I am about to embark on another illustrating adventure. Right now the art director is being set up. Text is being finalized. I’ll be doing sketches soon, based on the thumbnails and roughs I have already sent the publisher. It won’t be long before I’ll be painting. That’s funny. I just got a chill up my back and an old familiar feeling in my chest. It is an adventure. I am in it now. I can feel it.
Creating a book is always a journey. Always something learned. Always an understory that layers into the art. This next book, which I wrote and will illustrate is LOADED with personal understory already. I can only imagine what all will have occurred by the time I have it in my hands in its final form. When I look back at all my books I can recall how I felt while I was creating each of them, what was going on in my life at the time. I can see how the art reflects that, whether I intended it to or not. I can see what was important to me and what compelled me.
What I notice the most is how I illustrated many books based on what I needed in the classroom to teach art. Hilariously, in those days, I saw completed books more as tools, than as things unto themselves. I was focused on creating book art that kids could look at up close and figure out how to do, either with my help when visiting them, or on their own, like I would have done as a kid. I wanted to create techniques that were accessible, fun and familiar that a kid could successfully do and feel good about.
Attending to book art in this way was F*U*N! I learned TONS and played like a maniac. I would just come up with a concept and decide that was it! Sometimes I was quite stretched to learn things fast enough to keep up with my own vision, but it kept me on my feet and always reminded me of how kids feel all the time—always in the unknown, always on an adventure learning fast as you gogogo. And now I know tons of cool, weird techniques that I just made up.
One of the first books I did like this was My Very Own Room by Amada Irma Perez. I LOVE introducing kids to oil pastels in the classroom, so of course, I had to do a book with them. But MY MY it was tricky business and fabulously messy! All the more reason to do it I guess! I still love the look of the rich textures and the originals I have continue to look fresh. Shipping them and storing them is delicate business however. But I highly recommend playing with them for illustrating. It was a good adventure. EVERYONE should play with oil pastels! If you’re getting dirty you know you’re making art I always say.
Then there were things I heard in the classroom, conversations about someone “cheating” when making art. I was intrigued by this whole cheating concept and how incensed the kids would get about it. So I decided that I would try to cheat as much as possible in a book.
In Angel’s Ride Bikes and Other Fall Poems by Francisco Alarcon I decided that I would take photographs of all the humans and put those into my spreads instead of drawing them myself and only draw the environments around them. Then I painted across the whole spread. I even made a point of leaving visible paper edges where I glued the copied photos onto the larger paper so I could point out and say to kids, see here is where I glued it down. I have had some great conversations about cheating when I share this book. And I have watched a lot of kids feel easier about creating art when they know that even “an artist like me” makes art anyway she can and that’s a good thing. Art is art. No cheating possible.
Making books with the classroom in mind has taught me well. Sometimes messy, sometimes deep. It’s good to know why we make books and that it is a journey, an adventure and many things big and small and mundane and profound are bound to be learned.
I love the unknown. I love the surrender to a big, juicy project. I love the color and the smell of art materials and the prayers whispered between the layers to children I will never meet. Be strong. Belong. Be song.
I love making books. We are a lucky crowd.
Maya Gonzalez is largely self-taught. She has illustrated over 20 award-winning multicultural children’s books and written 3 with, not an end in sight! Her latest book, Call Me Tree, set to come out next year with Lee&Low Books, is her most recent labor of love! Her fine art has shown internationally and appears in numerous books about the contemporary Chicano Art Movement including on the cover of Living Chicana Theory and Contemporary Chicana and Chicano Art: Artists, Works, Culture and Education considered to be "the Bible of Chicano/a art." Ridiculously creative, she’s probably making art as you read this or thinking about making art if she’s driving a car or using the stove. And one of her ultimate passions is inspiring others to create books, because she believes that creating children's books has the potential to be one of the most radical things you can do!
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