We are all “calaveras,” or skeletons, whether rich or poor, famous or not, writes Duncan Tonatiuh in his children’s book about the Mexican celebration of the dead.
The Mexican-born children’s book author chooses protagonists and stories that are seldom sought for young audiences. He has mined Mexican history and folklore for inspiration, such as José Guadalupe Posada, the man behind the Day of the Dead skeletons. His latest book, “The Princess and the Warrior,” is mythical story told from generation to generation about the two volcanoes that overlook Mexico City.
And in “Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation,” Tonatiuh documents the little-known 1946 case in California that laid the ground for Brown v. Board of Education 10 years earlier — through the eyes of a girl, Sylvia, of Mexican-Puerto Rican heritage.
Tonatiuh favors a modern take on pre-Columbian art for his illustrations, meaning his subjects are flat and fixed into a profile pose. But stories are told in the details. A white boy’s ears, shaped like the No. 3, resemble those of Sylvia Mendez.
“I am both Mexican and American … and what I’ve discovered is that despite the apparent differences between these two countries — the buildings, the food, the day-to-day routines, physical appearances, the politics — at the end of the day, we are more similar than different,” he wrote in an author’s note in one of his books. “People are people,” he said.
PBS NewsHour spoke with the award-winning author on how he chose his style, what children have said about his work, and why there ought to be more brown faces in children’s books.
Your first book “Dear Primo: A Letter to Your Cousin” compares the everyday lives of two cousins. Charlie lives in an American city. Carlitos lives in rural Mexico. As your introduction to the world of children’s books, what did you want to achieve with this particular story?
The story is not autobiographical, but it is definitely about my environment and my community. I grew up in Mexico, in a small city called San Miguel de Allende. And then, when I was a teenager, I came to the United States, and I went to a school in Massachusetts. And then I went to a university in New York City. And when I lived in New York, I lived in this neighborhood called Sunset Park where there is a large Mexican community or there used to be, at any rate, when I was there.
And the thing that had a deep impression on me were the kids, because the kids in the neighborhood looked just like the kids that I had grown up with in San Miguel. It was sort of essentially the same child, so to speak, but it was a totally different environment.
In Sunset Park, in the middle of winter, everyone was wearing big jackets, speaking English. There’s Manhattan in the background with the tall skyscrapers. Whereas the environment in San Miguel was somewhat the opposite with short, colorful houses and everyone speaks Spanish and it’s usually warm most of the year.
I wanted to make that book to show the differences. Like, in the book, one likes quesadillas, the other one likes pizza. But I also try and show the similarities. Maybe one cousin likes soccer, or fútbol, and the other one likes basketball, but they both like sports, or they both like spending time with their friends, celebrating different holidays and different traditions.
Because I have been able to live both in Mexico and the U.S., I’ve learned that even though some things are very different, at the end of the day, people are more alike than different, especially children. That was the message I wanted to convey.
At the end of your book about Diego Rivera, you say that the Mexican painter wanted his fellow Mexicans “to learn about their culture and feel proud.” Was that your mission statement as well?
It is definitely something that I try to accomplish with all of my books. There is about 3,000 children’s books that publish every year in the United States, but only a very small percentage of them, only about 10 percent are about people of color, where the protagonist is a person of color. And only three percent, I believe, are about Latinos, where the protagonist is a Latino. [Editor’s note: A report from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center shows that 14 percent of children’s books focused on people of color in 2015, and 83 out of approximately 3,400 books — or about 2.4 percent — were about Latinos.]
I think it’s very important for children to see books where they see themselves. When they see a book where they see their culture represented and different things that they can identify with, I think they are much more motivated to read, to write and, just in general, to realize that their voices, their stories are important.
As a Mexican-American myself, I was floored by how many brown faces I saw in your books. I’ve never seen that before in children’s books, especially growing up. I would often tell people that I saw more diversity among the animals depicted in children’s stories than the child at the heart of a story, who tended to be white. In other words, I remember more brownness from the Berenstain Bears. As a kid, what was the book that left the deepest impression on you?
One of the first books I read that left a deep impression on me is called “Macario.” It is by an author named B. Traven. It is about this place in Mexico, about this poor woodcutter, and his whole dream in life is to eat an entire turkey by himself. He is so hungry, that is his dream in life. His wife saves money, and she is able get him this turkey. He goes into the woods to eat it, and then all these visitors appears to offer him things in exchange for the turkey.
So, I’m not sure it was something I thought about as much. It is just different because I grew up in Mexico. I definitely read books in English or books that came from the U.S., like Dr. Seuss and others. But now that it’s something I do for a living and having lived in the U.S. for many years, it’s definitely something I pay attention to and think is very important.
Your illustrations pay tribute to the ancient art of the Mixtecs. Can you tell me what drove you to adapt that style for your illustrations?
I came up with that style when I was in college. I will be lying if I said that ever since I was a kid, i always drew like that. There were other things that first got me excited about drawing: comics, and anime, manga. But when I came to the U.S. as a teenager and then, in college, the more time I spent away from Mexico, the more I missed certain things — the food, the music — and I became more aware of how certain things were different and sort of special. Because, when you are around it sometimes, you don’t think about it too much. You kind of take it for granted.
When I was In college, I had a year-long thesis and I decided to do it about a person a guy named Sergio in New York who is Mixtec. Mixtec is an indigenous group from the south of Mexico, and there’s a large Mixtec community in New York. And I wasn’t aware of this until I met him. I heard him speak his Mixtec dialect with his relatives and friends. I was very struck by it; how there was this community of people who had left their small village in Mexico, and were here in this big city, thousands of miles away, preserving some of their traditions and their identity.
I found images from Mixtec codices. I was just so struck by how flat and geometrical, and how stylized they were. And I wanted to do a modern-day codex of Sergio’s story. That’s how I started drawing in the way.
For “Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale,” I was wondering if it was particularly difficult to turn that into a children’s story. It is such a perilous journey that these undocumented immigrants go through.
I wanted the story to work a little bit like the “Little Red Riding Hood” or “The Gingerbread Man,” a fable like that, but then I also wanted to work with the second layer of meaning where the coyote is a real coyote and Pancho is a rabbit, but he’s also a migrant going through the different challenges and dangers that migrants often go through to reach the U.S.
The publisher was very supportive of it. We thought there might be some backlash, some people maybe a little upset by the book. And there have been a few comments that some random people have said when the book first came out. But the overall response has been super supportive. The book has won multiple awards. I think adults often see the value in it, and I think young kids enjoy it because it’s like the “Little Red Riding Hood” and a little bit scary, but fun.
The really powerful experience I’ve had with that book is, at some point, some fourth-graders at a school in Texas shared a video of a multi-voice poem they wrote about their own border-crossing experiences and the experiences of their family. They were inspired to do this after they read “Pancho Rabbit.”
Despite the tribulations that Pancho Rabbit goes through, it ends on such an optimistic note. Overall, the story seems like it’s working to dispel certain myths about Latinos. Was that another aim of the book?
Definitely. Immigration comes in and out of the news cycle. But I think when people talk about immigration, it’s how this is affecting the economy or things like that. Or, sometimes, it’s worse and immigrants are seen as scapegoats. They’re all traffickers, they’re all terrible people or rapists, when in fact, immigrants are some of the hardest working people that take on some of the most grueling jobs in the U.S. I think there’s something that we don’t see enough in the media: the separation that exists between families, kids that haven’t seen their parents, and how dangerous this journey is. Instead of thinking of it as a policy issue, or an economics issue, people need to start thinking of it more as a humanitarian issue.
What was the thinking behind “The Princess and the Warrior: A Tale of Two Volcanoes,” a book steeped in Mexican folklore.
I was thinking of doing a new take on a classic tale. I would think of these different fairy tales, like “Puss in Boots” or “Hansel and Gretel.” I tried changing some details, like instead of “Hansel and Gretel,” it’ll be like “Juan and Gretel” or, instead of “Puss in Boots,” it’ll be “Puss in Sneakers.” But, other than that, there wasn’t anything particularly different or original.
Then I thought of Sleeping Beauty and that got me thinking of “La Mujer Domida,” the “Sleeping Woman,” the legend of the volcanos. I was almost a little bit — maybe not ashamed of myself — but I had thought about all these European tales first, of all these sort of Western stories before I thought of a story that comes from a different tradition, my heritage. And I was happy that I recalled that story and featured that story.
I want to talk a bit about “Separate Is Never Equal.” Was it really hard to condense the story of Sylvia Mendez in “Mendez v. Westminster,” a case that laid the groundwork for “Brown v. Board of Education”?
It was definitely challenging. Whenever I write a book, I have to revise it many times — five, six times at least — sometimes more. With “Separate Is Never Equal,” I wanted to include a lot of information: the different names, different dates, different judicial concepts. I didn’t want to make it kind of overwhelming and uninteresting for young readers. So, it’s a tricky balance of figuring out what to include, how to include it, how to arrange it.
Fortunately, the response has been very positive. Young readers are drawn in by this story because they care about what’s fair, what’s not fair.
One thing I appreciated so much about the story was how it dealt with discrimination and racism in a way I haven’t seen often in children’s books. You talk about being able to discern between what’s fair and what’s not fair, and I remember as a child thinking similarly, like Sylvia, but not fully understanding why.
People will ask me, sometimes when I go to a school, “Why were they like that?” or “When did this start?” I don’t know what to exactly answer them either, you know, that that was a way that people acted and felt at the time and that it took courageous people to ask why, to stand up against it and do something about it. I don’t really have an answer of why, but I try and give an example of something that can be done about it.
I have an author’s note about a study that shows that segregation in U.S. schools has increased in the last decade. African-American and Latino children are twice as likely to go into a school where majority of the students are poor, where less than 10 percent of the students are white, and therefore they go to schools that are more crowded, have less resources and have some of the same problems that the Mendez family was facing 70 years ago.
Hopefully the book can serve as a kind of encouragement that something can be done.
Was there a particular response from children to “Separate Is Never Equal” that stuck out for you?
One response that I think is kind of neat is that it kind of creates empathy, and sometimes create empathy between like African-American and Latino children. So often when we hear of civil rights, we tend to think of it or it’s get taught as if it was only a black and white thing. We forget to mention or to teach that other groups — Latinos, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, women, all kinds of people — suffered great injustices and discrimination at the time. When young readers make that connection, it can be pretty powerful.
Interview has been edited and condensed.