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John Parra's artwork
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John Parra grew up in Santa Barbara, California, where he spent his days "exploring and drawing landscapes, wildlife, city and family." Now an award-winning illustrator, artist, educator, and designer, his work is heavily influenced by his Hispanic roots and heritage, including mural and folk-art.

John's first children's book My Name is Gabriela/Me llamo Gabriela: The Life of Gabriela Mistral/La vida de Gabriela Mistral won the International Latino Book Award for the Best Interior Children's Book Illustrations in 2006; and since then his children's book awards include a Pura Belpré Honor Award (2010), the Golden Kite Award (2010), the Gelett Burgess Children's Book of the Year Award (2012), and The Christopher Award (2012).

John lives in Queens, New York, with his wife Maria.


Please tell us how about your design for the gorgeous PaperTigers 10th Anniversary poster.

My goal for the poster was to capture the many important and wonderful aspects that PaperTigers stands for as well as honor and celebrate its ten-year milestone.  The organization's commitment to promoting multicultural books to young readers as well as educating the public about clean water and protecting those resources, were a few of the concepts I wanted to address. Also PaperTiger's fun, positive and creative spirit in promoting their message was also a goal that I believe will resonate and be reflective in the final artwork.

The first idea and image that came to me for the poster was that of a child, dressed in a tiger's costume, reading a book outside in a forest. As the child reads, they are shown standing on a stack of leaves floating down a river that originates from a storm cloud above. From the book that the child has, flowering vines start to grow, symbolizing growth, beauty, learning, and a connection to share in nature.  Ten little tin milagros ornaments hang from the vine, each representing and celebrating a year in PaperTigers’ ten-year history.

Your artwork is steeped in Latino culture.  Who or what have been most culturally influential for you?

My family has been the biggest influence on my art in regard to Latino Culture. Whether it was my dad conversing in Spanish with my grandparents on the back patio; my aunts and uncles preparing traditional dishes such as tamales or pesole in the kitchen; my mom introducing me to Mexican art and murals by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo; my brothers and cousins all lining up outside to knock down the piñata at one of our birthday parties; or the community of Hispanic friends and acquaintances I grew up with: all of these shaped the collective passions and creative processes that would end up comprising my artistic pallette .

Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?

Even though I have always loved creating art, growing up I reflected very little at the time on whether or not I would pursue art and illustration as a profession. Art was just something I enjoyed in the moment. Thankfully, as I got older and further along in school, I had some amazing teachers and mentors who guided and encouraged me to develop my talents. This also gave me the direction and goals I needed to make art and illustration a career.

Can you describe your studio and how you organize your time there?

My art studio is conveniently located in my home. There are books and sketches everywhere, along with my computer and painting table and a collection of guitars. There are of course many paintings from past projects as well as from artist friends filling the walls. I love to work in the morning through mid-day. This is my most productive time. However, many of my artistic ideas frequently catch up with me just when I'm ready to fall asleep. I usually keep a pen and paper by my side in case I need to jot down any thoughts of interest.

John Parra at work in his studio

You came to children's book illustration relatively recently.  How different is the process for you of illustrating a book compared with your other art projects?

For my painting technique the actual process across any illustration project is very similar if not the same. I think the differences lie in that fact that children's books are stories with a narrative and you have to reflect the pacing and themes in the story within the illustrations. I began my first children's book in 2004. The book was called My Name is Gabriela: The life of Gabriela Mistral. I think it wasn't until I was half way through that I found my rhythm where ideas and the flow felt right. It was definitely a great learning experience.

Your forthcoming book, When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders is a poetry book by J. Patrick Lewis, for which you are one of five illustrators.  Can you tell us about your involvement in this book and what it means to you?

When Chronicle Books offered me the project, I was immediately hooked.  The book profiles seventeen civil rights luminaries from around the world, each represented in portraits, and showcases their struggle and dedication to justice, peace, and tolerance.  The moving verse by Children's Poet Laureate, J. Patrick Lewis, is beautiful and powerful. The socially conscious themes and historically significant profiles of all these individuals provided me with a wealth of creativity and ideas. One of the profiles I had the opportunity to work on was for Sylvia Mendez, who as a Latina child in Southern California in 1946, bravely fought along with her parents against discrimination to be integrated into a segregated public school.  The court ruling on the event paved the way for the Brown vs. Board of Education case to integrate all children in our school systems.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

I just turned in my next children's book, Round is a Tortilla, wonderfully written by author Roseanne Thong.  It follows a Latino family whose kids examine different shapes and objects that appear in their everyday lives. It will be available in April 2013.  Currently I am hard at work on its companion book, Green is the Chile, teaching colors through stories about family, food and culture.  It’s also written by Roseanne and published by Chronicle Books, and is due out in 2014.

Posted October 2012

featured artist



More on PaperTigers:

Read interviews with Monica Brown and Pat Mora, authors of some of John's books.

More on the web:

Explore more of John's beautiful art on his website.

Read a lettter from John to Santiago Lopez at the Kids Growing Libraries blog in 2010.

Read interviews here with author Meg Medina, and here with The Wild.


By John Parra:

Round Is a Tortilla
written by Roseanne Thong
(Chronicle Books, forthcoming)

When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders
written by J. Patrick Lewis; also illustrated by Jim Burke, R. Gregory Christie, Tonya Engel and Meilo So
Chronicle Books, 2012)

Waiting for the Biblioburro
written by Monica Brown
(Tricycle Press, 2011)

Gracias / Thanks (bilinual English and Spanish)
written by Pat Mora
(Lee & Low Books, 2009)

P is for Piñata: A Mexico Alphabet
written by Tony Johnston
(Discover the World Series, Sleeping Bear Press, 2008)

My Name is Gabriela/Me llamo Gabriela: The Life of Gabriela Mistral/La vida de Gabriela Mistral
(bilinual English and Spanish)
written by Monica Brown
(Luna Rising, 2005)



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