An Interview with Mary Margaret Mercado: Authentic Picturebook Illustrations

Interview conducted by Judi Moreillon

Part 4: Authentic Picturebook Illustrations

This month, I interview Pima County Public Library children’s librarian and children’s book reviewer, Mary Margaret Mercado. Last week, Mary Margaret responded to questions related to authenticity in picturebook stories. This week, our conversation centers on authentic picturebook illustrations.

Authenticity in Picturebooks

Authenticity in Picturebook Illustration

Just as stories and the languages in which they are told reflect culture, so do the visual arts. Art is most-often a form of individual expression, but it is also a social construct. Artists’ choices of shape, line, color, media and symbols reflect the culture with which they identify and the cultural context in which they work. Members of cultures connect with “their art” and want it to reflect something unique about who they are as a people.

Cultural insider author-illustrators have the advantage of a clear vision as they illustrate their own work. Other illustrators may or may not be insiders to the cultural experiences they portray in picturebook art. Similar to authors who have had first-hand experience, illustrators who come from, live in or immerse themselves in a culture may create more authentic cultural representations. Other illustrators may rely on research. Only rarely will a children’s picturebook illustrator have the “luxury” of communicating directly with the author of the story for which they are creating art.

We used these questions to guide our thinking about the visual elements in global picturebooks focused on Mexican culture.

1. How does the illustrator’s background or research influence the visual elements in this book?
2. What meanings are communicated through the images?
3. Do the visual elements authentically and accurately portray cultural information?

Judi: In the most successful picturebooks, fifty-percent or more of the story is told through illustrations. What specific artistic elements might you look for in a picturebook that portrays a story situated in current day Mexico as compared with one set in a historical time in Mexico?

Mary Margaret: There are Mexican themed children’s picturebook illustrators whose work can be categorized as folk art. The colors are predominantly in earth tones, images are flat, range of emotions is limited and characters’ movements are stiff. While this artistic style is evidenced in mural art, it may be best applied in traditional children’s literature or stories set in rural settings rather than in stories that portray contemporary Mexican life.

What is missing for me are illustrations that show the actual shape, texture, color and nuances of contemporary, three-dimensional Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living fully-realized and self-actualized human experiences–not just relegated to rural or historical settings, or to observing traditional holidays and feast days.

Overall, there is a dismal lack of Mexican or Mexican-American characters portrayed with individually distinguishable personalities like Keats’ Peter, Soman’s Ladybug Girl, Sendak’s Max, Castillo’s Nana, Velazquez’s Eric, or Guevara’s Emmett. One such promising illustrator may be up-and-coming-artist Adriana M. Garcia, illustrator of Xelena González’s book All Around Us (Cinco Puntos, 2017). The story honors traditions while steeped in a contemporary setting. The illustrations of the girl and her grandpa blaze with life.

Judi: What issues are related to reviewing a book for which the illustrator lacks first-hand knowledge or has not conducted thorough research on the culture of the story?

Mary Margaret: It is surprising how often illustration errors are made that could have been avoided with a simple Google search. For example, I have seen the Mexican flag misrepresented by three different illustrators from the U.K. Rather than an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus (a nopal) devouring a rattlesnake, these illustrators place the eagle on a saguaro cactus. While el nopal is found throughout Mexico, saguaros are only found in the Sonoran Desert, which extends from southern Arizona and California into the northwestern Mexico. There is no excuse for such sloppy errors as this one.

Mistakes are also made in naming characters, particularly in picturebooks set in pre-European Mexico. One particular title was written by a Mexican-American author. The story takes place millennia before Spanish was spoken by indigenous cultures. Yet the names of the protagonists are unapologetically Spanish–Bella and Alma. A quick Internet search would have provided Teyolía as the equivalent of Alma, meaning soul, or Cualtzin, which means beautiful. Both are names in Nahuatl–the language spoken by the Aztecs. There was also the option of using names from any of the other six major Pre-Hispanic language families which pre-dated the Aztecs. These names could have later been Hispanized or Anglicized throughout the rest of the story for easier reading and/or pronunciation.

Judi: Can you give examples of a particularly successful marriage of culturally authentic story and artwork in the Mexican themed books?

Mary Margaret: There are two currently published, award-wining author-illustrators whose work stands out. Their work is different in style and at the same time true to their Mexican roots.

Yuyi Morales has authored and/or illustrated many picturebooks that portray magical realism. In literature, magical realism is mainly associated with a Latin-American narrative strategy in which fantastic or mythical elements are incidentally included in an otherwise realistic fiction story. The influence of magical realism on Yuyi’s storytelling and art furthers the cultural authenticity in her work.

Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book (Chronicle, 2003) and Viva Frida (Roaring Brook, 2014) are two of her author-illustrator titles that show how story and illustration work together to create a powerful impact on readers/viewers. Yuyi’s magical illustrations are also a perfect companion for Laura Lacámara’s story Floating on Mama’s Song (Katherine Tegen Books, 2010).

Duncan Tonatiuh’s highly stylistic art is influenced by pre-Columbian art. Duncan’s flat, two-dimensional geometric shapes and color repetition reflect his study of and connection with 14th and 15th century Mixtec codices.

Two of his author-illustrator titles that effectively marry story and illustration are Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras (Abrams, 2015) and The Princess and the Warrior: A Tale of Two Volcanos (Abrams, 2016). Salsa: Un poema para docinar/Salsa: A Cooking Poem by Jorge Argueta (Groundwood, 2015) is an example of Duncan’s Mixtec illustration style portraying a blend of contemporary and historical elements.

Judi: In our discussions, you share research you did related to this interview. In a WorldCat database search of Mexico and Mexican-American themed picturebooks, you found the preponderance of titles took place in rural settings, were about El Día de los Muertos/The Day of the Dead, Cinco de Mayo or Catholic-influenced pseudo legends of the Poinsettia–which is a flower (cuetlaxochitl) native to Mexico and whose medicinal and religious uses predate the Spanish conquest and Christianity.

If you were an editor in charge of the publishing children’s picturebooks on Mexico and Mexican-American themes, what kinds of stories and illustrations would you seek?

Mary Margaret: It is time to realistically and accurately feature Mexican and Mexican-Americans as people fully immersed in all aspects of daily life in the 21st century–just as Americans of European ancestry are.

Judi: Thank you, Mary Margaret, for sharing your experience and to WOW Currents for publishing this interview.

The information in this interview will be part of an article for publication that includes responses to a survey I conducted in which twenty-six children’s and young adult book reviewers participated.

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