Tía Fortuna’s New Home: A Jewish Cuban Journey by Ruth Behar and Devon Holzwarth is a tender multicultural, multigenerational story of familial love, tradition, and togetherness. Devon’s illustrations breathe energetic and warm life into the characters in Ruth’s text, and I hope you enjoy my conversation with Devon about her process for creating that energy and warmth!
About the book:
When Estrella’s Tía Fortuna has to say goodbye to her longtime Miami apartment building, The Seaway, to move to an assisted living community, Estrella spends the day with her. Tía explains the significance of her most important possessions from both her Cuban and Jewish culture, as they learn to say goodbye together and explore a new beginning for Tía.
A lyrical book about tradition, culture, and togetherness, Tía Fortuna’s New Home explores Tía and Estrella’s Sephardic Jewish and Cuban heritage. Through Tía’s journey, Estrella will learn that as long as you have your family, home is truly where the heart is.
Peek underneath the dust jacket:
Let’s talk Devon Holzwarth!
LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Tía Fortuna’s New Home: A Jewish Cuban Journey? What did you connect with in Ruth Behar’s text? What were the first images that popped into your head?
DH: My agent, Nicole, sent over the manuscript for TF, and I read through the text right away. Ruth’s words were so poetic and compelling that it was an instant yes from me. It was exciting to see a story set in such a rich background with layers of culture, family, faith, and belonging. And having grown up in Panama, with a lot of my mother’s side of the family in Costa Rica, I’m drawn to stories set in Spanish speaking cultures and in warm, colorful places.
Tía Fortuna made me think of my abuela in Costa Rica, and her own endearing eccentricities. I loved visiting my grandparents at their house outside San Jose and I have so many memories of those days. She was full of love and song, and also seemed mysterious – keeping some of her story to herself and sharing little bits through stories and objects in her home. I felt I could connect with Tía Fortuna in that way.
The ocean, deep blues and teals, Florida skies (especially the clouds), banyan trees, sea mist, shells, keys, ships and sun are the first images that popped into my head. My parents used to live in Miami and I could picture the beach clearly in my mind, and also imagine drinking a café cubano.
LTPB: What was the most challenging moment for you in illustrating this book? What is your proudest moment?
DH: I was working on the TF illustrations almost exactly this time last year and there was so much going on! With disruptions from the pandemic, I was behind on everything…I was doing art for three picture books and my kids were doing homeschool and needed a lot of support. It was all a bit much and with the work happening in such a compressed and somewhat stressful environment, I felt nervous I wouldn’t be satisfied with the finished result. I’m happy to say I really love how Tía Fortuna turned out (as well as the other projects!) and I feel like I grew a lot during that time.
I’m also proud of the meaningful details I was able to illustrate in the spreads and endpapers. Tía Fortuna’s story has all these elements of culture, symbolism, and magic and I got really into the research and of course lots and lots of drawing. The icons in the end are much more than little drawings, but rather significant pieces of Tía Fortuna’s story.
LTPB: What differences have you found between creating a picture book on your own (text and illustrations) versus illustrating someone else’s text?
DH: In some ways, illustrating my own stories has been more challenging than illustrating another author’s work. When I have an author’s manuscript in front of me, I don’t often question changing things but always do when it’s my words! So there’s a sort of peace when it comes to working with something that already feels set. But I also think that with only having written two books, I’ll be more at ease with my writing over time. One can hope!
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?
DH: I worked mostly in gouache and color pencil, with a little watercolor, on hot press watercolor paper. I like to start with traditional media, then scan and continue digitally, fixing little details and adding extra texture and depth. In TF, it was important to use color in specific ways like in the opening scene where it flashes back to Tía in Cuba as a girl and arriving later in Miami. In that case, I pulled in the range and muted the color slightly in Photoshop so that in the page turn the reader is brought into the present with Estrella visiting Tía Fortuna and also a sun-filled Miami palette. I typically work this way, some traditional/some digital, but greatly prefer traditional media for the spontaneity and somewhat unpredictable nature of it.
When thinking about a new project, I start with the color palette in my mind. I think the process of work doesn’t necessarily change but the feeling created with the color and what is or isn’t included is essential. In the next project I’m working on, there are so many characters and I plan to limit the palette to bring focus to the main character. Another book I’m working on this year has monarch butterflies so since there will already be orange and black, I’ve been thinking of one other color that might be the perfect, playful balance. It might be a light violet, or cornflower blue. Maybe it’s shades of cobalt and then some lemon yellow…I obsess pretty hard on these things.
LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?
DH: I can share a little peek at some sketches I’m working on for current projects. They’re all very different – one story has mermaids, one focuses on activism, and one is a fun story about the life of a book. There are also two picture books I’ve illustrated that are coming out soon – Listen (written by Shannon Stocker, with Dial Books), about percussionist Evelyn Glennie, and Everywhere With You (by Carlie Sorosiak, with Walker Books), about a girl and a dog separated by a fence, and the bond they form. They’re both incredibly wonderful books and I’m really proud of how they came together.
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?
DH: Adrienne Adams is one of my very favorite illustrators…I adore the way she used color and line, her decorative elements, negative space and shape. She also created children’s books throughout her lifetime and much of her success came later in life. She’s really an illustration hero to me!
A million thanks to Devon for taking time to answer some questions! Tía Fortuna’s New Home: A Jewish Cuban Journey publishes TODAY from Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers!
Special thanks to Devon and Knopf for use of these images!
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January 25, 2022 at 11:37AM firstname.lastname@example.org (Mel Schuit)