Let’s Talk Illustrators #178: Paloma Valdivia

After many, many years of admiring Paloma Valdivia‘s work (check out this post from 2017, but know that my admiration began many years prior!), I finally had a chance to catch Paloma and ask her about her work. Her newest book Nosotros Means Us: Un Cuento Bilingüe is special for many reasons (the illustrations, the story, the message…I could go on), and the fact that it’s bilingual makes it all the sweeter. Let’s dive in and take a closer look!

About the book:

If I were a sheep, you would be a lamb.
If I were a bear, you would be a cub.

As a mother holds her toddler, they muse over the way their love would translate if they were different animals. But no matter how they change, they will always be "us." This bilingual story is a timeless ode to the unshakable bond between parent and child.

Si yo fuera una oveja, tú serías un cordero.
Si yo fuera una osa, tú serías un osenzo.

Con su niño en brazos, una madre contempla cómo sería elamorentre ellos si fueran diferentes animales. Pero por mucho que cambien, no importa. Siempre serán"nosotros". Este cuento bilingüe es una oda eterna al lazo irrompibleentre madre e hijo.

Let’s talk Paloma Valdivia!

LTPB: Where did the idea for Nosotros Means Us: Un Cuento Bilingüe come from? Did you always envision it as a bilingual book?

PV: The idea came from the number of years I spent making my son sleep. I read him many books, I told him a thousand stories, I sang him all the songs I knew, but what worked best for me to relax him was this game of pretending to be someone else. I would say, "If I were a bear," and he would complete by saying, "I would be a little bear," and so the game used to last for a long time in which he began to fall asleep hugging me. Then I had to make time, because if I moved very abruptly or stopped quickly to leave, it meant waking him up and all over again. So I would stay there for a while and think that one day he would grow up and leave the house. And then I started my own game where I thought that one day we would be different. He would grow up, he would become whatever he wanted to be, and for my part I would begin to grow old. There is pain at the departure, but then there are understood, because the puppy has found its way, it is the cycle of life, of nature and when they meet again, when they return home, although they are no longer the same physically, the affection and that forged bond is intact. I think that in some way with my books I always answer something that I do not know, but that I intuit, I give myself a loving explanation to an inexorable fact. It is a story created just before sleeping, there is lucid thinking and something of dreams.

At the beginning I did not imagine the book in bilingual edition, but I love the idea, it is such a universal topic that it seems to me that it can be read in many voices. It is the voice of mothers, regardless of language. This book has been translated into many languages, including French, Italian, Turkish, Hindi, Japanese, English and Spanish.

In general, mothers buy it to read with their children, but it has happened to me a lot that grown-up daughters and sons buy it to gave their mothers. That moves me, because it is a cycle, it works in several generations.

It also happened to me that in Argentina they told me that they use it in a Foundation to support parents of transgender children. They told me that it was very useful to talk about that despite the change we are still the same, loving each other the same.

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of the characters? As you got to know them, how did your illustrations evolve? How did you decide what animals they would ultimately become?

PV: It was very entertaining to choose the characters, I read a lot about the names of the babies. In the game with my son we only said the diminutive of the big animal, like little bear, little horse, little rabbit. However, when writing the book, I looked for the true names of each animal’s offspring. Some were beautiful, others sounded very bad, for example the son of the rabbit says "gazapo" is an unkind word for a little rabbit, so in that case I kept the diminutive. I looked for aquatic animals, underground, that run and jump. In general, I thought of mammals due to the fact that they were breastfed and raised by their mother and I also wanted them to connect with each other through some detail in the illustration. The bears look at a hole in the ground, then the moles come, the mole has a little bunny in his bed, then the rabbits come. When choosing the different characters, when they separated and changed, I thought of a couple of animals that somehow connect in a symbiotic relationship of mutualism, but those animals were very large or feared, like the hippopotamus and the birds, Needing each other, the bird eats the parasites of the hippopotamus body, he in turn protects it and frees itself from diseases. Or like frogs and tarantulas. So I decided to create a fictional relationship between a deer and a bird. The antlers are like the branches of a tree on which that now little bird can perch. I think that the mother is always present, she is like a small voice that lives forever in our conscience, like a little bird in the branches of a tree.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? How has your illustration technique changed over the course of your career so far?

PV: This book was illustrated with watercolor, pencil and ink. I illustrate everything by hand many times and then I mount in Photoshop. I come from graphic design, so that’s why I put together the illustrations more like posters than paintings. I like to move objects, make them bigger, smaller, change color. I always do many versions of my authored books in general, so it can take me years to make one. I wanted this book to be very clean, with an emphasis on the characters. They go from the mother’s chair to the horse meadow or the fish ocean, but one must imagine that because there is no landscape. This is how the game was, imagining a succession of characters that radically change their environment. But that did not matter for the story because everything was also united by the rear of characters that continue one after another as in a post. 

Over the years my work has changed a lot. I am not a good natural illustrator, I think what I like the most is telling stories and conceptualizing them. I like to represent abstract concepts in a very simple way, that’s my game. My first drawings are rougher and harder, now I see them more delicate and simpler, cleaner. I don’t want to show too much, I want to get straight to the point. How to manage to represent a palace in a play with only two chairs on the stage, that is my quest.

On the other hand, I love the work of Art Brut, people who have not studied art but whose desire to paint or draw leads them to use any medium or technique. I find it fascinating what results from this work, like rock art, naïve paintings, or children’s drawings. I always want my work to have something of that, but it is very difficult to reach that vision after having studied and seen so many things. Do you know the work of Bill Traylor, Adolf Wölfli, Maude Lewis? There are so many artists with such pure, personal and beautiful visions that there is constant inspiration in them.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

PV: I worked a lot in this pandemic time. I am glad that people do not stop reading. Books and art in general have been a refuge, a way to survive the confinement and tedium of the equal days. Right now I am working on a book of poetry by Gabriela Mistral based on lullabies from Latin America for a Brazilian Publishing House in my first solo exhibition at the Museo Palacio La Moneda in Santiago de Chile. Also, together with my partner, we are working on a new collection for my publishing house (www.edicionesliebre.cl), and on my next authored book that is taking shape in my head and in my notebooks. This August though, I illustrated for Enchanted Lion Books, Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions. You can see the artwork below. I worked on it for four years, it took me a lot to conceptualize the poetry without answering the questions. It was a challenge, Claudia Zoe Bedrick is a great editor, and I think she brought out the best in me. I learned and studied a lot, it was like doing a postgraduate degree!

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

PV: This is the most entertaining question I’ve ever had to answer, I’ve been thinking about it for a week. I narrowed it down to Roald Dahl and Quino, the Argentinian illustrator. And Quino is the chosen one. I imagine my autobiography more in vignettes than in illustrations and without a doubt it is full of moments of black humor and jokes. Quino would illustrate my family very well. I saw their faces when I imagined it. He is able to see the beauty and tragedy of life and represent it with delicate beauty and intelligent humor. Thanks to his books I learned to read and I understood a lot about life. Quino is a school for me, it is part of my childhood. Quino draws the expressions in a superior way. At the end, life is about enjoying it and seeing it with humor because everything passes, this moment will also pass.
A million thanks to Paloma for talking to me about her work! Nosotros Means Us: Un Cuento Bilingüe published last week from Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers!

Special thanks to Paloma and Knopf or use of these images!

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May 18, 2021 at 10:33AM noreply@blogger.com (Mel Schuit)