Since migrating to the USA from Mexico in 1994, Yuyi Morales has created some of the most celebrated Latino works in children’s books to date. She is the winner of both the Pura Belpré Medal and the Tomas Rivera Award for her illustrations in Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book and Los Gatos Black on Halloween. Her book Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez (written by Kathleen Krull), received the Christopher Award and the Jane Addams Award; and Little Night won the 2008
SCBWI Golden Kite Medal. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, her son,
and her dogs Chacho and Luna. To learn more, check out her interview and gallery feature on PaperTigers, and read her website and blog.
During school visits and interviews, I am often asked to mention the names of children’s book authors I grew up with. As a children’s book creator and book-lover working in the United States, my readers expect me to throw some interesting names into the literary pot. The answer comes to me easily, but is not what people expect me to say. There are no names, I respond; I was born in Mexico, in the late sixties, and lived there well into my twenties. At the time, most of the material aimed at children was mass-marketed, Spanish versions of the Disney stories - which I, like all the other children, read avidly. I also read all of the spare text in the coloring books I filled out with my pencils-- does that count?
My country, beautiful and hard-working Mexico, is home to a great number of people who worry daily about where the next meal will come from; and money, being scarce, is hardly spent on books in general, let alone books for children. That being the case, the world of children’s books there hasn’t flourished into the rich industry it is in the US. Yes, my mother bought books and magazines from the supermarket and the corner store. No, I never heard of E.B. White, Judy Blume, or Maurice Sendak - not until I came to the United States, as an adult, and stood spellbound inside the children’s section of the public library. But that is only my story. Or part of
it, I should say.
I grew up in a family who prized learning, and our few books had a special place in our home. Unfortunately, most of these books weren’t for children. Fortunately, I was allowed to read them
as I pleased. Unfortunately, I couldn’t grasp much of what I read. Fortunately, that was not the end of it.
From a door-to-door salesman, my mother bought a vacuum cleaner that she hid under the bed so that my father wouldn’t know that she had spent money on such a luxury. And she also bought an encyclopedia set for which she religiously paid the salesman on the occasion of his monthly visits. We stacked El Nuevo Tesoro de la Juventud (The New Treasure of Youth), with its twenty volumes, like a monument, on top of a metal shelf next to our dining table. At breakfast, lunch, and dinner, my sisters and I learned from these books: about life and customs in other countries, about men and women who played a part in the history of the world. We even read poetry and learned how to do magic tricks.
When we were done with the twenty volumes, we asked our mother when we could expect her to buy us our next set. With my mother explaining that paying for this one would take a long, long time, I quenched my reading thirst with every word I could lay my eyes on: the text on the back of the Chocotepa can (our Mexican version of Chocomilk), the bread - Pan Bimbo Integral - labels, and the book I found on my father’s shelf recounting the story of Madre Conchita, a Capuchin nun who became a martyr after being charged with influencing the assassin of Mexican President, Alvaro Obregon, in 1928. Being sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment in the horrid and legendary penal colony on the Tres Marias Islands, Madre Conchita and her story left my second-grade mind hungry for even more reading. So the Revista Semanal, a paperback graphic novel that told many stories of love and deceit, became my weekly reading. From these cheap magazines that my parents picked up from the store rack, I learned much about drama, drawing and kissing. “If only I could be talented enough to tell stories like that!” I often daydreamed.
On weekends, my father brought home the comic magazine La Familia Burron, which depicted the incredible adventures and struggles for survival of the members of the Burron Family, living in the slums of Mexico City. Gabriel Vargas, cartoonist and author of these stories, would become the first solid name in my list of authors whose work I grew to admire and seek out.
Other short books followed: Platero y Yo, by Juan Ramon Jiménez, a poetic account of the life and death of Platero the donkey. A copy of El Ruiseñor y la Rosa y Otros Cuentos, a Spanish version of Oscar Wilde’s the Nightingale and the Rose, made it into our house, and my mother read it solemnly at night to my sisters and me. Enseñando a Leer a su Bebé (Teaching your Baby to Read), a reference book I found while visiting my aunt Coty, a dedicated special education teacher. My aunt’s life enthralled me with its daily stories of people who fought against the odds to live normal lives, and the non-fiction books on her shelves were no exception.
Some other books followed: adult books that I found in my parents' collections and in my relatives’ houses, especially at my aunt’s dark home/ grocery store where she sold used paperback magazine-novels. Like many children at that time, I literally stitched together a meager reading collection and my book habits went from asking my mother (who was very clever with a needle and thread) to help me bind together in three volumes my Archie magazines collection, to finding the book that would mark me as a reader for the rest of my life. I was 12 years old and I fell madly in love. The object of my love affliction? A book assigned for school reading with an impossibly long title: La Increíble y Triste Historia de la Candida Erendira y su Abuela Desalmada (The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and her Heartless Grandmother). The title of the English translation is oddly short: Innocent Erendira, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. By this time, the end of my childhood had begun; I could tell, because Marquez’s interminable sentences and his too-real-to-be-magical stories wounded me to the quick and sought out depths within me I had never before felt as a child. And this passion led me to see myself differently, both as a person and as a reader.
In recent years, I have looked for my childhood books on my parents’ shelves during my visits to Mexico. Although my mother still keeps the encyclopedia, I learned that my Archie volumes went into the recycling by accident and ended up sold at the corner store. La Revista Semanal is still sold at the magazine racks in the streets of my hometown, and La Familia Burron have gotten a second surge of popularity in recent years, making the socially critical struggles and joys of the Burron Family one of the most acclaimed portraits of Mexican life. Gabriel Garcia Marquez has turned 80, having published his most recent novel in 2004 and announcing it was his last.
I guess this makes for a very long answer to the very simple question about what childhood authors I grew up reading. A short answer might look like this: My list is brief. They are not children’s book authors. But I grew with them.
Posted September 2008