If you ask me, it’s a great time to be interested in Latino children’s books, mostly because there’s a strong talent pool – one that includes John Parra.
John is a tall, quiet guy whose beautiful, award-winning work is well-known in publishing circles. Luckily for the rest of us, it will also be on display and for sale next Saturday at La Casa Azul, a new indi bookstore in Harlem that celebrates Hispanic authors, artists, and readers. The show is called Infinitas Gracias (Infinite Thanks). I’ll be there to ooh and ah with all his other fans. Mark your calendars and join us.
John was nice enough to put down his paintbrush and talk to us about his work.
You are a long, long way from California, where you grew up. How did you end up in Queens? Has living in t New York impacted your artists’ palette in any way? I ask because I’m from Queens, and I find that the city creeps into my books and stories pretty often, which I love.
I moved to New York in 2000. I actually drove across the country from California. It took about a week and was a great adventure. The main reason for the move was to do more illustration work in publishing and advertising here. Plus I always had it in my mind that I would really like to live in New York. I think the city has influenced my work a bit giving me a more cosmopolitan and sophisticated sensibility but more often than not I am inspired by experiences and memories from back home.
You started out doing art for clients like United Airlines, Jeep, etc. What inspired you to make the shift to children’s book illustration? Which skills transferred and which did you have to develop?
Illustrating children’s books wasn’t a field I really pursued early in my career. It all started when Theresa Howell, an editor and art director at Northland Publishing/Luna Rising, had seen my work and contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in doing a book. Much of my work already used themes of family, childhood, and Latino culture, plus my color pallet made it a good match for doing a children’s book, so I decided to accept.
The first book was called My Name is Gabriela/ Me llamo Gabriela, written by Monica Brown that tells the story of Gabiela Mistral, a famous poet from Chile, who was the first Latina woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Were there any surprises – good or bad- for you about the world of children’s book illustration?
One discovery I was surprised with was how many adults enjoy children’s books. Whether they are parents, librarians, educators, or other, they just seem to love the stories and images as much as the kids. Additionally surprising is how many children’s books have such a rich, open, almost fine art-like, diversity represented in their different writing and illustration styles.
Are there other areas of illustration that you still might like to try?
I would love to expand into animation. There are beautiful Latino stories that could be told in that medium which would be great!
Who are some of your favorite fellow illustrators, especially those working in Latino children’s fiction?
Too many to name but here goes: Rafael Lopez, Yuyi Morales, Joe Cepeda, David Diaz, Juana Martinez-Neal, Leo Politi, Carmen Lomas Garza, Duncan Tonatiuh, Lulu Delacre, Raúl Colón, and René King Moreno.
Your work captures Latino culture so well, John. What are some of the choices you make as an artist to make the images immediately recognizable familiar as Latino-centered? Would you say these choices are somewhat unconscious or are you very deliberate?
I would say both. When I was in art school I was trained with many different styles of painting, from realism, impressionism, abstraction, surrealism and everything in between. It wasn’t until one of my final semesters that I also began to introduce my Latino background and culture into my art. It seems a bit obvious now but at the time this was a big breakthrough for me. I love the richness, diversity, color, people, food, geography, architecture, and history of Latino culture that provided me with such a wealth of visual inspiration in all areas of life I cannot resist.
Have there been projects that were especially difficult to do? In general, how do you get through dry spells in your ideas (if you have any!)
My first book was actually a challenge to start. It took a bit for me to get my sea legs set and be at a happy production level where I was confident in all areas of the work. Things move much smoother these days. Most of the time also I can power through dry spells and difficult spots by sketching and researching as much I can, then I end up sleeping on it and by the next day things always look better and I find my ideas. In the end inspiration is just hard work and stick-to-itiveness.
My first step is to read the material thoroughly and get a sense and feel for the characters, story arch, and setting. I then go through an extensive visual search looking for reference images related to the text. Up next, I work on the sketching to develop the characters and place them in various environments. Finally once the sketches are approved I begin the painting process. This is the most fun since it is where all the color comes in and brings everything to life.
Any interest in ever writing your own text? I imagine there are times when you say things like, “Why didn’t the writer do this or that?
I do feel I have a couple really good story lines for children’s books that have been on my mind for a while but just haven’t had the time to them write up. I will have to challenge myself soon on this.
I’m not sure what category this would fall under but learning about The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) was very helpful in understanding and navigating the world of children’s book publishing. Through them you meet other professionals, talk shop, attend workshops, plus it has a wonderful sense of community and caring message to assist all in the field. Many times I am asked, “How does one go about getting a children’s book published?” To which I respond by speaking of my art process, offering my advice and letting them know about SCBWI and its benefits.
Are there any new projects we can look forward to from you?
I just turned in the art for my next children’s book entitled, Round is a Tortilla, due out in 2013. I will start its companion book, Green is the Chile, this fall with an arrival date of 2014. Both books were written by the wonderful author, Roseanne Thong.
This December you can also look for When Thunder Comes, a poetry book written in moving verse by Children’s Poet Laureate, J. Patrick Lewis. The book profiles seventeen civil rights luminaries from around the world, each represented in portraits, showcasing their struggle and dedication to justice, peace, and tolerance. The artwork for the book was a collaborative effort split between four other artists and myself. All three of these projects will be published by Chronicle Books.