Illustrator Interview: Yuyi Morales on Los Gatos Black on Halloween

Los Gatos Black on Halloween by Marisa Montes, illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Henry Holt, 2006). From the catalog copy: “Under October’s luna, full and bright, the monsters are throwing a ball in the Haunted Hall. Las brujas come on their broomsticks. Los muertos rise from their coffins to join in the fun. Los esqueletos rattle their bones as they dance through the door. And the scariest creatures of all aren’t even there yet!

“This lively bilingual Halloween poem introduces young readers to a spooky array of Spanish words that will open their ojos to the chilling delights of the season.”

Born and raised in Veracruz, Mexico, Yuyi Morales is an artist, author, puppet maker, Brazilian folkdancer, and former host of a Spanish-language storytelling radio show. She is the author and illustrator of Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book (Chronicle, 2003), winner of the 2004 Pura Belpre Award, the Americas Award, Tomas Rivera Award, and the California Book award among others. She is the illustrator of Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull (Harcourt, 2003), hailed as one of the best books of the year by Child Magazine, School Library Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Book Links magazine. Yuyi Morales lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and son.

What about the artist’s life first called to you?

I have drawn all my life. My mother keeps drawings I made when I was two, where I made pictures of myself wearing platform shoes and long hair (like I have now). But I never considered myself an artist. For most of my life, I imagined artists were geniuses born under magical skies, whose destiny was imprinted like signs in their hands.

Me? I was only Yuyi who liked to draw.

That is why when I was an adolescent growing up in Mexico and it came the time to decide on a profession, I went to school to be a PE teacher and later studied psychology.

As I got more involved with my student and professional life, I thought I ought to concentrate in the “really” important things, like making a living, and I drew less and less.

But then one day, things changed, and I found myself as a new mother and as a new immigrant in the United States. Things were very different for me here; I didn’t have a job, I spoke almost no English, I had no friends, and I missed the love of my family. At first all I wanted was to go back to my country.

But then one day my mother-in-law, who spoke no Spanish but cared for me very much, brought my son and me to a place that would change my life forever. She brought us to the public library.

In the library, I eventually wanted to live, because in there I found everything I always needed: I found instructions, I found inspiration, and I found a path.

From the books I borrowed, I learned how to make handmade-paper, and baskets, and how to bind books, carve rubber stamps, and build puppets and make them walk. But mostly I learned that everything I always wanted to learn I could find it in a book.

From books in the library, I fell in love with children’s literature and their art. I awed at the sight of illustrations and studied picture book after picture book, wondering at how illustrators could bring such a magic to their work.

From books in the library, I recognized that I too had stories to tell and images to bring to life. And I wanted to do it so much that, at last, I had no choice but to let books teach me that–even though I was only Yuyi, and I had not been born under magical skies, and I didn’t have signs imprinted on my hands–art was my life.

What made you decide to illustrate for young readers?

Even thought in my country we have a very rich oral history, when I was growing up, we never had books as beautiful and rich as the ones I saw here in the public library of the U.S.A. And to me, it really was love at first sight.

Until that moment of my adult life, I had mostly only drawn, but I had no experience painting. But then I so much wanted to make books like the ones I got at the library that I bought my first set of paints and brushes and decided to learn how to paint.

My first attempts at painting were with watercolor crayons, and I wrote a story about my son–who was only a baby at the time–and I drew and painted illustrations. And when I was done, I bind the pages together the way I had leaned from a library book, and I even handmade the paper for the cover. And then I had done it! I had created my own children’s book.

Of course there was, and still is, so much more to learn. But from that humble beginning it was children’s books what woke up my urge to create.

For those new to your work, could you briefly summarize your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

My very first book was a book in Spanish, published exclusively for the school market, titled Todas las Buenas Manos by Isabel Campoy (Harcourt School Publishers, 2002). For this book I was hired to illustrate it in only twenty-two days, and it gave me the first glimpse into the challenges of the industry.

My first trade book was Harvesting Hope: the Story of Cesar Chavez by Katheleen Krull (Harcourt, 2003). I believe this book came to me so I could love it infinitely. In the process of making this book, not only I learned and admired the work and life of Cesar Chavez, the farm workers’ rights activist and leader, but I also came to learn more about myself and my strength as person and artist. Among others, this book received the Christopher and the Jane Adams Award, both of them bestowed to works of literature that promote peace and world understanding.

My next book was a work written by myself in the style of the traditional trickster folktale. The title is Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book (Chronicle, 2003). This is the story of a grandmother who wakes up one morning to find a skeleton waiting for her at the door. As the skeleton, Sr. Calavera, tells Grandma Beetle it is time for her to go with him, Grandma stalls her departure by asking for ‘just a minute’ so that she can complete an increasing number of chores before leaves.

This is a story that had a hard time finding takers among the publishing houses. Most editors told me that due to the theme of the story it would be hard to sell this book to readers. Currently, Just a Minute has won fourteen awards and honors, among them the Pura Belpre Award, the Americas Award, the California Book Award, and was named to Notable Books for a Global Society. And I am also happy to report that the children meet at my author presentations tell me how much the like Sr. Calavera, and so far I have never found one that was scared with the story.

My last book was a story written by Amanda White, titled Sand Sister (Barefoot Books, 2004), which was published both in the UK and the United States, and which was named book of the month for by the European magazine Junior.

Congratulations on the publication of Los Gatos Black on Halloween by Marisa Montes (Henry Holt, 2006)! What about Marisa’s text called to you?

I loved illustrating Marisa’s text. The tale is open enough that I was able to come up with my own interpretation of the images. And what did I want to do with the book? Play with my childhood fears and spooky stories, of course!

The text, which rhymes words both in English and Spanish, allows for a good-humored marriage of two cultures. That is why when you open the book, and the Halloween creatures begin to creep out, swoosh, and dance through the pages, they all look like people I know from my country.

There you see the skeleton of Simon Bolivar, the so called “Libertador de America,” parading in his gold-and-tassels suit. And ahead you’ll find “La Llorona,” the Hollering Ghost Woman swooping through the air, the way I always I thought I would see her some day when I was a child. And beyond is a Cabeza Olmeca, an Olmec head, citizen of the mystic rubber land, except I added legs and arms made of, what else? Rubber! The painter Diego Rivera and the Ghost of the comic Cantinflas are also dancing at the monster’s ball. There are many other people there from the Latino and Mexican history. Besides that, the witches are my aunts, my son is the boy in yellow suit, and even my dog, Chacho, is there except he is all dancing bones.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

I agreed to illustrate this book almost three years before I could actually do the work. So, by the time I took out the text again, I was delighted to see that I had such a playful text, and that three years later I still loved it.

My first step was to do research, since I realized that there were a bunch of things about monsters and ghost from the U.S.A. culture that I didn’t know. For instance, the text calls for the picture of a ghoul, but I didn’t know what a ghoul was or how it was supposed to look like. So, I looked in the dictionary and I searched on the Internet, where I found all kinds of crazy ghouls that eventually helped me to come up with my own interpretation. Also, when my editor, Reka Simonsen, commented that she imagined that ghost’s chains should have stuff attached to them like in Marley’s Ghost, I had to go and find out who Marley was.

Another part of my research had to do with studying X-Games athletes. Have you seen them on their bikes or their skate boards, doing jumps in the air and soaring the winds? Well, that is exactly how I imagined my witches would ride the night. And so I exchanged bikes and skateboards for brooms, and now there you have witches in the book swooping and swishing and swooshing…

Also I did quite some research for clothing, because I wanted to bring to my work a taste of colonial Mexico. Many of the dead in the book come out their graves after hundreds of years and still wearing the clothes that distinguished such a controversial period.

After the research, the next step was creating thumbnails of all the illustrations. These are very small and rough images of what I envisioned every page would look like. For my thumbnails, I always use simple shapes and stick people drawings. At this stage, I mostly concentrate on how the elements tell the story and composition. I draw almost no details here.

Later, I transition to full size detailed sketches. This is the time where I decide who my characters are and how they will look like. In the story of Los Gatos Black in Halloween there really isn’t a single main character, but, in my mind, every one of them has a story to tell, if you could ask them.

The look of my werewolf I created on an airplane napkin as I was coming home from one of my author visits. My first drawing was tiny, and it made me think that my werewolf actually looked like a rat. Based in this though, I developed Werewolf to look rather nerdy and timid; perhaps even a little mortified of being a monster. And he has worries! If you look at him in the illustrations, you will notice that there is a pink paper folded in his pocket. It is his report card, because, to me, he goes to the same school I went to in Mexico, and even though he is a good student in all his classes, he received an F in P.E. I think he might have been one of my classmates when I went to school, except nobody knew that at night he was a werewolf.

Developing my characters is one of my favorite things. I want them to have a purpose as well as a back story. My mummy was found buried in Peru near a volcano, where he slept for 500 years. Now he waits at the museum’s warehouse, while the new mummy’s exhibit gets ready. In the meantime, he has come to join the parade on Halloween night.

Once the sketches were approved, it was time to create the color art.

For Los Gatos Black on Halloween I darkened my palette to match the mood of the story, and I began painting in layers that started at the back of the illustration and ended with the elements closer to the foreground. That means that I painted first the sky and the landscape almost in its totality, and then I started overlapping every character in the scene.

When I was done painting the last of the illustrations, I placed all of them on the floor and checked for continuity and for consistency in the images, and made the necessary retouches.

And when the last detail had been painted, I cleared the floor of my studio, and placed the fifteen paintings there together. Then I brought my camera and tripod, and with the help of the timer, I took a picture of myself lying down on the floor next to my paintings with my hands crossed over my chest in dead manner. The photograph I sent to my friends from my writers’ and illustrators’ critique groups with the following caption. “At last, I am done…”

What advice do you have for beginning children’s illustrators?

I would encourage aspiring children’s book illustrators to be students of the children’s book work, and ,based in that knowledge, create a portfolio that they can be proud of.

Part of the purpose of the portfolio is to show editors and art directors not only what amazing artist one is, but also that one understands how to create a children’s book.

Suggestions of what to create and include in a portfolio are things that you find in a children’s book: illustrations of children in different situations, illustrations of animals, illustrations of outdoor scenes, illustrations of indoor scenes, and three or more illustrations of one same character that would show that you are capable of keeping your character’s consistency through a story.

Also, in the same way a children’s book writer doesn’t write down for children, a children’s book illustrator should be careful to not “illustrate down” for children. The artwork for children should be done with the same love, dedication, joy, and even painstaking discipline that any other work for adults. It is not easier or faster because it is for children. Much work is still required.

Also, recognize your teachers; we learn from everything we love, from what we are attracted to, from what catches our eye. I remember learning so much (and I still do!) from the illustrations I admired. I copied them, I tried to paint in the same way, and sometimes I even traced them over. At the end, this helped me in many ways.

First, it helped me recognize my interests from what I liked in illustrations, which was exactly what I wanted to illustrate myself. It also helped me expand my horizons, because when I tried to draw and paint like in the illustrations I liked, I pushed myself beyond doing only what was easy for me. And at last, trying to imitate my “teachers” made me move my hand and use my brain in a way that I wasn’t used to. Eventually, all of these were an essential part of developing my own skills as an illustrator, and it even pushed me to create past my own expectations.

How about those building a career?

Oh, all I know about building a career is work, work, work. I try to be smart about what I create and how I present it, but mostly I aim to surprise myself every time. Whether I am doing illustrations for a book, or delivering a presentation for six hundred children, I always want to do what I love, be well prepared, and surprise my reader and myself with the results.

One of my must cherished moments is that precious space of time at my painting table, when after many layers of color and many days of work, I finally put the last stroke of paint on an illustration, and at last I stand back to look at what I have created. It is magic!

In all of this I recognize that every painting, every book, and even every career might look like a daunting, nearly impossible-to-accomplish project. But in reality you only need to begin with the small things and to continue steadily and little by little, until the moment when you can stand back and marvel, too.

What do you do when you’re not illustrating?

I plant plants. Three years ago, and for the first time in my life, my husband and I bought a house with a garden, and as soon as I discovered how beautiful, amazing, and sculptural plants are, I couldn’t stop working in the garden, while paying extreme attention to color and form.

I spend many hours digging holes and filling them with plants, and looking at them in awe.

I also dance. I mostly take classes of Afro Brazilian and other dances from the African Diaspora. In occasions I have also performed with dance companies.

I am also a mother of a very tall and silly 12-year-old son, Kelly.

My favorite thing of the week is when we all go to see Kelly play his basketball tournaments.

What can your fans look forward to next?

They can look forward to Little Night (Roaring Brook Press, 2007), co-released in Spanish as Nochecita, a story I wrote and illustrated about the night being a child.

Little Night’s mother is trying to get her ready to come out and be the night, but the child is calling for Mother Sky to come and find her first. Where could Little Night be? Well, Mother Sky should better look well inside the raven nest, and in the blueberry fields, and the among all the dark things, because Little Night is enjoying this gentle game of hide and seek.

Little Night will be released in Spring 2007.

Cynsational Notes

Don’t miss Author Interview: Marisa Montes on Los Gatos Black on Halloween from Cynsations.