My childhood in Peru
I was born and raised in Lima, Peru. I didn’t move to the U.S. until I was 24. My family was, we lived in Lima. My parents came from two different, everything. My mom and her family are from the north. My dad and his family are from the south. And they met in Lima and made a family.
And, you know, started, you know, had my brother and myself. My dad is an artist and so are his parents, grandparents. And my mom comes from a family where the women are the one who get everything done. And growing up was really interesting. We had a lot of, you know, it was very … our parents I think gave us a lot of liberties when it came to looking at art and books and that was something that we enjoyed a lot.
We read a lot. We had books everywhere. And I read everything I could. And in the summer when I didn’t know what to do and I came to my mom and I said, “I'm bored,” she would say, “Learn the dictionary.” And I’d have to come back with five words that I learned that day, which was kind of funny, but it was her way of getting me to do some things so she could cook, do whatever she needed to do. So that was, you know, that was my upbringing.
I am a mix of Peru and America
Peru is half of who I am. I say now half because I’ve been living here…I was 24 years old when I came and I’ve been here for 24 years. So at this point I'm no longer Peruvian. I'm not American. I'm a mix of both. And I cannot … I am both. I am a mix of both cultures. And Peru, the patterns, the colors, the way you have clotheslines and everything is just in everything that I see. And so it’s just part of who I am.
Seeing paintings from art in museums
Books. Everything came from books. So all the books, all the artwork that I knew was through, you know, books that my dad had about museums. And it’s not until I moved to the U.S. that I'm actually able to see these paintings. I was 24 the first time I went to the LA County Museum of Art and it was the first time that I actually was able to see these paintings. And I remember being so, I don't know, important, you know, like such a big moment. It was wonderful to be able to see all these paintings I grew up seeing through photographs.
Getting into art school on the third try
I really wanted to be an artist and I really wanted to be a fine artist, a painter, like my dad, like my grandfather. It took me three years to get admitted to the art school. The first year I was number one on the wait list. And that other person showed up that day. So I didn’t make it. And then the following year, I just got relaxed because I thought, “I was going to get in” and I didn’t. And then the third one I worked really hard and I got in.
It’s a six-year school and I finished my third year in painting and my professors told me that I was, that they liked my colors, that they like my composition, but I was not a painter. I was an illustrator. And were right. I mean, they were absolutely right. The only difference was that in Peru there was not such a career as an illustrator so I didn’t know what to do. And that’s when I decided to take a break from art and move to Los Angeles, supposedly for a year. And here I am 25 years later.
It took a long time to find my place
It was difficult to find my place. I knew I wanted to do art. I love print making. And it was the second choice that I had. But I wasn’t sure where my work fit and I got really busy into like learning the language, learning the new culture and helping my dad sell his work, because that’s how we survived, you know, that’s what paid the bills for the whole family.
It was a period of ten years where I was not really working on my own art. I was reading occasionally, I was writing very rarely and I did three paintings in the course of ten years. But everything had this kind of like what people see it and said it was whimsical. To me it was just the way I saw things.
And I get married and have my first son. After my second one is born, my husband, finally I think, I finally listened to my husband, because he had been telling me, “You have to go back to illustration.” My husband went to school for illustration. He understood more about it than I did. And I didn’t grow up with picture books, so I didn’t even know that a person could have a career making picture books.
So I think I finally listened to him and started pursuing trying to be a children illustrator. And I run into what is SCBWI, the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators. It was the first thing that popped up when I wrote “children’s illustration.” And immediately became a member and within a month I was going to the regional conference in Arizona. It was in Arizona at the time. And I went to my first conference. Everything started to make sense in some way. But this was back in 2005. So it took a long time before I could actually find my style, you know, figure out that I actually write again and find my way of doing things, my own personal way of illustrating.
My first book: La Madre Goose
The first book I did was with Penguin/Random House. It was a collection of poems. It was called “La Madre Goose.” So a nursery rhymes for Latinas. It was a Latina twist on Mother Goose nursery rhymes. And it’s English, but sprinkled words in Spanish. And it was the first book I illustrated. And it was 2016. So it was 11 years after I decided that maybe children’s illustration was for me.
La princesa and the Pea
I didn’t write La Princess and the Pea. I did the illustrations for the Princess and the Pea. One of the reasons why I like the story was because it gave me space to do whatever I wanted of the story. It could be, you know, anywhere. And other than the fact that you had the words in Spanish, I could really do anything with this story.
And I thought that was, and also it was really funny. I thought it was really, really humorous. And I love humor in picture books and in illustrations. At the beginning I was trying to illustrate a European, a traditional European fairy tale, so the queen and the the prince and the princess from a very European perspective.
But then I realized that I was, something was lacking, something was missing. I just couldn’t, there was no flow to what I was doing. And then I realized that the problem was that I was not raised that way. I did not have queens and princes and princesses in Peru. So why not flip the idea and then make them Indigenous people?
And just use their clothes as a way to represent royalty. And I really loved that idea. And I'm glad the editor and the art director were okay with that. Because it was, I think it was a jump, yeah, a big jump from the traditional Princess and the Pea story that we all know. Maybe because I did not grow up with that story, I came unbiased to it and I was able to have that different perspective. But I am so proud of the book and I'm so glad it got some recognition too. I love the book, yeah.
The story behind “Alma and How She Got Her Name”
Alma is the story of my family I’d say. And I think I can summarize Alma by saying that it’s a simple element, but it may seem complicated. We are everyone that came before us, but at the same time we are uniquely yourselves. And I think that’s the essence of Alma. But I think the only way we understand who we are is by understanding those family stories. They just make us richer and more rounded and we can understand ourselves better by knowing our family’s stories.
The whole idea of Alma, initially it was the story about my name and how my dad changed it when it was time to write my name on the birth certificate. So initially it was all about my name and that story in particular. But it felt too personal. And I kept getting stuck. And it’s not until I switched it to Alma that I have the freedom, now I can use more names. Now I can still use my relatives, but I can add more names. I'm not limited to just one middle name, I can add more middle names.
I was playing with different names and how they would play with each other, how they will go with each other. At some point it was Alma’s Sophia Esperanza de las Mercedes. But then I thought, no, I need six names. I really do need six names, so they came to Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela, and I love the fact that it’s a boy name in there, like a male name in there. That mix was just, to me it was beautiful. And I wanted to have that in the book too. And also honor males are in my family, right?
And the double meaning of “Alma” as soul, “Esperanza” as hope and then she hopes to travel, but she doesn’t. And then it was Pura, it means “pure” and she’s very religious and Candela is on fire, you know, and she is the one who stands up for what’s right. So there was that play on significance of the actual names themselves when they are translated to, you know, English or their meaning in Spanish.
And all the relatives are actually my relatives. And some of the images, the photos in the album are very similar to photos of my actual relatives.
You make a book, you hope for the best, but you never know, you know, what’s going to happen. And definitely this was my first time doing both writing and the illustrating. So I really didn’t know what to expect. And also it was such a personal story that I always felt that it was too specific, to myself, to my own story, to my relatives. I never even imagined that it would have the reception that it has had. And I’m glad, of course, very proud of the book. It’s been absolutely wonderful.
Our name matters
Our name is who we are. I think that’s the most important thing. It needs to be pronounced right. And I know sometimes some sounds are difficult in different languages to pronounce. It’s always a little difficult. It’s “yellow.” Some sounds are difficult. But we should try very hard to get as close as we can to pronounce names right, because it’s who they are.
And I think it’s very important also to try to, for the children to get some sense of pride on their own name, so that if they hear their name mispronounced, maybe they can correct. I know it’s a lot to ask a little one, but some do. It is so important. We don’t want the children to change their name for us. We don’t want to make, I don't think it’s right for children to make other people feel comfortable so they can, you know, pronounce it right or get a nickname instead of the name. We should try hard.
Illustrating Fry Bread
I am not Native American. I am from Peru. But I was raised with a big sense of, I was taught to be very respectful and when representing Indigenous people of my country. So I approached the book, I loved the manuscript. I just loved the manuscript. I could not not do the book. So Kevin, who is the author, helped me, gave me books to look at. I asked him what books you recommend for me to, you know, look at.
And he gave me a list of books to read. And he gave me some websites. He gave me some reference for plates and clothing and patterns, different things. And as we worked, as we worked the things came up and he kept giving me information as I needed them. So it was a really close, I think we work really closely. The other thing he did was he gave me some family photos of his grandparents and his aunt and relatives. So that helped a lot.
And again I had to be very careful in what I used and what I represented mainly because I'm not Native American and I'm not Seminole. So I had to be very careful on how I approached the book. But thankfully you know it’s, I think it’s been labor of love. And a lot of research, not only on my part, but on Kevin’s part and then we have also a Native researcher who’s also helped us. And then there’s the editor and the assistant editor and the art director and we all have worked together to make the best book we could.
Keeping a sketch book for my ideas
I keep a sketch book. Sometimes I sketch in there. If they’re something special, I just save them for a while. I have a pile of things that I wanted to save. And then ideas, I make a lot of notes on my either Word document or my app. I have an app, the Notes app on my phone where I will just write ideas. And I’ll just let them sit and eventually, occasionally I will go back to the either the photographs that I’ve been saving about that subject, exploring what can I do with it, from what aspect can I approach that idea. And I will revisit photographs and notes and things like that. But ideas take awhile for me to shape in my head before I actually work on the sketches or illustrations or the writing.
I am a mix media person. I work, I like to explore new media. So I will always try to incorporate new things in my work. I work with acrylics, with color pencils and graphite. I'm trying to use a little bit of print making, whatever I find I try, I like the texture of how it looks on the paper and I will try to incorporate it in some way. But it will always be a mixed media.
Why the type and font you choose matters in book design
I love type. I think you can say so much just by what font you use, you know, how the words look. There was a time when I was doing some graphic design and web design and I think that comes from that of that. And my dad was an art director for years. So maybe that influenced me too.
So, yeah, I think font is just so important. Not only the way you use the font, but how you put it on the paper. How it appears or how heavy that color is on the type, how thick, even the textures within the font.
We need diverse books
We need diverse books because we need more ways of looking at the world.