Pura Belpré Award Winner & New Voice: Juana Martinez-Neal on Alma and How She Got Her Name

By Traci Sorell

Juana Martinez-Neal is a force of nature already this year.

Having won the 2018 Pura Belpré Award for her illustrations in La Princesa and the Pea, written by Susan Middleton Elya (Putnam, 2017), she now has her own debut picture book, Alma and How She Got Her Name (Candlewick, 2018).

Candlewick acquired the story in a seven-publisher auction and is releasing it simultaneously in Spanish and English.

Publishers Weekly, Booklist and School Library Journal all gave the book starred reviews.

I thoroughly enjoyed this beautiful picture book and caught up with Juana as she starts a busy season of appearances to talk about her craft and the origin of Alma’s story.

Tell me what first inspired you to illustrate for young readers? 

My father and grandfather were both fine artists in Peru and I grew up in a house surrounded by art materials, easels, art studio spaces and paintings – painted by people who I knew.

How amazing is that?

At 16, and while I was still in high school, I was working on some commercial illustration for toys. That was so much fun! I illustrated until I was 21 when I was accepted to Art School for Painting in Lima. Once in art school, my pieces felt more whimsical or younger than what other students were creating, so I decided to move to the United States in search of new things and answers.

Years later, and after the birth of our second son, I realized that I had to go back to illustration.

I was living in the United States where illustrating children’s books could be a career – that was not the case when I lived in Peru.

I met some local Arizona illustrators through SCBWI who pointed me in the right direction. With their guidance, I gave myself assignments, completed new pieces done, posted my work in online portfolios, and eventually got some magazine and educational work.

Then, I was hired by some small presses and authors who were self-publishing books.

While this was happening, my work was developing. Initially I worked with colored pencils, mainly because I had two boys under the age of three running around the house. As they grew older so did my wish to explore new media, and I started playing with materials and slowly developed the mixed media technique that I use now.

Juana’s workspace

In 2012, twenty-weeks pregnant with our daughter and with this new technique, I was awarded the Portfolio Grand Prize at the SCBWI Annual Conference. I also met my literary agent, Stefanie Von Borstel of Full Circle Literary.

I then worked on a few book illustration opportunities, and little by little an idea I had grew into my author-illustrator debut picture book, Alma and How She Got Her Name.

Although this is your debut picture book as an author-illustrator, you have illustrated books for other authors. Describe to me the emotions around getting the call that you had won the 2018 Pura Belpré Illustration Award for La Princesa and the Pea.

On Sunday evening, the whole family had tickets to go see “Hamilton.” My cell rang for the first time as the lights were dimming and the play was about to start.

My cell rang many, many more times. As it rang, I went from being frustrated with an unknown telemarketer to worrying that maybe something had happened to my parents or my brother.

Otherwise, why in the world would my phone ring so many times?

I had to wait until the intermission to call back.

“Hello. Someone is calling me from this number?” I said in an unusual calm and patient voice.
“Is this Juana Martinez-Neal?”
“We are calling from the Pura Be…”

And that was enough to start ugly crying. I honestly don’t remember many of the details from the call.

Later, when we got home, I started doubting if or what I had won. It was a restless, long night. The best restless, long night I have had in a while.

The next morning, I watched the webcast to make sure! There were lots of emotions!

How did you come to write and illustrate Alma and How She Got Her Name?

The idea for my book and early drafts of the manuscript started with the story of how I was named by my parents in Peru.

I was born Juana Carlota Martinez Pizarro. “Juana” was the name of my grandmother, my father’s mother. And “Carlota” was supposed to be “Carla” after my mom’s uncle Carlos, who she loved very much and passed when she was 20 and he was 33 years old. This is Esperanza’s son in the book.

My dad was in charge of filling out my birth certificate. Being the man he was, he wanted a stronger name than Carla and decided to change it to Carlota. He felt that Carlota was the strong name that I needed.

For the first twenty years of my life, I couldn’t disagree more. In Peru we also use two last names – both our mother’s and our father’s last names. So I was Juana Carlota Martinez Pizarro, which is a long name and very Spanish name. Juana Carlota can sound very old-fashioned and harsh, and growing up people around me made me aware of that – especially my friends’ moms.

Interior illustration by Juana Martinez-Neal, used with permission 

I have a big family photo album which I put together many, many years ago with photos I collected from my parents, which they got from their parents, and that my grandparents got from their parents.

Every time I looked at the photo album, my head filled with many questions. Who were they? What did they love? What made them who they were?

One day, I began drawing these photographs and piecing together a story about a little girl with a really long name and how she learns about her family through those names.

The story of Alma and all her relatives began to take shape. All of Alma’s relatives in the book are based on relatives in my own extended family.

While I had been looking at my big family album for years and thinking about a story, I gave birth to my third child and first daughter in 2013, and thought about my name again and my daughter’s name.

I came back to the story and began to talk to my agent about it. Her son is named after his great grandfather and he is the fourth generation with his name. We began talking about our children’s names and how all children – really everyone – has a story behind their name. Then the story grew from there!

What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life?

Artistically, since much of my inspiration came from my big old family photo album. I wanted the entire book to feel like an old photo album without being one.

Interior illustration by Juana Martinez-Neal, used with permission 

The first image I created was the one of José, my dad’s dad who was an artist. It was challenging to make the characters look and feel like the relatives or capture their spirit in creative ways. While I didn’t keep all of their exact names, the names embody the essence of those family members.

I used many details in the pieces to tell more of the stories of the family members and their past, such as Esperanza, whose name means “hope,” and she is shown filled with gifts and letters by her side to symbolize that she always hoped to travel but never left home. Yet through her son’s gifts, she got to “see” the world.

Esperanza’s son is my great uncle Carlos – after whom my mom named me. He went on a cruise and never came back. His body was never recovered. This story marked me in significant ways, and I always felt that my great-grandmother stayed in her home town hoping that one day Carlos would come back home. Needless to say, Esperanza’s story was the most challenging to tell. 

Psychologically, writing Alma was a big challenge. Even though the text is short, I had to dig deep to tell the stories of the life of each one of the relatives.

In this one book, there are many stories woven through from the past along with Alma’s story happening in the present. The story is framed by Alma talking with her daddy. I am also very close to my dad, and spent many hours talking with him and my mom about the stories of our family. It was a very intense time. While writing and revising, I could only take one story at a time before I was sobbing.

Funny enough, as I found myself crying, I started to realize that I had gotten to that place where I needed to be to tell my story.

Juana signing copies of Alma at Southern California Independent Booksellers Association
Celebrating the Kids’ IndieNext Top 10 Spring 2018

As a member of a community underrepresented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to Alma? 

I am Peruvian, and I often see my people and culture underrepresented or shown in only one story often filled with stereotypes.

I’ll take advantage of this opportunity to share that not all Peruvians live in the mountains, wear chullos, and own llamas.

Alma and How She Got Her Name is all about being Peruvian—from showing the mix of traditional religion and Indigenous beliefs (that I absolutely believe), to living in a politically unstable country, to valuing or sadly not valuing our own Indigenous people.

There is a richness to Alma’s character as a Peruvian, and she is proud of herself and her family. I hope young readers see this and turn to discover pride in their own names, families, and heritage. Celebrate who they are!

Alma will be released in simultaneous English and Spanish hardcover editions.

As a native Spanish speaker, I wrote both the English and the original Spanish.

It is an honor to be able to share this story in both of my languages!

Cynsational Notes

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly described Alma and How She Got Her Name as “an origin story that envelops readers like a hug.”

The starred review from School Library Journal indicates Juana achieved her illustration goal.

“The round, stylized figure of the girl, dressed in pink striped pants and a white shirt, pops against the sepia pages (reminiscent of old, family photo albums).”

See teacher tips for using Alma in the classroom from Candlewick Press.

Juana Martinez-Neal is also the illustrator of La Madre Goose and La Princesa and the Pea, both written by Susan M. Elya and published by Putnam.

She was born in Lima, the capital of Peru, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with her husband, two sons, daughter, puppy, and the soul of their late kitty.

Follow her on Twitter and Instagram to see her latest work.

She is represented by Stefanie Von Borstel of Full Circle Literary.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018.

The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Watch a video interview with Juana in English…

…or in Spanish.

3 thoughts on “Pura Belpré Award Winner & New Voice: Juana Martinez-Neal on Alma and How She Got Her Name

  1. I love ALMA, and was sitting at work reading it through before it has its premiere with a class of 3-4 year olds. Thank you for this wonderful interview, and for your beautiful work!

  2. I love this book and have been sharing it with LOTS of children and teachers. We also purchased a copy for every elementary library including 4 Spanish versions for our dual-language campuses. It's a book that everyone can connect with!

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