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Ancient and Contemporary: A Conversation with Duncan Tonatiuh

by on February 4, 2016

Duncan Tonatiuh’s evocative and charming picture books have been staples of the bestseller list since his debut book, Dear Primo: Letters to My Cousin, in 2010. Since then he’s written and illustrated Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale, Diego Rivera: His World And Ours, and Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation. His most recent book, Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras, details the life of José Guadalupe (Lupe) Posada, the Mexican artist whose calaveras (skeletons performing everyday tasks) have become a ubiquitous presence in Day of the Dead celebrations. The book was named a 2016 Sibert Award Winner, Pura Belpré (Illustrator) Honor Book, and a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2015. Duncan Tonatiuh talked with Brendan Dowling via telephone on January 26th, 2015. The following is an edited version of their conversation.

Public Libraries: How did you start writing and illustrating children’s books?

Duncan Tonatiuh: Well, it wasn’t something I necessarily planned. I always liked writing and drawing. When I was a kid. I made my own comic books, I was into Japanese anime, and I would make up my own characters. So it was always something I liked. And I’ve always liked books; since I was a kid I’ve liked reading a lot. In high school and college I took a lot of different art classes and I went to a design school. I studied illustration and writing, but I always thought more of doing stuff for adults or for a gallery.

For my senior thesis, I decided to make this short comic book about a friend of mine named Sergio, who was an undocumented worker. He’s Mixtec, which is an indigenous group from the south of Mexico. I created a project about him and that’s how I came up with my art style, by looking at Mixtec artwork. There’s all this great Mixtec codex from the fifteenth century, so I decided to do a modern day codex of Sergio.

One day a professor at Parsons came to critique our work, a woman named Julia Gorton. She had illustrated some books for Abrams and was good friends with this man named Howard Reeves, who’s an editor there. She asked me if she could show him my work and I said, “Sure, please!” I gave her some copies of my art. Howard liked them and said, “If we receive a manuscript that suits your style, we’d like to do a picture book with you.” I told him I liked writing too and he said, “Well if you write something send it to me.” He told me a few very basic things about picture books and some time later, I wrote my first manuscript.

I had an idea for my first book about two cousins—one who lives in a rural community in Mexico and one who lives in an urban center in the U.S. I wrote it and sent it to him. My first draft rhymed—and I’m really bad at rhyming—but he was really nice about it. He said, “I really like this concept, I want to publish this book, but no rhyming, please.”

I reworked the manuscript and that eventually became my first book. Since then I’ve done five books with Abrams. I have a sixth one coming out and they’ve all been edited by Howard.

I feel so lucky that writing is something I get to do, that the door opened to that whole world. I just really enjoy it. I get to talk about subjects that interest me and I think it’s a very creative field.

PL: Your books have tackled complex issues, like immigration and segregation, what are the challenges of communicating those issues into a children’s book?

DT: With Separate is Never Equal—which is about the civil rights case that desegregated schools in California, Mendez v. Westminster—the main challenge was to have enough information there. I think it was important to have dates, to have certain names, to have certain concepts like a trial. Things that might be a tiny bit complicated, that might not be exciting so to speak to a very young reader. But I thought it was important to have enough of those without making it too overwhelming—just finding the right balance of what to explain enough, what needed to be explained more, what to include, what not to include.

With that book, kids have been super-responsive, I think because it’s set in a school environment. Also because kids are very into what’s right and what’s wrong. I think they immediately connect to the story and don’t get discouraged by the fact that it has dates and names and things like that.

PL: You also capture the feelings she experienced. You interviewed Sylvia Mendez, correct?

DT: I definitely think making Sylvia the protagonist makes it more relatable to kids. I had a chance to meet her and hear her speak and do several informal interviews with her. It was great to hear her talk about that time, and that allowed me to try to capture some of the emotions and thoughts she had as a young girl.

PL: Posada is a fascinating artist because many people might be aware of his work and his style without necessarily knowing who is. How did you first learn about Posada?

I grew up in Mexico so I saw his images around all the time. There are thousands and thousands of reproductions of his work during the Day of the Dead, they’re just part of the pop culture. Posada is an unsung hero where people, like you said, have oftentimes seen his work and images but don’t know that much about his life. I just wanted to learn more about him.

A few years ago the hundredth anniversary of his death was celebrated. There were a couple of good books written about him in Mexico and there were some exhibits about him, so that also helped me find more information and more material. I visited the library at the University of Texas in Austin, which has an incredible collection of Latin American books, and they had a lot of information about him.

I didn’t know that much about him. I wanted to learn more. In the book I decided to include questions, because there were a lot of things I couldn’t quite find out because he wasn’t famous during his lifetime.

If you look up Diego Rivera or Pablo Picasso, a lot of people were writing about them while they were alive. There’s a lot of information about the paintings and art they were doing at a specific times of their lives. With Posada, he was unknown during his lifetime. People knew his images but he wasn’t famous by any means. So that’s why I decided to include a lot of questions, to try to give some context to things that I imagine may have happened.

PL: I really liked the questions, because it seems like you’re giving the reader the tools to think critically about art.

DT: I think the wonderful thing about Posada’s work—especially his calaveras—is that they’re so timeless. There are just a lot of interpretations one can make about them. A hundred years later we can look at his artwork and it’s still so relevant, even though it was done in a different time period.

PL: You’ve talked before about how you’ve been influenced by Ancient Mexican art, particularly the Mixtec codex. How did you first discover the Mixtec codex?

DT: I grew up in Mexico so often the cover of a textbook in elementary school will be a piece of Pre-Columbian art. Or in San Miguel where I grew up there’s a craft market where sometimes you’ll find crafts that have a Pre-Columbian vibe, but that wasn’t what interested me as a kid or what got me interested in art. It was years later after I had lived in the U.S. and was interested in different types of art that I came back to that.

When it really clicked is when I did that project about my friend Sergio. There’s a large Mixtec community in New York and I just thought it was so interesting that he speaks his indigenous Mixtec dialect with his cousins and friends. I was blown away by that. Here he was, thousands and thousands of miles away from his native village, but still retaining some of his traditions and language in this totally foreign city. So I decided to do a project about that. One of the first things I did was look up Mixtec artwork at the library at Parsons. I saw these great reproductions of codex from the fifteenth century that are some of the few codex that were not destroyed during the Spanish conquest

I decided to draw in that style. I do my characters in profile, their ears look very stylized, a little bit like the number three. I started to adopt the same aesthetic. I tried to make it a little more relevant to kids and to people nowadays by using digital collage, where I use different textures and photographic elements. So hopefully it’s an interesting combination where it looks kind of ancient but also kind of contemporary

PL: One of the cool parts of Calaveras is you go through the mechanics of Posada’s process, where you explain how etching, lithography, and engraving work. Why was it important for you to include how Posada created his drawings in this book?

DT: It was an interest of mine. I had taken a few introductory courses in college, so I was a little bit familiar with those processes. It’s just so different from painting, the fact that he had to draw his images backward. I thought it would be interesting to kids nowadays, where we’re just so used to printing things on a printer. But a hundred years ago, things had to be done totally differently so you could have multiple copies of the same image.

I think that’s one thing that’s very important about Posada’s work is that his art was popular and for the masses. It was produced lots and lots of times. In order to do that he had to use these techniques. If he had done a painting, there’d just be one painting, but since he did lithographs and etchings and engravings, there were these copies. I think that’s very much a part of the artwork he created and the purpose it served.

PL: Who are the children’s books illustrators you admire?

DT: There’s a lot of great people out there. I definitely like Ezra Jack Keats. I got to do a project related to his work for the Akron Art Museum. I feel a lot of connection to his work because he also did collage and was very interested in multicultural works.

Some of the art that inspires me is definitely pre-Columbian art. I like naïve art and outsider art—art made by people who aren’t necessarily trained artists. There’s something very raw and expressive and imaginative about it. It was definitely an interest of mine before I started drawing in this Pre-Columbian style, and it definitely drew me more towards that because it allowed me to experiment and play even if it’s not realistic, per se.

As a kid, I was very much into anime and manga and comic books. My cousin and I collected Spider-Man and X-Men and I had a big collection of those kinds of books. Those were definitely my very first influences in trying to draw and make images.

PL: You mentioned that you’re working on something coming up in the fall. Can you talk about what’s next?

I have two books coming out in the fall. One I wrote and illustrated called The Princess and The Warrior: A Tale of Two Volcanoes. It’s a myth set in Pre-Columbian times about the origin of these two volcanoes, Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl, that are just outside Mexico City. The story of their origin has a lot of similarity to Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet. It was a very fun project to do.

The other book I did was written by a woman named Susan Wood and is called Esquivel: Space Age Sound Artist. It will be published by Charlesbridge and it’s a biography of the Mexican composer Esquivel, who’s considered the inventor of lounge music. It was a fun project because the illustrations are very groovy and swanky, and I did a lot of hand-drawn lettering for it. So the two books that I have coming out will look very different and are about very different subjects, so they were fun projects.


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