Let’s Talk Illustrators #192: Zara González Hoang

Mi Casa Is My Home, written by Laurenne Sala and illustrated by Zara González Hoang, is a beautifully bilingual window into a familia of kids, cousins, parents, and grandparents who cherish each other more than anything in the world. I got a chance to talk to Zara about her process for bringing this large, loud, and loving family to life, and it was so fun learning about how she drew inspiration from her own family. Enjoy our chat below!

About the book:

Lucia invites you to visit her bustling casa and meet an intergenerational array of loved ones in a charming Spanglish celebration of family life.

Este es el baño . . . It’s where I shave my barba con Abuelo.

Bienvenidos to Lucía’s home. Lucía lives in her casa with her big, loud, beautiful familia, and she’s going to show you around! From la puerta, where Abuela likes to wave to the neighbors and wait for packages from Puerto Rico or Spain, to la cocina, where Lucía watches her Mamá turn empty pots into soups and arroces, to el patio, where Lucia and her cousins (and her cousin’s cousins!) put on magic shows, Lucía loves her busy and cozy casa.

Let’s talk Zara González Hoang!

LTPB: I love the little note on the book jacket about how excited you were to illustrate Mi Casa Is My Home! Can you talk about your inspiration for the characters we see? 
ZGH: I might have squealed when I read Laurenne’s manuscript for the first time, I was that excited. It felt like I was reading a story about my own family, my own childhood. There were so many familiar moments – everyone crammed into the kitchen, big fiestas on the patio, fighting and playing with my siblings and of course the back and forth of Spanish and English which felt like poetry. Laurenne captured it all in her manuscript and I feel so lucky I got to bring it to life.

Of course, my inspiration was my own family, how could it not be when it seemed like Laurenne was writing about them? The dad in the story is very much based on my dad, but, and this is amazing, when Laurenne saw the illustrations she couldn’t believe how much the dad looked like her dad! I’ve seen a picture of her dad, and it is true, which has made me convinced that we must be related somehow since our dads look quite a bit alike.

The other characters are based on family members and friends that have swirled around me throughout my life, it was fun to bring bits of my own life into the story through the characters…and the house as well. I made the house a bungalow, because I adore bungalows, they are small but cozy and also, I grew up in one so they hold a special place in my heart. (And in another coincidence, Laurenne lives in a bungalow now!)

LTPB: What intrigued you most about Laurenne’s manuscript? What were you most excited to illustrate, and what were some of the more challenging moments?

ZGH: I think the thing that intrigued me the most was the challenge of depicting a whole family. Lucía is the main character but her family is all around her in every spread and that was fun – to imagine who everyone was – and also very challenging! There were a lot of pages with lots of family members and trying to squeeze everyone in and also create the feeling of warmth and family I was going for was really a challenge. I think (I hope!) I managed to pull it off! My favorite spread in the book is the one in the kitchen where Abuelo is seasoning his turkey and everyone is crammed in, just hanging out together. 

It’s my favorite spread because it is exactly how things were in my house growing up. Our kitchen was tiny, I think my parents called it a “one-butt kitchen” – as in, really there could only be one butt in there at a time and still have room to cook – but somehow when a big meal was being made we all managed to squeeze in somehow – or sit in the doorways (there were two) and take part in the conversation – or taste the first bits of pernil or the tostones hot from the oil. Some of my favorite memories are from when I was a bit older and my sister and I would make tostones while my dad watched – and critiqued – everything we did. So many of my memories take place in and around the kitchen, so illustrating that scene was like being transported to my childhood home.

LTPB: What differences have you found between creating a picture book on your own (text and illustrations) versus illustrating someone else’s text?

ZGH: Honestly, the biggest difference is it’s so much easier for me to illustrate someone else’s book! Maybe that’s not the case for all illustrators, but I started working on Mi Casa is My Home fairly soon after I finished working on A New Kind of Wild and it was like a vacation. All I had to do was focus on making the art. The words were all taken care of and I couldn’t change anything, they were what they were (and they were beautiful!) and I had to build my world around them. When you’re the author AND the illustrator, anything goes. If something isn’t working with the text, you can change it…and with A New Kind of Wild, we did, over and over and over again – to the point where we were still changing a few bits of text after the final art was done. It’s so much more stressful to have to think about all of that!

Don’t get me wrong, I love writing too and I hope to make more author / illustrator books, but writing is harder for me and being able to change anything you want can be overwhelming. It is such a gift to be able to jump into someone else’s words and create my vision within theirs. I feel lucky to be able to do both.

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?
ZGH: I used watercolor and colored pencil to create the illustrations for Mi Casa is My Home. It’s my second book done traditionally and at this point it is definitely the way I like to work best. Prior to A New Kind of Wild, my author/illustrator debut, I had been working almost exclusively digitally – in fact the first picture book I illustrated, Thread of Love by Kabir & Surishtha Sehgal was created digitally. So finding my voice as a picture book illustrator has been an evolution!

When I illustrated A New Kind of Wild, I had no clue what I was doing. I was essentially, experimenting and learning as I went along. At the end of that book, I felt like I had gotten a crash course in watercolor! But, I am essentially self-taught so my knowledge is constantly growing and with each book I get a bit more confident.

My process does change a bit from book to book, mostly because I try to challenge myself by trying something new on each book – it might be a slightly new technique, a different way of working, or a certain focus related to the feel I want for the book. But generally, the big bits stay the same. I start a new notebook for each book and I try to keep all my sketches, notes, and general scribbles about the book in that notebook so they are all in one place – I am really bad about just grabbing whatever is in front of me and scribbling things down, so there is a lot of taping things in later. Most of my initial development sketches and scratchy thumbnails get done in that notebook (or on post its and pasted in later).

When I have a general feel for how I want things, I move onto the computer. I do a lot of hopping back and forth from digital to analog and back again. I feel much more comfortable doing my roughs and final sketches digitally, so after I do thumbnails I sketch out my spreads on my digital tablet, redrawing and refining them on new layers as I go.

Once I have a nice clean sketch, I print it very lightly onto watercolor paper and then paint it with watercolor. This was actually a new technique that I tried for the first time on Mi Casa is My Home, prior to that I would trace my sketches on a light box which didn’t give me the control I wanted and took a lot longer. Printing directly onto the paper I am painting on allows me to skip a step and because I am painting directly from the digital sketch if I need to repaint an area later because something needs to change it is easier for me to print out a small section, repaint it, and digitally collage it in.

After painting, I scan everything in and do touch ups digitally. Mostly it’s just cleaning up dust or fixing bits where I wasn’t quite as steady with the brush, or color tweaks but sometimes I will add shadows or other bits digitally as well.
That’s generally how I work, although the specifics change from book to book. The book I worked on after Mi Casa is My Home I actually painted in layers and composited together digitally. I got the idea because that’s how I created the cover of Mi Casa is My Home – I painted each bit separately and them brought it all together in Photoshop. I thought, if it worked for the cover, why not a whole book? So a lot of times my process changes simply because I want to try out a new idea. Some work, some don’t, but they all teach me a bit more about what I like and how I like to work.

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

ZGH: I’m currently finishing up a picture book called Measuring a Year written by Linda Elovitz Marshall which is a beautiful poem about Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I have wanted to do a Jewish-themed book ever since I started illustrating picture books so I was so thrilled to be able to work on this one. As a Latina Jew, it’s been difficult for me to find examples of picture books depicting the types of Jewish family I had, so I am even more thankful that Abrams let me explore a broader spectrum of Jews in this book.

My deadlines have strangely merged this year so I am also finishing up a book with Anika Aldamuy Denise called Gato Guapo which is about a bunch of mischievous gatitos and one rather annoyed (and very handsome) gato. It was great fun to work on and coming out of the darkness of winter it was exactly the kind of silly fun I needed. I used a slightly different medium for this one, gouache, so that was fun to play with as well.

And lastly, I’m just starting work on a book with Toni Buzzeo, Pa, Me and our Sidewalk Pantry, I’m still in the sketching stage but it’s at the stage where things are starting to come together, but nothing really is decided yet so there are still so many possibilities – which is both a fun and terrifying place to be on a book! So many choices to make! The book is about a Grandfather and his granddaughter and I really love the relationship Toni has written for them. It’s a really special book and I can’t wait to get into painting it. Unfortunately I don’t think I can show anything yet, but I am very excited about all of them and can’t wait to share them when I can!

I’ve also been slowly working on some new manuscripts for another author/illustrator book, but this pandemic has made it really difficult for me to find the right headspace for writing. So I’ve given myself the grace to just let the words come as slowly as they want and I know, eventually, it will be my season for writing again.

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?

ZGH: I’ve been dreading answering this question because there are so many illustrators I admire and I’d have to write at least a dozen picture book autobiographies to even begin to scratch the surface of all of the amazing people I’d want to illustrate my story. But I’ve landed on Kozo Kakimoto, a Japanese illustrator, that honestly I know very little about. I discovered his work randomly while looking at old book listings on Etsy. He was the illustrator of a series of books called the Mr. Bear books, written by Chizuko Kuratomi and I am absolutely obsessed with them. The way he uses color and texture and the round cuteness of his characters is so charming. His work feels very modern even though I’m pretty sure he was working mostly in the 70s. I have a number of the Mr. Bear books in my collection and I love to pour over all of the details, it would be amazing to see how fantastical my life would look through his eyes.

A big thank you to Zara for talking to me about this book! Mi Casa Is My Home published this Summer from Candlewick Press!

Special thanks to Zara and Candlewick for use of these images!
MI CASA IS MY HOME. Text copyright © 2021 by Laurenne Sala. Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Zara Gonzalez Hoang. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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September 28, 2021 at 10:33AM noreply@blogger.com (Mel Schuit)