Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin

DearPrimo

Image Credit: Abrams Books for Young Readers, Duncan Tonatiuh

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ll know that Duncan Tonatiuh is one of my favorite author/illustrators. Not only does he write great stories, he’s an amazing artist. I got the chance to read this book (his very first one!) while preparing for my interview with him and I’ve also reviewed his more recent books Salsa and Funny Bones.

Dear Primo is a story about two cousins. Carlitos lives in Mexico, in the country and on a farm and Charlie lives in a big city in the United States. They write letters back and forth to each other, explaining their daily lives and the things they like to do. While Carlitos rides his bicicleta to school every day past the perros and nopal, Charlie rides the busy subway, which he describes is like a long metal snake that travels underground. The duality of the storytelling makes it easy for children to compare and contrast. At the end of the story, both boys come up with the same conclusion; it’s time to visit each other! 🙂

Though it seems their lives are very different, there are more similarities than differences. Duncan incorporates Spanish words into the text and they’re also printed in bold, white letters in the illustrations. Children can pick up the words and definitions easily, matching visuals to the words.

I’ll never get enough of Duncan Tonatiuh’s art style. Inspired by Mixtec codices, his figures are inspired by the past and updated for modern day. He uses digital collage for texture; an image of blue jean for Charlie’s pants and images of marbles for Carlito’s game of canicas! I love the well-balanced cover with crinkly lined paper in the background. As I mentioned to Duncan in our interview, it’s interesting to see how his lines have become cleaner and more polished over the years. Dear Primo‘s art is much more “raw” as he put it, compared to his most recent book Funny Bones, but I enjoy the art of both for their similarities and differences. Teachers, this book is great to introduce a unit on pen-pals. I think you’ll enjoy Dear Primo. Check it out!

 

Recommended for: All ages
Great for: Family, Cousins, Friendship, Duality, Relationships, City Life, Country Life, Culture, Cultural Relativism, Games, Daily Life, Traditions, Mexico, Mexican-American, Food Culture, Mexican Food, Spanish Language, Pen-Pals
Book Info: Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin by Duncan Tonatiuh, 2010 Abrams Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 9780810938724

A Chat With Duncan Tonatiuh

Duncan Tonatiuh’s work is some of the most important work in children’s literature right now. His books speak truth, teach our realities and his art isn’t too bad. 😉 He creates picture books that cover topics like immigration, city vs. rural life, friendship, art history, discrimination, prejudice, determination and history. You can read my reviews for Funny Bones and Salsa here.

Funny Bones was the very first book I reviewed for my blog, so it holds an important place in my blogging life. Through reading and experiencing his books, I became more interested in learning about him. He’s a very cool person! Let’s get on to the interview…

 

AliaQ1. What are three words to describe yourself?

Duncan: Thats a tough one. One would be responsible or dependable.

Alia: Yeah I know! I like to ask people this though…

Duncan: Creative maybe? Smart sounds conceited but something to do with being a thinker. Thoughtful?  That is what I can think of for now.

Alia: That’s great. Thank you.

Duncan: Calm maybe?

Alia: 🙂

Duncan: No problem.

AliaQ2. Congratulations on your baby daughter! Has having a child influenced how you see yourself as a storyteller?

Duncan: I’m sure it has. But I’m not quite sure how yet. It’s definitely had a huge impact in my life. My world does not revolve around me anymore by any means. And I feel an enormous and unconditional love for my daughter. It’s a wonderful feeling.

AliaQ3. The first time I saw your books, your art made me cheer. It’s such a beautiful display of indigeneity. The Mixtec codex influence. Do you mind discussing your style and how it developed?

Duncan: I went to design school in New York City. There is a large Mixtec community there. I became friends with a Mixtec guy named Sergio. For my senior thesis I decided to make a small comic book about his journey from his small village in the south of Mexico to working as a busboy in a restaurant in New York.

One of the first things I did when I began that project was go to the library to look up Mixtec artwork. I found images of Mixtec codex from the 15th century. I was blown away by them. I grew up in Mexico, so I was familiar with Pre-Columbian art but never paid much attention to it. When I saw images of the codex at the library I decided I would make a modern day codex of Sergio’s story.

I began emulating the drawings from the codex. I drew every one in profile. I stylized their ears to look like a number 3. I drew the character’s entire bodies, etc. I collaged my drawings digitally though to make them feel more modern.

Alia: That’s awesome! You kind of touch on that modern day application of art in your book about Diego Rivera. How he’d view the world now and create it in his style. I love how you take ancient art from your culture and make it modern for today’s children. I really really like how you use digital collage too! It makes the images pop.

Duncan: Thanks!

Alia: No problem!

DuncanTonatiuhInterview2

Image Credit: Dear Primo, Abrams Books for Young Readers, Duncan Tonatiuh

Q4. What was your favorite food growing up?

Duncan: Hmmm. Maybe enchiladas or pozole. When I was a kid I asked my mom why my Dad always got to pick what we were having for lunch. She said it was because he gave her the money to buy the food. At some point I got a job after school helping out a jewellery maker. When I got paid I gave the money to my mom and asked her to make enchiladas.

Alia: Hahaha. That sounds like something my mom would say. 🙂

Duncan: lol

AliaQ5. Your books are very powerful and full of history and perspective. They also have the ability to reach any child in the world. What do you hope children take away from your books?

Duncan: Thanks! Well, first and foremost I hope they find my books entertaining and interesting to look at. I make books about things that interest me. Hopefully young readers will find those things interesting and important too. I try to have a message in my books but I hope they don’t feel preachy or didactic.

When it comes to Latino children I hope they see themselves, their family and their community in the books. Hopefully they feel pride and realize that their voices and stories are important. For non-Latino children, I hope they learn about a different culture. With books like Pancho Rabbit or Separate Is Never Equal, I hope that they feel empathy and understanding of the struggles Latino children and people have to face sometimes.

One of the most rewarding moments I’ve had as an author is when a group of 4th graders from an Elementary in Texas wrote a multi-voice poem about their border crossing experiences after they read Pancho Rabbit. I feel my book encouraged them to speak and realize that their voices and stories are important. Let me find the link:

 

Alia: Thank you for sharing and that is amazing. I’m glad for your books because it is so important to not only share stories, but to create stories that children can relate to. Children of color sometimes need that boost, that representation. That’s why diverse books are so important. For teaching and learning, and inspiring as in the case of those 4th graders! 🙂

Duncan: 🙂

AliaQ6. Congratulations on all the recent honors (Sibert Award/Pura Belpré Honor/NCTE Honor) for Funny Bones! Have you received any feedback from kids on that book?

Duncan: Thank you! I’ve received a few calavera drawings from students. And I’ve seen projects that they’ve created at school for the Day of the Dead. I look forward to receiving more feedback from kids and seeing how they respond to the book and what resonates with them.

Alia: How cool! When I was a teacher in Korea, I learned about Day of the Dead to share with my students. In Korea, they have a holiday called Chuseok where they also honor ancestors, make an altar of food, and clean graves. They seemed to connect with it, especially since they saw some cultural similarities. They were a little surprised about the calaveras though. But when I showed them the sugar skulls, they wanted to taste them. lol!

Duncan: lol

Alia: Yeah my students were cute.

DuncanSalsa1

Image Credit: Salsa, Groundwood Books, Duncan Tonatiuh

Q7. For the book Salsa, you illustrated words that weren’t your own. What was it like working with Jorge Argueta?

Duncan: The majority of picture books are written by one person and illustrated by another one. The publishing company pairs the two together. I did not meet Jorge until after I had illustrated the book. That is often the case with picture book authors and illustrators. I enjoyed illustrating Jorge’s book and we have become friends, but we didn’t work on that book together; at least not at the same time.

I finished illustrating a book recently for another author, a woman named Susan Wood. We’ve only met once very briefly. I enjoy illustrating other people’s stories but I like writing and illustrating my own books the best because I have a little more control. I can change the text or the illustrations as I need and hopefully that makes the book flow more smoothly.

Alia: That’s really interesting. I’ve also noticed that for some smaller publishers, the author can have some say in who they’d like to work with and there’s more dialogue during the creative process. I think the book came out really nicely.

Maybe also, like any piece of art, a book that is written and illustrated by you is your complete piece and like you said, you can tweak and bend the product to be exactly what you like and want to say.

Duncan: Definitely. And I’m not sure but I think the publisher asked Jorge if he thought I would be a good fit for the manuscript he wrote. He didn’t give me comments on my illustrations and sketches but he had the opportunity to look at some of my work first I believe.

Alia: Thanks for the insight!

Q8. You touched on it a bit above but are there any upcoming projects you can share with the public yet?

Duncan: I have two picture books coming out this fall. One will be called The Princess and the Warrior; A Tale of Two Volcanoes. I wrote and illustrated it. It’ll be published by Abrams. The book is my own version of the origin legend of two volcanoes that are outside of Mexico City: Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl. The story is set in Pre-Columbian times and it has some similarities to Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet.

The second book is called Esquivel! Space-Age Sound Artist. It’s written by Susan Wood and illustrated by yours truly. It’ll be published by Charlesbridge. The book is about a Mexican composer who is considered the creator of lounge music. It was fun to illustrate. It’s a groovy and swanky book with a lot of hand-drawn text in it.

Alia: Oh man, I’m looking forward to both!!

Duncan: Thanks! Me too!

AliaSide note: While studying your books for this interview, it was fun to see how your art style has evolved over time. In Dear Primo compared to Funny Bones, your lines now are a little cleaner, the hands of the people are smaller and they have necks! So interesting to see.

Duncan: Yeah. That is true. Sometimes I miss some of the rawness of Dear Primo. I am hoping to experiment a little more with upcoming projects. I want them to still be in my style but I also want them to evolve or change a little depending on the project.

Alia: Looking forward to how your style grows.

Q9. Any place or food you really recommend during a visit to your hometown of San Miguel de Allende?

Duncan: San Miguel is a great place to visit. A few years ago it was voted “Best City in the World” by Traveler’s Magazine. I think one of the things that visitors like about it is that there is nice combination of high-end and cheap options. There are some really good fancy restaurants but also great cheap street tacos.

My favorite place in town is probably the library. It has a wonderful courtyard. I love going there to write, draw and read. Some good places for visitors are the crafts market, the botanical garden, the Fábrica la Aurora -an old factory that was converted into art galleries- and the hot springs.

Alia: Fábrica la Aurora sounds sweet! A great space for creativity. Thanks for sharing!

 

Thank you Duncan for taking time to talk with me. I really enjoyed our conversation and I’m excited for all the books coming from you (this year and years to come!). Yay!

Be sure to check out his:

Website, http://www.duncantonatiuh.com/

Facebook Page, https://www.facebook.com/DuncanTonatiuharte/?fref=ts

Blog, https://duncantonatiuh.wordpress.com/ 


 

Thanks for reading! ❤

Just a Minute

JustaMinute

Image Credit: Chronicle Books LLC, Yuyi Morales

Aye! I love a good trickster tale. Just A Minute is so clever and memorable and features the bony Señor Calavera. If you want to learn more about calaveras, check out the book Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras by Duncan Tonatiuh.

Just a Minute begins with Señor Calavera’s visit to Grandma Beetle’s doorstep. Her time for death has come BUT…she has other ideas! 😉  She tells him “Just a minute…” because she has one house to sweep and so, Señor Calavera, being the agreeable reaper that he is, waits patiently. And so the story continues. This book is also a counting book in English and Spanish and with each number, Grandma cleverly secures a little more time on this earth and Señor Calavera gets more impatient. She is preparing her house and cooking food for her birthday party with her grandchildren…Death can certainly wait! The format of the story is repetitive but this isn’t a bad thing; repetition can help children become comfortable with a story, and with reading as well.

Yuyi Morales is one of my favorite author/illustrators because her stories have so much life! You can taste the food she draws and you can feel the energy. The family she creates in this story, with their warm brown skin, expressive faces and smiling eyes, is beautiful. The big body of Grandma Beetle reminds me of my Grandma Eva who also loved to cook and spend time with her grandchildren. Morales uses acrylic and mixed media to create her illustrations and her color palate is warm and vivid; the colors on the pages remind me of rows of papel picado. If you’re charmed by Grandma Beetle and Señor Calavera, check out the sequel to this book, Just in Case!

Recommended for: All Ages
Great for: Trickster Tales, Cultural Diversity, Mexican Culture, Spanish Language, Mexican Food, Food Culture, Calaveras, Counting, Family, We Need Diverse Books, Grandmothers
Book Info: Just a Minute by Yuyi Morales, 2003 Chronicle Books LLC, ISBN: 9780811837583

Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras

Funny Bones

Image Credit: Abrams, Duncan Tonatiuh

Author/illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh is one of my current favorites. I love not only the abundance of cultural and historical information in his picture books but his art style is simply amazing. It’s so smooth and modern while being unique and a throwback to his indigenous Mexican heritage. Does it get better than that? Not really and that’s why I’m loving his books so much.

Because Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is coming up soon, I’m discussing his newest book Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras. I’ve had an interest in Dia de Los Muertos ever since I taught a lesson about it to my Korean students. I wanted to expose them to a cultural tradition that was different but similar to one of their own. Koreans celebrate a holiday called Chuseok where they honor and pray for their dead ancestors. Since there are some similarities to Dia de Los Muertos, I thought the kids might really get something out of it!

Tonatiuh does an excellent job of making culture, art critique and history accessible to kids. Some kids really enjoy the bio books and I think they’ll love this one. We learn about the life and art of Mexican artist Posada who is responsible for making the crazy and vibrant Calavera (bone people) illustrations popular. He also documented important political events like the Mexican Revolution.

What I enjoyed most about this picture book is how Tonatiuh encourages children to do art critique. He reproduces Posada’s art, blends it with his own and poses questions about the meaning of the art all while telling Posada’s story. This is awesome! Because the book is partially about Dia de Los Muertos, it encourages you to think about life and death. This may seem heavy but like the holiday, it is about the celebration of life as well as the celebration of a great Mexican artist!

Recommended for: Ages 7 and up
Great for: History, Art History, Diversity, We Need Diverse Books, Holiday, Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, Artist Bio, Biography, Non-Fiction, Mexico
Book Info: Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras by Duncan Tonatiuh, 2015 Abrams, ISBN: 9781419716478