Full Interview with Duncan Tonatiuh

Award-winning picture book author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh created a large-scale mural inspired by the work of Ezra Jack Keats for Draw Me a Story. Second, third and fourth grade students from Leggett, King and Glover elementary schools and The Lippman School helped contribute by sharing their winter experiences with Tonatiuh. He answered a few questions about the mural as he prepared his third picture book, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale for publication this May.

How did you become a children’s book illustrator?

It was never my plan to become a children’s’ book illustrator. The opportunity came to me and I am very grateful it did because writing and illustrating children’s books has become one of my great passions.

My senior thesis at Parsons School of Design was a short graphic novel I wrote and illustrated about an undocumented Mexican Mixtec worker. While working on that project I developed my current illustration style. One day a professor at Parsons named Julia Gorton came to critique my work and really liked what I was doing. She asked me if she could show my work to Howard, her editor at Abrams. She is a designer and a children’s book illustrator. I said of course and gave her samples of my work. Howard liked my illustrations and he invited me to his office to chat. He told me that he would contact me if he received a manuscript that suited my style. I told him I like to write also. He gave me his email and said that I could send him a manuscript if I wrote one.

Weeks later, while I was still working on my senior thesis I had the idea of picture book about two cousins that write letters to each other. The first cousin lives in a rural community in Mexico, the second one in an urban center in the US. I took the day off from my thesis, wrote the story and sent it to Howard. He wrote me back. There were some issues with the manuscript but he though the idea was very strong. He gave me edits and comments and we sent the manuscript back and forth several times over the next weeks until we were both happy with it. Right after I graduated from college I received the contract for my first book Dear Primo, A Letter to My Cousin.

What children’s books did you love as a child or an adult?

I loved Horton Hatches an Egg. I still do. It was one of the first books I read. “I meant what I said /And I said what I meant… / An elephant’s faithful / One hundred per cent!” I think that book had a deep impact on me because ever since I read it I’ve tried to be faithful to my word.

The Little Prince is another book I remember vividly from my childhood. I didn’t understand the story fully, but I remember being mesmerized by the drawing of the elephant inside the boa constrictor and the drawing of the sheep inside the box.

Another book I loved is Macario, by B. Traven. It is about a poor peasant whose dream in life is to eat an entire turkey by himself. When his dream is about to come true he receives three very special visitors. They all want some of his turkey. It is a very good book.

Right now of my favorite stories for children is Puss in Boots. I want to do a modern re-telling of that story.

You live in a non-snowy climate, how was it creating your own interpretation of a Snowy Day?

I went to a progressive boarding high school in Massachusetts and to College in New York City, so I’ve experienced plenty of North Eastern winters and snow. I did not have snow around me when I was young though because I grew up in central Mexico. Therefore, I never dress properly during the wintertime and I have a hard time with the cold and the lack of sun. I try to spend part of the year in New York but I avoid being there during the winter as much as I can.

How were you inspired by the student’s feedback?

I sent the students a short questionnaire asking them what winter looks, sounds, smells, tastes and feels like. I also asked them what is their favorite thing to down on a snowy day.

I did this for three reasons. First off, I wanted to make sure that the mural reflected some of the things kids today enjoy about snow and winter.

Secondly, I wanted to engage with the community. A mural is a piece of public art. People interact with it in a space. My hope is that kids, parents and teachers in Akron will want to go to the museum because they are co-creators of the mural.

The third reason is that I wanted to play with text as illustration. I wanted to integrate at least a few of the kid’s words in the mural. I asked them what winter sounds and feels like to get poetic answers. It was a lot of fun reading through them. Some answers were very evocative, “winter sounds like little sprinkles falling to the ground,” and some were very funny “winter looks like a world made out of slushie.”

It was fun to look at their writing too. Kids have great handwriting. Their letters are like drawings.

You have a very unique way of incorporating technology into your art making process. Can you explain your art making process?

First I make a rough design of my illustration. I make little thumbnails and sketches. Then I draw the different characters and elements of my image with a pencil. Once I like a drawing I go over it with a pen. Then I scan the drawings. I arrange the different characters and elements in the computer. I use Photoshop and work in layers. Once I am happy with the design I paste textures and photographic images into the drawings. Some textures I scan myself, others I photograph or find on the Internet.

Can you tell us about your upcoming book?

My new picture book is called Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote; A Migrants Tale. It is published by Abrams and it will be in stores this spring.

The book is about a Rabbit family. The father leaves and goes North, to el Norte, to find work because it has not rained and there is no work in the Rancho where the Rabbit family lives. After several seasons Papa Rabbit is due to come back, but he doesn’t. Pancho Rabbit, his eldest son, decides to go North and look for him. Along the way he meets a coyote that offers to help him in exchange for some of the food Pancho is taking to his father. They travel together until the food is gone and the coyote decides he is still hungry . . . for Pancho!

The book is first and foremost a book for children. It is also an allegory for the journey and the dangers that undocumented immigrants experience while trying to reach the US.

I am very excited about the book and can’t wait for people to read it when it becomes available in May.