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

To view more posts please click here: Older Posts

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.

Please make sure to click here: older posts to read more


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:

Reading is Fundamental

I wanted to share this recent article about my process from a wonderful organization RIF: Reading is Fundamental. The vision of this organization is to create a literate America in which all children have access to books and discover the joys and value of reading. They work to motivate young children to read by working with them, their parents, and community members to make reading a fun and beneficial part of everyday life. Their highest priority is reaching underserved children from birth to age 8.

To see the original article you can visit: Reading is Fundamental

Hispanic Heritage Month Post by Pura Belpré Award-winner Rafael López

I’m writing to you from my art studio perched on a hill in the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The church bells are ringing, and in the distance I hear a rooster crowing. Looking down to the zocalo, the main plaza, I see lava red roof tiles and warm hues straight from the earth’s core. What better place to celebrate the spirit of Hispanic Heritage month.

Traveling and speaking at libraries, schools, and conferences, I have met many people who are curious about the mysteries of making art. (My son Santiago believes paintbrushes are magic wands!) So instead of showing you finished work, I thought it would be fun to invite you on a journey through the process of children’s book illustration.

Color and texture are very important to my work. I like to wander the winding cobblestone streets of my town with a camera cataloguing the colors, textural history, and stories of well-worn doors and peeling paint. The skies, backgrounds, or the surface of the skin of a whale in one of my books will reveal the textures of places where I have been.

I’m grateful there is no “chromophobia,” a fear of color, in my native country. Perhaps color is our way of preserving the spirit of our childhood and to live a vibrant life full of wonder. In Mexico we have an expression: no dar color, literally the inability to give off color or emotion.

I buy my vivid paints from a little tiendita in San Miguel. They come in big jars that look like they should hold pickles. I paint on pieces of wood. For me, there are tactile emotions associated with cutting and sanding then letting the grain of the wood speak to me. I use spatulas and scrape the wood with pottery tools, shells and twigs to reveal secrets of the surface texture.

I look for references in the library, Internet, or order books that inspire me to research the subjects of my art. I might go for a walk and pick up leaves or rocks and bring them to my studio. I search for visual clues and paste them on mood boards that fill my workspace. These collages help me channel the right spirit of a drawing. I look for more than a visual likeness of my subjects and explore colors, wardrobes, decorations or the way a person or animal moves or laughs.

The text of each book I illustrate is creative jet fuel. I make word lists of key themes or poetic parts of a story and post these on my wall. My background as a conceptual illustrator helps me create symbols to represent emotions. I don’t like to be literal and mirror the text verbatim, but instead search for ways to communicate feelings or the spirit of an idea, like using a bird to represent joy in an illustration from “My Name is Celia” written by Monica Brown.

I have been fortunate to paint many murals with children at public schools. As the honorary co-chair of Read Across America, I have also had the great opportunity to read books with children. When I draw and paint, I think about what my young readers would like to see and do. In “Book Fiesta” by Pat Mora, I wanted kids to travel to faraway places in hot air balloons and submarines or be a pirate or mermaid. They could also ride on the back of a great purple elephant or sail away with their closest friends in the mouth of a whale.

I like to play with scale, color, texture, shapes and change an image's perspective to keep my pictures interesting. I think of each book as a treasure that children will open, so I want every painting to stand on it's own but still be part of the overall story. I work hard to not be repetitive and like to put a surprise on every page.

An important part of the illustration process is character development and giving the right spirit to each person, animal, or object. I believe everything should have a personality and that includes calaca cats or goat drummers. I love to travel and am most inspired by indigenous groups because they have synthesized the most important characteristics of living things in a simple, direct way. Communicating at this magical level speaks to children and so I sketch and sketch until my characters have an authentic voice that captures their imagination.

Thanks for the opportunity to share my illustration process and I hope you enjoyed the ride.

Please make sure to click on Older Posts at the bottom right and keep reading.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

New Books on the way...

Please keep an eye out for my upcoming books, “La Cazuela that the Farm Maiden Stirred” by Samantha Vamos on the shelves in early 2011 and “My Name is Tito” by Monica Brown. You can pre-order La Cazuela at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

Please click here to read more.

Our California

Our California. Written by Pam Muñoz Ryan.
The art in this loving tribute to the state is so colorful, evocative, and eye-filling that it is tempting to review the title solely as a book of pictures. The text takes the form of brief, four-line verses that highlight interesting features in the 14 locales, or give reasons for their historical or current importance. Some of the places are well known (such as San Francisco and Los Angeles) and some will be less familiar to children outside California (such as the Channel Islands and Eureka). The illustrations, done in brilliant acrylics, fill each spread with a burst of folkloric color and energy. The Capistrano swallows, the Forty-Niners in Coloma, the whales and otters along the coast—all are shown. The back matter includes an illustrated spread featuring the state flag, bird, insect, plant, and so on. It is a wonderful way to show children the spirit of California, and it could also be useful for families planning vacations.
-School Library Journal

I'm a big fan of Pam Muñoz Ryan's work and really had fun with the poetic journey she crafted through California, my adopted home. When I was offered this story I wanted to do more than a guidebook but speak from a personal perspective. I packed up the car and brought along the family traveling thousands of miles of the Golden State in search of colors and textures. The California coastline yielded a riot of hues and ideas for this book from San Diego to San Francisco. When Spanish galleons sailed up and down the shores in the 18th century, mariners chronicled the deep orange and yellow wildflowers of the region and called it the "land of fire". This picture I shot of my mother and son in Central California shows you why.

The twisted, dangerous San Simeon Highway was built by convicts in the twenties and thirties. It's an amazing feat and the cliffs plunge into the churning sea rich with islands of shifting kelp.

At Cannery Row we sampled clam chowder and watched sea kayaks and seals dodging the waves. Steinbeck got it right when he wrote about this place. The next day in sheets of rain we drove North to Moss's Landing for garlic shrimp at a local Fish Trap.

Traveling with my young son I watched him explore the beaches and climb rocks. We built fantastic forts out of pieces of driftwood at Moonstone Beach and on this journey I wanted to see things through his eyes.

The bounty of California's farmlands is legendary and I am greatly inspired by Mexican muralists like Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros. I wanted to convey the richness of the harvest and spirit of farm workers whose labor and gentle hands bring this bounty to our tables.

The deserts of California are filled with magical creatures and mystical rock paintings. I tried to bring some of the rich symbolism and patterns of native cultures out to play in the heat of the day.

Birds are messengers from heaven and here I was remembering watching the swallows perform their aerodynamic ballet when returning to San Juan Capistrano.

California is a state of mind and returning to my studio in San Diego I brought these memories to my drawing table and got started. I found a wonderful shell here on China Beach that I used to drag textures into the painted wood. A gift from the sea that helps me with my work.

Friday, October 8, 2010


Winner of the Americas Award for Illustration: Children's and Young Adult Literature and a Pura Belpré Honor for Illustration.

My Name is Celia. Me Llamo Celia. Written by Monica Brown.


My name is Celia: The life of Celia Cruz by Monica Brown is an exuberant picture-book biography of the Cuban-born salsa singer. From its rhythmic opening, the first-person narrative dances readers through Cruz's youth in Havana, a childhood bounded by scents of nature and home, the sweet taste of sugar, and the sound of music. A singer from an early age, Cruz sang so continually that one of her teachers finally urged her to share her voice with the world. Thus encouraged, she entered competitions, undeterred when her racial heritage prevented her from competing - undeterred, even, when the advent of Castro's communist regime forced her to leave Cuba as a refugee. Positive even in exile, Cruz made New York City her own and took Miami by storm. The salsa-influenced prose presented in English and in Spanish is followed by a straightforward vita of the singer, noting her death in July 2003. Lopez's distinguished, luminous acrylic paintings are alive with motion, lush with brilliantly layered colors, and informed with verve and symbolism. This is a brilliant introduction to a significant woman and her music. The only enhancement required is the music itself.
-from Del Sol Books

This was my first children's book and I couldn't have been more inspired by the subject- the late great Celia Cruz. What a great opportunity to work with the talented Monica Brown. Monica and I have continued to collaborate and enjoy speaking around the country to schools and conferences about how writers and illustrators work together. I can't tell you how much music fuels my work and in my opinion there is nothing like Latin Jazz. I filled my studio with the exuberant power of her voice and began to draw. I made mood boards with images of her, watched videos of her performances and tried to dig deeper into her own words to conjure the right vibe for these paintings. The queen of Latin rhythm said "Afro-Cuban music is the root of today's Salsa. It is steeped in cultural indentity and embraces the folklore of every town and province of the tropics. It is a source of pride, of happiness, of being alive. It is what I bring to the people."

In this scene I show her sitting on the lap of her big, strong father and listening to him tell stories about working on the railroad. Later in life Celia said "In a sense, I have fulfilled my father's wish to be a teacher as, through my music I teach generations of people about my culture and the happiness that can be found in just living life. As a performer, I want people to feel their hearts sing and their spirits soar."

This scene shows Celia and her cousin Nenita traveling far and wide by bus in Cuba to sing in competitions. I needed to leave space for the text in both English and Spanish and so I used this diagonally flowing composition to show movement.

New York became Celia's new home and I hoped to show her excitement at arriving in such a place filled with diverse cultures and people, lights and music.

Celia sang with Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco and Willie Colon bringing salsa to the Americas. These legends brought Latin music into the spotlight and made it known worldwide.

My wife and I love dancing and I was lucky enough to create a stamp for the United States Postal Service about Latin music. The contribution of Celia Cruz and her contemporaries is enormous because their music blended rock with rumba and mambo with jazz.

Indeed Celia is the queen of Latin music having recorded more than 50 albums. She broke down racial and cultural barriers in the process with her exceptional talent, passion and perseverance. As an illustrator I like to juxtapose unrelated things to form new symbols. In this case a musical note becomes her crown.

Here this red bird represents the free flying joy that is her music. I wanted to showcase her potent life force, that wonderful smile and her flamboyant costumes.

Before and after her performances Celia would yell out these famous words "Azucar" sprinkling her audiences with sugar. In the paintings for this book, in the faces of the characters, with color and texture I tried to synthesize the timeless magic of her music.