EM: Well, I didn’t really learn this until once we started promoting the book a few weeks ago, but apparently David singled me out to Joanna Cardenas (our editor) as the one illustrator he would like to work with. And frankly, I am more than relieved that nobody said anything – the pressure I would’ve felt to try and live up to these expectations would’ve been enormous!!
Instead, my version of the story was that my agent emailed me the text and asked me if I’d like to do this. Before I read the story, I recognized the names – both David’s and Joanna’s – and I knew straight away I wanted to say yes to it. But reading the actual text made me want to sit down. Here were the details of home, and a very unique home at that: the dad’s opening line saying they were about to go al otro lado – our way in which we refer to the other side of the border – was enough to make me tear up. But nostalgia aside, the work was a piece of poetic beauty, and one aligning with my obsessions and my frustrations, as we later see on the crossing bridge. This was a book I would’ve done even if I hadn’t had the time to do: I would’ve made the time!
LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of the characters we meet? As you got to know the story better, how did your illustrations evolve? What did you find to be the most challenging part for you?
EM: The protagonist was the tricky one. I sketched from photo loads of Mexican boys, from all over the country – since any one boy can be found at the border. A lot of economic migrants come and go (my family being one of them), and they will come from all over the country, from every economical backgrounds – and therefore, in all colors. But I couldn’t have a single boy that faithfully represented all of that!
What eventually weighed in and enabled me to focus my efforts, though, was that out of my two siblings and myself, my middle brother was the darker one. We all found it difficult to see ourselves in films, television, books – but I think he had an extra level of difficulty. He couldn’t be Batman, he couldn’t be James Bond, he couldn’t be Buzz Lightyear. As soon as I came to this realization, I was determined to make it so that any boy like my brother could see themselves on this book. And so, the rebel hair (gallito) that refuses to be the way you combed it, the wide nose, and more iconically the ears, it all became a wink to my little brother.
LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?
EM: This is definitely my favorite medium, yes. But – is it a medium? I don’t really know. It is a mix of gouache (for the intense colors), watercolor (for the ones I don’t want to mix every time), Posca markers (for the details), watercolor pencils (for the character sketches, their features and their skin tones) and Photoshop (for the skin tones, to keep them consistent, as well as the later edits. It definitely is the way I prefer to draw: directly on the paper, allowing unexpected mistakes to happen. It may drive some art directors nuts, but the Kokila team gave me freedom to just allow all kinds of happenstances that made the world richer – which is, I would argue, how my process changes. I just allow the book to reveal itself. Sometimes it happens when I start erasing things, or when I try to correct an ink mistake, or when the cat knocks something on the table. I’ve found that, sadly, when I start to be micromanaged in the art (which is fair! it is just different styles of work!) my books kind of look the same, for I’ve taken the usual shortcuts. Those that stand out – like this one! – are always, always the ones where I was allowed to have fun.
LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?
EM: Hooooooo… I’ve been busy. Very busy. I cannot show you anything just yet, but the covers should be announced very, very soon – I have coming up another book about Mexico! This one ended up being extremely personal, allowing me to show the inside details of a Mexican home, and I chose to use my grandparents as reference for it. Second book is a childhood dream book: I was asked to do a book about Monarch butterflies. I am dying to share that one; it is *lush*! I’ve hand-painted thousands of butterflies for it, on meter-long original spreads! And the third one… the third one is a secret. A big, big, big secret. But – without revealing what it is about – I can tell you that I had never, ever, ever been as free as I’ve been on this book. I am about to start painting it, and I’m both incredibly excited and completely terrified!
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?
EM: It would frankly depend on the style of my life you went for. IF we were for the facts and nothing but the facts, in a very realistic way, then I would need to recruit Leo Espinosa – his handling of urban landscapes, diversity and dynamic movement would suit my Mexican towns, the border and the sudden change to Europe. And he would be able to handle the downs of the story magnificently. But if it were a picture book that took all that and turned it into a whimsical, almost comic tale – the one I tell at parties when someone asks me how I got here – then, I would need my evil twin Flavia Z. Drago. I know she would be able to create a world that is joyful and colorful and very Mexican, and yet still leave subtle clues on her trail that told the *whole* dimension of the story. Plus, I would really love to see what I would look like in her style!
September 21, 2021 at 10:37AM firstname.lastname@example.org (Mel Schuit)