Interview with author/illustrator, Yuyi Morales
Three of your books have been published in the U.S. so far, and they have been very successful. Could you tell us a little bit about your life before that? What roads brought you here?
I was born in Mexico, the eldest of four children. I always drew. I copied from my family's photographs, I drew my relatives' faces, and I looked at myself in the mirror to draw myself again and again. I was also interested in sports. My two sisters and I developed into competitive swimmers; we traveled a lot, and trained with our team twice a day, even during winter. Some times the water was so cold that we could not curl our fingers or lift our arms to comb our hair afterwards. As I grew up, it was time to choose a career. Even though I loved to draw and create, it never occurred to me that I could become an artist. Instead I went to the University to study to be a P.E. teacher and Psychologist. Soon after I graduated, I became a swimming coach. And that is what I was doing when things came to a big change.
I met Tim. Tim was a tall Californian guy living in Mexico, who spoke Spanish with his gringo accent, and liked to play music. We fell in love. We had a child, and named him Kelly. Then, one day, when Kelly was only two months old, we received the news that Tim's grandpa was very sick and he wanted to meet me and Kelly before it was too late. Quickly we packed our suitcases and came to the United States. Everything was so different here! Even the houses seemed to line up down the streets. And the language; I couldn' t understand a thing...
Unfortunately, we never went back to live in Mexico. In a strange turn of events, immigration informed me that as part of the process to acquire my visa, I needed to remain in the USA for six months. I couldn't go back to my family and my country yet. Tim had to find a job; we looked for a place to live. I could not see my family, or go back to coach my swimmers. Life as I knew it had been left behind in Mexico. Now I had to learn a new language and also how to make new friends. It was a very sad time for me. Little did I know that it was also the opportunity to start afresh, and that here, in the USA, I would discover a new love: a love for children's books.
Through your images we can see that your Mexican heritage plays a major role in your work. We can almost taste the spices and feel the temperature... What does it mean to you to be Mexican?
Ah... what a beautiful question. To me being Mexican means to have had your grandma heal you from "espanto" when you were a child. Espanto means that you have been scared so badly that you get sick. I used to get scared very easily; my grandma healed me many times. But the one I remember the most is when her remedy involved my having to inhale the smoke from hot chillies. It was horrible... but after that I don' t remember being sick with espanto anymore!
To be Mexican also means to go to school and learn the tongue-twister names of our ancient Aztecs heroes, like Moctezuma and Cuauhtemoc. And to learn that in our land, the Mayans were using the number Zero before any other civilization .At the end of school, it means to buy oranges, watermelon, or mangoes so sweet, and eat them sprinkled with powdered chili. To me, to be Mexican means to have dozens of uncles and aunts who tell you stories. And it means to have nearly a hundred cousins to play and to fight with.
To be Mexican means to stop by your friend's house without having to phone before, and when you leave, to carry with you a little bunny, a kitten, a puppy, or some other precious little thing that they give you as a gift.To be Mexican means
Your book Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book won the 2004 Pura Belpré Medal (beautiful acceptance speech!), the Américas Award, and the Tomás Rivera Award; and Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez received honor seals from several awards as well... Has your life changed in any way because of all this recognition?
Yes, my life has changed since the awards. Now I go traveling all over the country and I have gone to places I never imagined I would ever visit. In my travels I have seen the snow for the first time in my life, and I have met many, many children who think that Señor Calavera, the skeleton in my book Just a Minute... is a cute guy, and that I should marry him.
I've read Just a Minute ... to my four year-old daughter and she got a kick out of Señor Calavera's (Mr. Skull's) failed attempts to take Grandma Beetle with him. The story and its vibrant illustrations are a subtle and playful way to introduce counting and the idea of death. How did this book come to be?
When I was an aspiring author and illustrator, I took a class to learn how to illustrate children's books. In this class our teacher told us that we were going to create a concept book. Because we were supposed to use most of our time illustrating, she gave us only one week to come up with the story. Quickly I decided I would do a counting book. But, what to count? I have always loved the old stories my aunts and uncles used to tell about "espantos" (being scared, remember?). So, inspired by the Mexican folktales, I decided to have the counting around the idea of a skeleton coming to "pick up" a Grandma.
After that I went to work and I wrote the story and began developing the ideas for the illustrations. And long after the class was over, I kept submitting my story to publishers so that one day it could become a book. Of course it wasn'teasy. Many people told me that a book with a skeleton, or the idea of death in it, would not sell because it was scary. But, remember, I used to be a fearful child myself, yet, I always loved scary stories. Also, in Mexico, we had many toys, and even candies and bread in the shape of skeletons, and they never scared me. Yes, in my book a skeleton is one of the main characters, but I always believed that other children, like me, would not be frightened by Señor Calavera.
Just a minute... is the first book you've written. How is writing for children different from illustrating? Which comes more naturally to you?
Drawing seems to be part of the daily movements of hand; I don't even have to think about it. Writing I had to learn and practice. When I was growing up I never wrote anything more than a few ideas for comic books and occasional letters to the boys I liked, but when I came to the USA, I felt the urge to tell stories and shape my thoughts into writing. So I took classes and then kept writing on my own.
I find writing and illustrating to be similar in a way. They both are an expression of our creativity, and a way to discover who we are; they both let us find out what we are good at and what is hard for us. They both come from deep inside.
What is the best advice you were ever given about the work you do?
When I was a child my mother used to repeat the saying
As we grew up, my sisters and I took the saying for ourselves. As an artist I cannot stop creating under the pretext that I can't do, or don't know how to do something. If there is something I don't know, I'd better figure it out. And if I can't figure it out, I'd better do as Mama used to say, and make it up! When I am writing or illustrating, I often feel like I don't know how to do my work. My stories come up pointless, my drawings look horrible, my brushes and my paints seem to want to ruin my life. What a disaster! Then, I remember my mother's saying...
If you had "just a minute" to convince a child about the importance of reading books, what would you say?
I can only account for myself that books are like magic crystal balls. Looking inside them, I have seen my past, my present, and my future. When I open a book, there! There! I see myself. In books I have discovered what I love and what I hate, what makes me powerful and what makes me weak, what I want to be and, even more importantly. what I don'twant to be. And anybody else can do that too.
Can you think of a great book you have enjoyed recently, and that you would recommend to a child or young adult?
I just finished reading Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card (a science fiction classic from 1985). I read it because my 11-year-old son, Kelly, had been insisting for months that I HAD to read it. His insistence was smothering! At last I was able to put down my other books and began reading the story of Ender. Ender is only six years old when he is taken from his family to learn about the art of war. Ender is a genius, and along with other children like him, he goes to battle school to learn how to become the next generation of soldiers, and potentially become the commander who would save the Earth from the invasion of alien species. But these future soldiers are all children, so their way of learning is by playing games.
While I was reading the book I came to understand why my son wanted me to read this book so badly. It's a great read, and I believe Kelly saw himself reflected in this story. I think he wanted me to see that through the book he recognized how capable children can be when they use their intelligence. I think he wanted me to know that reading this story made him feel important to the world.
Could you paint a little picture with words, a "regalo" for PaperTigers readers, before we end this interview? Nos encantaria...
As a gift I will offer you a "sorpresa", a surprise. Sorpresas were sold in the corner store when I was a child. They were little gifts, like plastic dolls, rubber balls, marbles, plastic soldiers, whistles, or any other toy that fit inside a paper bag no bigger than a soap bar. The bags were closed and stapled onto a piece of cardboard, like a cluster of grapes hanging from a vine.
Some days, my grandmother, who was big and stout, would dig her chubby fingers inside her little purse, and if she found a coin, she would give it to me. Of course, I would run to the store! The store was dark and damp, with no windows; but in one corner, between the sack of beans and the rice, the sorpresas seemed to glow. The storekeeper would bring the cardboard to the counter and let me take the sorpresa I wanted. But, which one to choose?! They all looked the same outside. So sometimes I would simply close my eyes and yank the first one I grabbed. And what would I find inside, this time? A spinning top? A tiny doll?...
I would open the paper bag quickly. It was a...surprise!
Posted October 2005
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