On a sleeting, raining, messy day in February, I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with beloved picture book author and illustrator Yuyi Morales. Morales, who is a 2015 Caldecott Honor winner for Viva, Frida (Roaring Brook, 2014), as well as the recipient of several Pura Belpré Awards, was in the offices of publisher Little, Brown to chat about her new book, Thunder Boy Jr. (Little, Brown, 2016; May 10), written by Sherman Alexie. The story of a Native American boy who wants to find his own identity, separate from the thundering father whom he loves, Thunder Boy Jr. is already the recipient of five starred reviews. Morales spoke about the process of being paired with the National Book Award winner, how she created the vivid illustrations, and the power of public libraries to change lives.
Read highlights of our talk below, or listen to the full audio here.
What goes into your decision to illustrate another author’s work?
Well, you know, for a while I [decided] that I wasn’t going to work with another author because what happens is I put myself at the very end of my waiting list, so I can work on my own projects. When I take a story I’m going to illustrate, it’s because I’m really excited about it. It’s because I really have to do it. And in the case of working with Sherman Alexie, an author I greatly admire, not only was I thrilled to know that he would want me to be a [part] of this book with him, but also the story was one that really connected with me. In addition to my interest in the book’s theme, it was written in such a way that it completely allowed me, as an illustrator, to bring to it my own voice. [It allowed me] to place a mirror into the words that Alexie had already written and to find and construct a narrative that hopefully enriches what he created, so that together, we make something even more thunderous and lightening.
I loved the use of text boxes in the illustrations. Was that anything that they [the publisher] approved, or did you do it and then everyone loved the idea?
(Laughing) It was my proposal. I told the publisher, “If we do it this way, it could work really well.” At least, I knew it was going to work for me because it would inspire me in a certain direction. They were enthusiastic about that, so we just went with it. What it does in the story is give voice to a lot of other characters in the book. For me, this is a reference to the connection that one’s identity has to community, to family, to how we find ourselves, not only by ourselves but also through our interactions with the people we live with, with those who love us and take care of us, and those whom we take care of as well. [Incorporating the bubbles] with the speech [allowed me] to create a community for Thunder Boy, and, in this case, it is his family. A mother, father, a little sister, and a dog.
In some cases, the pictures seem to have been influenced by Native American art. Was that a decision you made intentionally? Did you do any research of those images?
Yes, I did some research. I wanted also to be very careful, as there is so much to learn about other cultures that are not my own. So while I wanted to bring that [knowledge] into the illustrations because it was necessary, I also knew that the story was a modern one. It is my sense that living in these times, we have a duty to diversity and to how we blend [culturally], because all kinds of people live here. The illustrations are a combination of my research of the Native American art forms and a blend of my own roots in Mexican culture. I did this is in a way that I hope is respectful, because it is that through which I feel connected. There are things [in the book] that are part of being Mexican as well. The colors, some of the forms that you’ll see in the backgrounds and other places, are all very similar to the things I’ve seen growing up.
I did some research, and I also asked questions. I said, “Is this accurate? Or is this just some stereotypical thing, that just by not knowing enough, I might be erring and bringing it to a place that it doesn’t belong to.” I hope that together with Sherman and my editor and everyone who was working on this project that we have done the right job.
Is there a difference in your process when you’re illustrating someone else’s words versus when you’re illustrating your own?
Sometimes, there is not. Most of the time I will approach the illustration with the same emotions, passion, and curiosity regardless of from whom the words come. But I also know that in my own work, I tend to go back and forth and [make] changes to the text when I think that the illustrations will do something that the text isn’t doing. When the words of other authors are already there, I might not do that [kind of revision]—sometimes I have to work harder to bring in my own voice, which makes [the story] richer, which is really, really cool. [I] don’t have the writer changing things easily, like I might do if it was my own project. In this case, I need to do a good job with what I have already, so I think hard about how to utilize the text to enrich my illustrations. Like with this book, I decided to use the speech bubbles, based on what was already in the text, and make that another element of the illustrations.
You use so many different materials in your artwork. Do you ever sit down with a book and say, “I’m going to illustrate this with x,” or do you let the work speak to you?
It has so much to do, again, with what is going on in my life and the way I connect with the story. I always blame that I started doing art late in my life, that I’m just too curious, because everything is new to me. I don’t have formal training, and especially in the beginning of my career, any way I chose to make illustrations, I [felt] I didn’t know how to do it. [The process] was always a discovery—how do you use acrylic paints? Or, how do I apply sculpture and puppetry? Any [method] I chose was going to be a learning process. If I [think that] there is a common theme in the way I work, it’s not necessarily a medium, or a specific form, it’s more a curiosity; a willingness to try what my work [will be] next.
In terms of Thunder Boy, I had just gone back to Mexico, where I was born. I wanted to have my studio there, and in this studio, I was going to create [the book’s] illustrations. What I found, I call a Mexican ruin, which is a property with a small house, a very, very old house. [I] bought it as land because the building was in such shambles that they told me, you need to demolish it and build new. I didn’t quite do that; I left most of the house standing, but a lot had to be removed. And from those materials that were removed from the house I discovered many different textures and colors that were so rich and amazing. I thought, “I’m going to build this book with these materials that are going to be housing the search that Thunder Boy will go through to find his own identity.” [We] find our identity in not only the new things that we build but also in those things that structure our growth, who we are as a family, and the people who come before [us]. This house was before me, [and it] was the one that gave me the materials that I used to create the illustrations.
[I] took wood that was rotten from the roof and utilized the colorations and the textures and scanned them into my computer. I also used some of the clay bricks that were underneath the stucco when many of the walls had to be demolished. These beautiful handmade bricks emerged and were beautiful by themselves, but they had been weathered and had different colorations, which are what I used to create a palette that I eventually used to paint the illustrations for Thunder Boy.
Can you talk about the book’s dedication, which is to a librarian in San Francisco?
As I mentioned, I went back to Mexico in order to create the illustrations of Thunder Boy, and that was the beginning of a new journey but the end also of 20 years living in the United States. When I first arrived in the United States, I was a new mother, I didn’t speak almost any English, and one of the places that absolutely changed my life was the public library.
After a year, my family and I, in this case my husband and one-year-old son, moved to San Francisco. And I was left there alone, while my husband went to work. I was in this apartment, being a new mother, in a place where I didn’t speak the language. The library, which is the Western Addition Branch library, was a mere four blocks away from my little apartment, [and it] was my new home. I got there, and Nancy, whom I dedicated this book to, saw me exploring books with my son and with my limited English. With her great skills, she opened up this library for me. She would give me books and say, “I think that you will like this book.”
Nancy might not know it, but she changed my life. All of the people there—I might not remember their names, but I know that they supported me and that they saw me there with my son; asking for a home, for a path, for something that I hadn’t discovered yet, because truly, I didn’t know what I was doing in the United States. It was through the library and the books that I suddenly found not only a place to be but also what I loved, and who I wanted to become. And the [librarians and library staff] were right there, guiding me and opening this path for me.
The truth is that the Western Addition library became more my home than my own apartment. In this place, I didn’t have to talk to anybody; I could just go and look at the books and try to understand the words. I fell in love with the illustrations. I was finding things that I love and people who helped me discover more of what I liked.
We would go [to the library] every day, and I was very surprised when Nancy tried to explain to me [that] my son could get a library card. I said, “Well, he’s barely two years old. How can he get anything?” They explained to me that I could check out up to, at that time, 22 books all at the same time. I couldn’t believe it! The next day I came with a shopping cart! [laughs] And that’s the way we did it, almost every day. Because they were mostly picture books I was able to bring them home, read them that night, come back the next day, and take more.
Therefore, it is only fitting that as I start this new journey of returning to where I was born and finding my way there, this person that I am now, after having been raised as an artist here in the United States—as I start that journey I want to honor those who helped me get started, and it was the Western Addition Branch Library.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Elisabeth Gattullo Marrocolla is the assistant head of children’s services and collection development coordinator at Darien Library in Connecticut.