Interview: Children’s Author-Illustrator Maria Diaz Strom

Maria Diaz Strom is the author-illustrator of RAINBOW JOE AND ME (Lee & Low, 2002), an illustrated picture book that celebrates colors, as experienced by a girl named Eloise and her friend Rainbow Joe, who is blind. Strom is a native of Portland, Oregon, and studied art at Portland State University. This interview was conducted via email in March 2000.

Could you tell us about the inspiration for integrating each aspect of the story . . . colors, music, friendship, and the theme of blindness?

At the time I was teaching art at the Texas School for the Blind, so I had art and the blind on my mind. I was also traveling to New Orleans, any chance I could get, to soak up (in my opinion) some of this country’s best regional culture—which includes jazz. One night, after returning from New Orleans, the image of a musician with a rainbow coming out of his saxophone came to me so vividly that I knew I had to turn it into a story.

What were the challenges in telling this story?

Rainbow Joe and Me by Maria Diaz Strom

The most significant challenge in telling the story was describing how blind Rainbow Joe experiences color. I asked my students about their experience. People who are blind from birth know color through what others have told them about it, but Rainbow Joe adds to that information. When he describes green he uses his sense of touch; “Sweet gr-e-e-e-e-n. That’s a color so soft you just want to lie down in it and take a nap.”

What about it are you especially proud of?

I’m especially happy with the illustrations that describe the colors. Coming up with all the red, green, yellow and blue objects and finding interesting ways to incorporate them onto the pages was a challenge.

What sorts of books did you enjoy as a girl?

I liked quiet, reflective books, especially those by Ezra Jack Keats. His stories had a magical hold on me. I think that he’s a master illustrator; his books are truly unique and his use of paint and collage innovative.

What inspired you to begin writing and illustrating books for children?

I started off as a painter. An agent advised me to go into children’s book illustration because my paintings had a childlike, whimsical quality.

Could you tell us about your own path to publication?

I began illustrating educational books for children, then I started to be interested in trade books. I studied the picture book form and began writing. It took about three years before I got published in that market.