November 20, 2017

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A Girl and Her Furry Amigo | Up Close with Juana Medina

1607-UpClose-Juana_MedinaAfter the success of the minimalist picture books Smick! and 1 Big Salad, Juana Medina has created a 96-page hybrid picture book/beginning chapter book/illustrated novel, which, according to the author, has been in the works for some time. Here’s a bit about how Juana and Lucas (Candlewick, Sept. 2016) came to be.

How did you decide on the format?
From the moment I started working on this book, I knew how I wanted it to feel. I wanted the typography to be dynamic at parts, to convey emotions in a vivid way. I also wanted to have Spanish peppered throughout the book, not as a didactic exercise but to show further depth into Juana’s personality. And every now and then, breaking the format to present diagrams felt like a nice way to take a break from reading and learn a little further about each character, according to Juana.

Because this book is loosely based on a personal story, using ink and watercolor for the illustrations seemed more personal than taking the digital route (not that digital illustrations are impersonal!). Perhaps this has to do with growing up reading books illustrated by Ralph Steadman, Quentin Blake, Jean-Jacques Sempé, and Jules Feiffer, whom I admire greatly—ink illustrations feel like part of my childhood.

One can’t help but notice the similarities between your bio photo and blurb and your protagonist (right down to the pigtails). How much of the story is autobiographical?
A fair amount of the story is autobiographical, but just as memories tend to be, time gets warped and events in the book happen a bit differently from how it all unraveled in real life. The sentiment, though, is true to personal history. Had I made it strictly autobiographical, it would have been hard to keep track of all cousins, friends, and relatives in the story! It was fun to be able to give it a bit of a twist.

Juana is such a vivacious and spirited child. She is often challenged and frustrated by what adults ask of her, yet there’s never a doubt that she’ll work things out on her own terms. Where does that kind of self-possession come from? Is that something that you believe can be fostered?
I do believe we can give children encouragement and empowerment to be self-possessed. I was hoping, to share a story of someone who is vulnerable, who isn’t perfect, and yet is determined to achieve what she wants…even if it leads her to completely unexpected results!

My father died when I was a baby. My mom remarried when I was four. I grew up in a country in war. I think these factors, among others, allowed for deep introspection at a very early age. This introspection came along with the realization that being self-sufficient could be at times a good thing. I tried to retain some of that in Juana as a character, I didn’t want the character to be broken or a victim but empowered and curious and even a little sassy. I thought reflecting on the way I remember thinking of the world at the time could be an interesting way to connect with new generations that are growing up.

It is rare for American kids to meet a contemporary child living in another part of the world. Is her relationship with her dog, Lucas, part of what makes her experiences feel so universal?
The universality of feelings like fear, dread, excitement, joy, and hope are not foreign to any child. I hope this book allows for an emotional connection. I fear that children’s books presenting characters of color could fall into categories that hurt their readers rather than empower them. When the books based in Latin America or with Latino characters are overwhelmingly about struggling with immigration and poverty or when books about African American children are mostly about slavery, we’re not only discouraging children from reading but labeling and segregating them even further. I’m not saying no children’s book should ever address poverty, immigration, or slavery, but these can’t be the only subjects touched upon when it comes to telling stories about these communities. Children want to see themselves reflected in the books they read; this helps them build their own identities as well as expand their knowledge and sense of wonder. I wanted to present a character (and a loyal sidekick) to whom children could relate, whether they are boys or girls, whether they live in Patagonia, Wichita, or Ankara.

1607-UpClose-Medina_CV-Juana-n-LucasThis book really is a love letter to Bogotá, capturing its natural beauty and vibrant life, but always through the lens of a child. And, of course, through your joyful art. How did you balance the amount of text and artwork?
This was like making a three-layer cake. One layer, sharing the love for a place I adore; another one, sharing a personal story; and the third layer, making it fun. I wanted to make sure the prose would be humorous and engaging and that the visual narrative would not serve as a mere crutch but to give more depth to the story.

In having a bilingual element, I wanted to make sure this wouldn’t fall into the didactic category. I don’t want to be educating the readers; I want to have fun with them!

My intention was for the typography to act as a voice. To have pauses, hesitation, sighs, elements we often use in spoken language but that are not always conveyed in print. Giving typography life and letting it work sometimes as form (words to be read) and sometimes as image allowed for a richer visual narrative and further expression.

Can you talk about the decision to sprinkle bits of “the Spanish” throughout rather than write a bilingual text?
This is a book written in English, about a child who is learning the English. This was a hard concept to explain. Spanish allows for some contrast between languages and a deeper understanding of Juana’s world. I thought of this as an element that could bring the readers closer to the character, whether they know Spanish or not.

I believe children are very smart and will discover what the words in Spanish mean as they read the book, without the need for footnotes or help from adults. I remember feeling very proud of myself when I could discover things on my own; hopefully they’d do so, too!

Your spare but expressive art style reminds me of the work of Marc Simont in the best possible way. Who are your favorite illustrators and artistic influences?
What a great compliment, thank you! Marc Simont’s work is stunning; there’s so much to learn from all the stories he illustrated.

There are a great number of influences and illustrators I admire, the list is long! But Sempé, Quino, and Quentin Blake are three illustrators/cartoonists I have looked up to since I can remember. Their use of line, playfulness, and ability to convey emotions are breathtaking.

I understand that this is just the beginning of the adventures of Juana and Lucas. Can you tell us where they will go from here?
That’s right! This is just the beginning. Juana and Lucas are about to embark on new adventures that will surely take them to completely new and unexpected places. This time, Juana won’t be flying anywhere or having to learn any new languages, but there’s someone new, causing so much distraction that she can’t even focus while eating her ice cream.

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This article was published in School Library Journal's July 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Luann Toth About Luann Toth

Luann Toth (ltoth@mediasourceinc.com) is Managing Editor of SLJ Reviews. A public librarian by training, she has been reviewing books for a quarter of a century and continues to be fascinated by the constantly evolving, ever-expanding world of publishing.

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