Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Storytelling connects us to the world

In December like a bird, I can't wait to migrate south to my home and studio in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Sitting here at my weathered wooden desk covered with paint and coffee cup stains I've been thinking about storytelling and how it connects us to the world. Originally practiced by elders, stories passed on knowledge and wisdom to new generations.

A humble art form practiced in Mexico are small retablos or laminas painted on tin. Deeply rooted in Spanish history they tell stories of miracles and represent the heart, soul and religious traditions of Mexicans from the 17th-19th centuries. I've always been fascinated with the colorful symbolism and allegorical storytelling found in these clever art works used on home altars to give thanks to the infinite number of Catholic saints. Usually painted by self taught artists working alone in their studio or workshop I've been waiting for just the right opportunity to get a piece of tin and give it a try.

My closest friend Gil Gutiérrez lives in a bohemian home that used to be a horse stable in the centro of San Miguel. He is without a doubt our town's most beloved musician. A virtuoso on the guitar, he has played with symphony orchestras across the U.S. and at Chicago's Millenium Park to a crowd of 10,000 people. My favorite place to hear him play is sitting around his kitchen table as his authentic music and vibrant spirit is an endless inspiration. He is building a home in the countryside near town and this past Fall was attacked by a stray rottweiler abandoned near his land. His arm was injured badly but healed quickly and he was able to get right back to making music. To commemorate and give thanks for this miracle I painted a lamina for him in the style of my compatriotas. My gifted friend is pictured with guitar on his land where he grows lavender and his favorite drink mezcal invoking the protection of El Señor de los Rayos. You might notice the surrealism of his extra hand in my painting with the popular cuernos symbol to signify that he won't let anything stop his music. A graceful bird carries the banner of musical notes and the hand painted text tells the story of the miracle. I used sponges to age the piece that was painted with Mexican acrylics on tin.

In this painting I wanted to celebrate the humble art and storytelling of Mexican lamina painting as well as the power of my friend Gil's music.
If you live in New York please be sure to catch Gil Gutiérrez live at Carnegie Hall with trumpet legend Doc Severinsen on January 28th.
I believe his music captures the sound and soul of San Miguel de Allende and to hear it you can check out his website or visit his blog: Gil Gutiérrez Music

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Art of Giving Books

December is really here.
Our family continued to realize our passion for books this year by growing a library for our son's public school. The holidays are a chance to connect with family and friends and share the magic of books with the people that matter to you. If you really think about it there is a book for every special person in your life. A blog post by a wonderful friend, artist and writer Yuyi Morales inspired our family to brainstorm special ways to give books.
We saw a wonderful book tree in Simple Magazine and my son challenged us last night to build our own-so here is our version. In the spirit of giving or not knowing what to give, I want to share this post about how much fun you can have giving books.

These incredible books are favorites of our family.
Doña Flor. Art by Raul Colón and Written by Pat Mora.
Illustrator Raul Colon used Prismacolor pencils to make this gorgeous book and what kid or kid at heart wouldn't want a set of their own radiant colors. The flat box will nestle nicely on top of this book.
The House in the Night. Illustrated by Beth Krommes and Written by Susan Marie Swanson. Caldecott Medal Winner Beth Krommes introduced Santiago to Scratchmagic Paper and now he practices making art that looks like real scratchboard.

Gracias. Thanks. Art by John Parra and Words by Pat Mora.
Need a stress release? Click the CRICKET toy. "For the cricket hiding when he serenades us to sleep. thanks!"

Return to Sender. Written by Julia Alvarez. Winner of the 2010 Pura Belpré for Narrative.
This beautiful folding rainbow colored umbrella is perfect for children. Express your love of peace even on rainy days.

The Dreamer. Words by Pam Muñoz Ryan and Art by Peter Sis.
Really Big Words refridgerator magnet poetry is a great way to have fun and start to dream like Pablo Neruda. This book is such a gem.

Books can teach you things you didn't know before. If you're fighting a winter cold they distract you from your misery. When you are stuck in long lines at the airport they will help you pass the time. We all know things get crazy at the holidays and sometimes you just need to escape to a quiet place-well a good book will take you there. Great books get better when they get old just like people.
Here are some of my son Santiago's most loved picture books we've paired with favorite things. The illustrations are hard to resist.

Never take a Shark to the Dentist [and other things not to do] by
Judi Barrett with fantastic art by John Nickle and a colorful Plaksmacker toothbrush. She wrote Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs and you will learn important lessons wonderfully illustrated like never hold hands with a lobster or never go to the bank with a raccoon.
Blueberries for Sal by a legendary author/artist Robert McCloskey. Find out what happens on a summer day in Maine when a little girl and a bear cub wander away from their mothers. The story won the Caldecott Medal in 1949 and the drawings are as fresh as blueberries in a beautiful bowl. In my son's art class the kids hand built pots that could be filled with berries.

Iggy Peck Architect makes you smile by Andrea Beaty with clever illustrations by David Roberts. "Young Iggy Peck is an architect and has been since he was two, when he built a great tower-in only an hour-with nothing but diapers and glue". Brio natural building blocks have wonderful shapes to construct you own skyscrapers. Our friend Daniel Renner saves leftover wood scraps and sands them to make an incredible set of blocks in crazy shapes that kids never get tired of.

Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears by Verna Aardema with pictures by Leo and Diane Dillon. This is a favorite African tale and we bought the book on a trip to Washington D.C and the National Museum of African Art/Smithsonian Institution. No wonder these paintings won the Caldecott Medal as they take you deep into the heart of the African jungle.
At Rosenberry books you can buy an inexpensive kit to cut and glue amazing handmade papers [some are like tree bark] to make your own African masks.

Frederick's Fables: A Leo Lionni Treasury of Favorite Stories. Leo Lionni.The stories and art makes you imagination soar into the clouds. Kids can learn about nature, peace, community, friendship, beauty, and being your own unique self. More than any other character in books there is just something about Frederick. You'll fall for the part where it is winter and the mice are tired of the snow and cold. Frederick tells them to "close their eyes and sends them the golden rays of the sun, and the colors, blue periwinkles, red poppies in yellow wheat, the green leaves of the berry bush and they saw the colors as clearly as if they had been painted in their minds". Pair this book with inexpensive Backyard Safari Binoculars to see the world as Frederick does.

Please click here to read more.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Stirring the Pot of Color

Did you know that it takes an elephant 22 months of waiting before it's calf is born?
Bringing a book into the world takes just about that long. When the advance copy finally arrives on your doorstep in the well worn hands of the delivery man you rip the package open with a mix of fear and excitement. That happened to me today.

Speaking of reproduction, for me fear usually revolves around the accurate reproduction of my color. Was the brave printer able to reproduce the hues and subtle textures that I scraped, dabbed and coaxed into life? With each and every book I have learned to expect calls from the adventurous art director attempting to match the azuline blue of a Mexican tile or eggplant purple of a passing cloud. Proof after proof is sent back and forth from artist to printer until the heat of the flames under the pot is just the right radiant shade of amarillo-oro.
For me color is an expression of my identity, my heritage and I believe it is the most direct route to the emotions of children and families who will turn the pages of my books. As a new book enters into this world you feel like celebrating when recognizing a familiar hue that resonates for you. You breathe a sigh when you see the pages where the farm maiden cries "Ay!" and the pot full of arroz con leche simmers, sputters, and bubbles with color on the stove.

I'm so excited to share with readers this new book The Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred from the playful hand of clever writer Samantha Vamos. When a farm girl starts cooking, a bunch of magical animals want to get into the kitchen and help [reminds me of my childhood when my mother made Christmas tamales]. The cow brings milk, the hen her eggs and the duck with a straw hat heads to the mercado for just the right ingredients. There's a resourceful donkey in cowboy boots who plucks a lime off the tree to add to the simmering pot. Eventually they break out the spoons, a drum, banjo and maraca and start to sing and dance. At the end of the book you will find the recipe for delicious Arroz Con Leche Latin American Rice Pudding. This book is a spicy tribute to the classic nursery rhyme "The House that Jack Built" and is a bilingual celebration of community and food.

I want to thank my Charlesbridge family for faithfully reproducing my colors and I'm grateful for the patience of art director Susan Sherman for her help stirring up the colors of La Cazuela.

A few weeks ago I visited a public elementary school to talk about books and drawing. A boy asked me "where do stories come from?". I really love the questions kids ask because they cut right to the chase and find out what we all want to know. With that in mind I thought it would be a good idea to ask my friend, writer Samantha Vamos how she got the idea for La Cazuela due out this February. To see what she had to say please read on...

How Samantha Vamos Cooked Up The Cazuela

From Samantha Vamos: The idea for The Cazuela That The Farm Maiden Stirred occurred to me one wintry, weekend morning. I was in the kitchen gathering ingredients to make pancakes and discovered that I lacked both milk and eggs.

At the time, my husband and I lived in Chicago, Illinois and did not own a car. That morning was bitter cold with gusty winds and the prospect of walking to the subway or waiting for a bus to the nearest grocery store was not appealing. When I realized that my alternative was eating a bowl of cereal without milk, I considered calling a neighbor. Suddenly, I thought how amusing it would be if I lived on a farm and I could simply call one of my animal “neighbors” for a pail of milk or a basket of eggs. Envisioning myself a farm maiden, I smiled and my story took off from there.

The proverb “necessity is the mother of invention” seems apt when I think about the creation of this story. I craved pancakes and I imagined ways to obtain the ingredients I needed. When I reflect on my overall mindset, however, there were two additional circumstances that resulted in my brain producing the idea behind The Cazuela That The Farm Maiden Stirred.

First, I had always wanted to write a story that featured a recipe. Making things in the kitchen is fun.

Second, I describe that time period as having had “bilingual on the brain.” I had recently transformed a formerly all-English manuscript of mine to make it bilingual, resulting in Before You Were Here, Mi Amor (published by Viking Children’s Books in 2009). As I incorporated Spanish words, the text flowed differently – the words sounded more intimate and tender. The English text with Spanish words woven in resonated because the bilingual manner of speaking reminded me of the way I had heard languages (in addition to English, my father fluently speaks four languages) expressed as a child. After writing Before You Were Here, Mi Amor, I had hoped that I’d become inspired with another idea that would allow me to write a second, bilingual story.

So, on that morning, as I held a stirring spoon and imagined myself the farm maiden, I tried out this first line: “This is the pot that the farm maiden stirred.” I liked the rhythm. I was immediately reminded of the British nursery rhyme, “This Is The House That Jack Built” and decided I would try following that rhyme’s format – a cumulative tale where the action or lines repeat as the story progresses.

As I thought about my story’s construction, I realized that there would be four interlocking pieces:

First, I wanted the story to be bilingual.

Second, the cumulative format: I wanted to structure the story so that as the action built, specific Spanish words repeated. That way the Spanish words would be reinforced and easy to remember.

Third, I wanted to incorporate a recipe that would be revealed at the story’s end. I hoped that readers would try to guess what the characters were making in the pot that the farm maiden stirred. Utilizing a recipe in this manner meant weaving the storyline around specific ingredients.

Fourth, I needed to create characters that could provide the necessary ingredients to the pot. The cow and hen were obvious choices as they could respectively provide milk and eggs. When I thought about a pot, milk, and eggs, I realized that the farm maiden could make rice pudding. Now all I needed were a few more characters to deliver the remaining ingredients: sugar, rice, butter, cream, and a lime. After including a goat, duck, donkey, and a farmer, I had the framework of the book, or as I see it now, the “equation” for my story: five animal characters, their farmer, and farm maiden plus ingredients create Arroz Con Leche in a bilingual, cumulative tale!

Inspired, I headed downstairs to my computer. I never finished making pancakes that morning, but I did manage to write a first draft of our story!

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Why Libraries Count.

I found this wonderful W.P.A. poster published in the Utne Reader showing a library at the crossroads. History sure does repeat itself. Again we are facing economic challenges and we've all had to tighten our belts. In times like these it is more important than ever to value, protect and grow our libraries. The American Library Association reports that across the country, libraries are reducing hours, cutting staff or closing their doors and these drastic measures were not taken even during the Great Depression.

Yet libraries give us a place to come together, explore new ideas and great minds. During hard times citizens turn to our libraries and the resources there have the power to break the cycle of poverty. The diversity and character represented on those shelves connects us to a world of information and ideas. They are also a great place to escape, to find a quiet place and listen to your own heartbeat. Libraries don't discriminate and give every person and equal chance to grow. Those who don't have access to computers or the Internet can connect at a library. Have you ever been to a story hour and watched what happens to children as they learn to let their imaginations soar? I believe that when times are tough we need to remember the importance of teaching kids to dream that anything is possible.

So the question is what can we do, those of us who are passionate about books to make a difference? We need to become champions for libraries in any way we can and teach our children to do the same. We can donate time or money to libraries, write letters to our elected officials and media organizations. Volunteer to read at schools and libraries and take our kids there on a regular basis so they can grow their own love of books.
Speaking of growing I want to share with you a family project that my 8 year old son Santiago started because our public school does not have a library. We decided as a family it was time to grow one. We're telling our friends and letting parents at our school know that books count. Family and friends of reading have been stepping up to sponsor books. I personally like the idea of getting kids excited about finding a book instead of a video game.
A big shout goes out to children's book writers and illustrators like Monica Brown, Beth Krommes and John Parra who have embraced the idea, contributed to the blog and even sent books. Hopefully it will become a resource to inspire children and their families to grow libraries too.

Santiago and I thank you for checking it out: Kids Growing Libraries

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What does Colorín Colorado mean?

I want to tell you about a popular expression we have in Mexico "Colorín Colorado". It's something we say at the end of stories and there's no direct translation, but it basically means and that's the end of the story!" or "…they lived happily ever after."

Hearing this phrase brings back happy memories of our childhood and makes those of us in Spanish-speaking countries smile. The phrase is also the name for an important organization [and by the way they are not located in Colorado] that is a service of the Reading Rockets Project that provides an audio segment on National Public Radio.Their website quotes the National Institutes of Health who estimates that one in five children has serious difficulties learning to read. Many of these children are potentially among the most troubled kids in society. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 17 percent (or approximately 9 million children and youth) of the nation's K-12 public school population is Latino.
By 2025, the nationwide school-age population will be 25 percent Latino, and states such as California, Texas, Florida, and New York will have public school districts that are more than 50 percent Latino. These children are all not only learning to read, but they are struggling to do it in their non-native language. Imagine the challenges they face and the goal is to reach out and find them. If we help them early, these children can thrive and without our support they are at high risk for school failure.

I was happy to sit down recently and talk with my friends at Colorín Colorado in support of the very important work they do. I talk about drawing as a child, the influence of my Mexican heritage, my process, the inspiration behind some favorite illustrations, the importance of art education in schools and working with writers. You can skip ahead to parts that might be of interest to you. This website is rich in content and you can meet and listen to authors like Alma Flor Alda, Franisco X. Alarcón, Lulu Delacre, Pat Mora and Pam Muñoz Ryan. There is information and tips for parents and teachers with ideas to motivate struggling readers.

Thanks for listening by clicking on this link. Colorincolorado

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Book Fiesta!

Winner of the 2010 Pura Belpré for Illustration.

BOOK FIESTA! Written by Pat Mora.


"Rafael López utilizes vibrant colors and applies magical realism to show that the love of reading is universal. Through a series of fanciful images, the author depicts Latino children inviting children of other cultures into their book fiesta, leading the reader on a visual journey that shows that reading sparks the imagination across all cultures and has the power to unite us. This informational children’s book will also serve as a valuable resource to those planning El día de los niños/El día de los libros in their communities." American Library Service to Children

"Gorgeous, soaring full-page illustrations are the heart and soul of this book. Rafael Lopez’s magical artwork brings the book alive with lush colors, strong design, and diverse, charming kids. A family floating in a boat listens to the father read aloud, as the son imagines himself in a pirate adventure and the daughter, trailing a finger lazily in the water, imagines herself a mermaid. As darkness cloaks the earth, rooftops come unmoored from their homes and dreaming children float toward the moon, soaring with books in hand. Lovely." Common Sense Media

"I got this book from the library for my 11-month old twins, and they love it. I'm going to buy my own copy. The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous. They're so colorful and creative that my kids' eyes don't stop moving. The message is simple: "Read!" Each page has one or two lines on it in both English and Spanish. It revolves around different places children read books. I love the fantasy element as it shows children reading books on a whale, a hot air balloon, etc. The other terrific aspect of this book is that is depicts a multicultural group of individuals with both girls and boys well-represented in non-stereotyped ways. I'm heading to the library to check out every book Rafael Lopez illustrated" Parent review posted at Amazon.com

The message of this book is simple and powerful-READ! I was excited to work with author Pat Mora once again as I share her vision to celebrate Children's Day/Book Day. She is the founder of the family literacy initiative and I saw this as a chance to encourage children to fall head over heels for books. When you believe in an idea as I did this one you can't wait to grab your paintbrushes.

I want kids to connect to my painting style. I try to speak their language visually and keep things simple, flat and graphic. The texture of the whale's skin, the moon and the clouds is inspired by the well worn walls in the Mexican town where I live.

When you read your imagination has no boundaries. Using a cloud as a pillow and a star for your light source makes perfect sense.

In this spread even the sun has decided it's time to throw a party and celebrate books. I was hoping to express the excitement of getting ready for a fiesta.

When children read books they often dream that they are the characters in fantastic stories. I wanted to express that spirit of magic and transformation when imagining you are a fearless pirate or mysterious mermaid.

Scale and composition are so important when adding drama to a scene. I focus on giving each child a distinctive personality and craft their expressions to communicate those unique qualities.

In this scene I wanted to showcase children interacting with animals. The storyteller in the turban weaves a fantastic tale and the creatures and kids hang on his every word. The world we live in is such a wonderfully diverse place. I choose to show that diversity in my characters because it reminds me of the amazing children I have met in my travels. I want to show these kids in an authentic way and sometimes I realize that I have painted a child I encountered at a library or in the zocalo playing with a wooden toy as their spirit or features really resonated for me.

I'm very inspired by indigenous cultures because they are masterful at creating symbols to convey ideas in a direct and powerful way. I pay homage to their traditions in the shapes and hues of sea creatures. The message here is that you can read anywhere and so I invented this submarine for exploring books deep under the ocean. Emily Dickinson said "There is no frigate like a book" and I agree.

I think of illustrating children's books like making a movie. It is important to bring familiar characters back into the story and here the sun re-appears to watch a young girl reading in the warm light to her animal friends.

I like the element of surprise and so I began always putting just one vertical page in my books. Here the moon sends a subliminal message through the heavens to a child as he reads aloud.

I want to thank everyone who has embraced this very special book: Book Fiesta! and the American Library Service to Children who made the Pura Belpré ceremony in Washington D.C. and unforgettable experience for my family and I. I wanted to share a portion of my speech as it communicates the passion I feel for books and reading.

When I was a child growing up in Mexico City I remember my first experience traveling alone. Taking a rickety train to the metro station past colorful vendors who sold everything from comics and chicklets to medicinal herbs to cure a broken heart. Moving through an ocean of people I took the hour train ride to Zocalo station. Leaving the metro was like stepping back into another time, surrounded by Neo-Classical buildings on my way to the Hemeroteca, the city’s central library. Among the stacks there were ancient, sometimes dusty, heavy leather bound books.

More than just words and pictures it was the grain of the paper, the smell and feel of the way a book ages that awakened my curiosity. On weekends my Father would take me to the Lagunilla flea market. I held his hand tightly as we searched for treasure. On these expeditions we got lost in our quest for old relics and discovered the magic of collecting broken books that other people left behind.

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What a great opportunity it is to travel and meet with teachers, parents, librarians, principals and especially children who love and appreciate books and making art as I do. I've enjoyed connecting with you in Madison, San Francisco, Tuscaloosa, Tucson, Park City, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Minneapolis, and Seattle.

If you would like to bring me to your school, book fair or conference to talk about books or illustration please click on the links below to contact me at my studio:
or visit my website at: