okay with the imperfect, but I want to try and embrace it because the reality is, life isn’t perfect. I think there’s more emotion and interest in things that are loose rather than tight.
CC: Thread of Love is about a very specific Indian holiday, Rashka Bandhan. What was the research process like for that?
ZGH: I am not Indian, so I had to do a lot of research to make sure I got things right. It’s something that was constantly on my mind while I was working on the book. Since I’m not of that culture, I worked really had to get it right. I checked out all the books I could from the library about the holiday, and I relied a lot on the authors telling me that I was portraying things correctly. I also talked to friends who are Indian and who celebrate Rashka Bandhan. I wanted to make sure my illustrations depicted Raksha Bandhan accurately, especially since it is a holiday that is not one that I celebrate.
CC: A New Kind of Wild is inspired by your own family history, so what has the research process been like for that?
ZGH: I wrote this book without thinking that it was about my dad’s story—it wasn’t until I was reworking the book that I realized that was the story I was telling. My dad passed away, and he’s not here for me to ask him, so a lot of the stuff I’m relying on is memories of the stories he told me about him growing up. My dad grew up in Puerto Rico with his grandmother until he was ten or twelve, when his mom was in New York. So, in the book, there’s a page where he’s leaving his grandmother. Pieces of my dad’s story are woven through like that. When we went back to Puerto Rico, we went to my dad’s house that he grew up in, so there will probably be some of that place in the book.
CC: What are some goals you have for where you want your career to go as a writer and illustrator?
ZGH: I think where I want to go does involve being a writer, so it means telling my own stories, and that’s both on the Latinx side and also on my other side because I’m half Puerto Rican and half Russian/Polish/Belaruski because my mom’s family came from a place where the borders kept shifting. I want to tell stories about people who are mixed. I have all these ideas for stories about things that are interesting about being from two cultures. I’m also Jewish and I think I’m the only Jewish person I know who had a big pork roast on Hanukkah sometimes because Hanukkah and Christmas fell on the same day and we always had a big pernil and arroz con gandules. I want to write more about that experience. There aren’t really a lot of stories that talk about what it’s like to be part of a family where you eat pho and also matzo balls. It can be confusing to be in the middle of everything. I want to start telling stories about my reality and the reality of kids that are mixed growing up. I don’t really feel that there are books out there that are telling those stories in a way that shows all the fantastic things about having multiple cultures.
CC: What advice do you have for other Latinx artists who are just starting out?
ZGH: The only real advice I have is to find other people that are doing it and try to make friends. One of the best things I ever did was meet someone who created a critique group that let me in. Having people to talk to who understand what you’re going through is priceless; even if nobody’s published, just having somebody to say keep going. It’s hard to talk to people who aren’t trying to be in publishing because they don’t understand how weird this industry is. There’s no rhyme or reason, it’s just persistence and luck. The advice is keep going and find people to share the experience with.
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