Growing up in Veracruz, on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, Yuyi (pronounced “ZHOO-zhee” ) Morales remembers many nights spent sitting by the sewing machine. She would draw and doodle, while her mother stitched colorful stuffed animals to sell in the market. “Eventually I would put my head down and fall asleep, and I would awaken to this zoo of giraffes and elephants and dogs—many bigger than I was—that my mother had created,” she recalls.
Artwork that looks like it is the product of dreams would become a hallmark of Morales’s work, and so, too, would the DIY ethos she learned at her mother’s side. Last month, Morales collected her fourth gold medal from ALA’s Pura Belpré committee; no artist has won as many. The award, which honors work that best portrays the Latino cultural experience in a children’s book, was for Niño Wrestles the World (Roaring Brook/Porter), a picture book in which the underwear-clad hero of the title uses what he’s learned watching professional luchadores (wrestlers) to defeat his fears, which take the shape of the most frightening creatures in Mexican popular culture.
“To win four times? I cannot tell you how much the Pura Belpré means to me,” Morales says. “But you have to know how many people helped me. There have been a lot of people holding my hand along the way.”
Morales’s journey began in Xalapa, as the oldest of four children. Her mother was a homemaker—“make” being the operative part of the word. “She made all our clothes, coats, hats, underwear. She made the bedspreads, the curtains, the lamps, everything,” Morales recalls. “She taught me to use the sewing machine when I was very little. I crocheted a vest for myself when I was five years old.”
Morales has put that plucky know-how to use in Viva Frida (Roaring Brook/Porter, Sept.), an unconventional picture-book biography of the groundbreaking Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. She created a doll in Kahlo’s likeness, embroidered the flowers on the doll’s handmade dress, and composed props, marionettes, and puppets to set against the backgrounds she painted. Her husband, Tim O’Meara, photographed the 3-D spreads.
“You never know what to expect from Yuyi,” says editor and publisher Neal Porter, who calls Morales’s illustrations for Viva Frida a “miracle of multimedia.” He adds, “The first two books she did with me were vividly executed in acrylics, but Niño was done in an entirely different style, inspired by comic books. I knew she wanted to do a book on Frida Kahlo, but I had no idea she was creating dolls and these amazing environments in which to pose them. There are details I’m still discovering after a year and a half of working on this book.”
Despite those nights by the sewing machine, becoming an artist was not a childhood dream for Morales. “That would have been thought of as crazy,” she says. Because she had been a top competitive swimmer in high school, she studied physical education at the Universidad de Xalapa, hoping to teach gym. After graduation, she took a job as a swim coach.
During that time, she met O’Meara, a California musician who had come to Xalapa to set up a recording studio. The job was supposed to take three days. He stayed five years, falling in love, first with son jarocho, a type of Mexican folk music, and then with Morales. Then there was a baby—their son Kelly—and a family crisis. O’Meara’s father, in San Francisco, had become seriously ill. The couple, now engaged, traveled with Kelly to see O’Meara’s family and wound up putting down roots in the Bay Area. O’Meara spoke Spanish fluently; Morales spoke very little English.
“It was very hard at first, because I lived a whole year in my mother-in-law’s house and they spoke only English,” Morales remembers. “I became terrified of answering the telephone, worried I would not understand what the caller was asking.”
Morales’s life changed when she and Kelly went to the Western Addition branch of the San Francisco Public Library. She was floored by the vast and varied selection of books that could be found in the children’s section. She learned English by reading simple texts to Kelly, who “did not know or care if I mispronounced a few words,” and relied on illustrations to help her out when she came across a word she didn’t know.
But the vivid colors in those books made Morales even more homesick for sun-drenched Xalapa. “I realized I could bring those colors to me if I could paint them,” she says. Could she make picture books like the ones she was reading to Kelly, she wondered? “The answer was, ‘of course,’ because even in the children’s section you can find a book that tells you how to make books like the ones in the children’s section.”
Morales bought a set of paints and brushes and enrolled in an extension class at UC Berkeley on writing for children, where she met a group of other aspiring authors and illustrators. In 1997, six of them—Jim Averbeck, Maria Van Lieshout, Lynn Hazen, Karen Ehrhardt, and Gianna Marino—became the Revisionaries, a critique group that met regularly for the next 16 years. Her critique group urged Morales to join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and throw her hat in the ring for a Don Freeman Grant—a $1,000 award that enables picture book illustrators to complete works in progress. Morales submitted a dummy for a book about an old woman who tricks Señor Calavera—a skeletal stand-in for the Grim Reaper—into letting her live. She was floored when she won. “That gave me validation,” she recalls. “I started feeling like maybe some other people could appreciate what I was doing.”
Morales was invited to display her winning artwork at the SCBWI annual conference in Los Angeles in August 2000. She had plans to visit her family in Xalapa at that time, so she sent the portfolio to the conference with a critique group partner. Harcourt editor Jeannette Larson saw Morales’s artwork and contacted her: would she be interested in illustrating a picture book biography about Cesar Chavez, written by Kathleen Krull? “It was risky to engage an entirely unknown artist, yet I couldn’t resist the possibilities in the colors, shapes, and energy in those samples,” Larson says.
Morales admits that her first thought after getting Larson’s call was, why would an American editor publish a book about a boxer? (There was a famous Mexican pugilist with the same name.) “Then I got the manuscript and... wow. I learned about Cesar Chavez the same way American children would, and it was such a powerful story.” She was thrilled to accept Larson’s offer.
“Chavez was new to her—and this, perhaps, brought a fresh emotional power to her illustrations,” Larson says. “I love that it’s hard to find a straight line in the book—images flow easily into others, creating a dreamlike sense of visual movement that’s perfect for a story that’s all about moving forward and bringing others along, all about making a dream into a reality.”
Harvesting Hope earned Morales her first publishing credit, but, more importantly, she says, “Illustrating that book opened every door for me and allowed me to start creating my own books.” Chronicle Books snapped up the project for which Morales had won the SCBWI grant and published it as Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book.
The Pura Belpré committee was impressed. In 2004, Harvesting Hope was named an honor book. Just a Minute won the gold medal. Morales remembers calling home with the news. Her parents had expressed pride in her accomplishments, but she didn’t think they really understood the magnitude of what she had achieved in less than a decade. “After I won, I called my father, who has always been an avid newspaper reader, and I told him, ‘This morning, my name was printed in the New York Times because I won the Pura Belpré Award,’ and that did it. My sisters told me later that he put down the phone and cried.”
Last year, Morales’s son Kelly went off to Sarah Lawrence College; after 20 years in California, Morales and O’Meara returned to Xalapa last August, where she built a studio. She was back in the U.S. earlier this month to pick up her fourth Pura Belpré medal and give her acceptance speech, in which she made a passionate plea for more stories that celebrate the diverse cultural heritage of Americans. She also expressed hope that she could continue to live her own, unique American dream.
“I am an immigrant, a member of two worlds, a speaker of two languages, a mother of a niño born in Mexico [who is] now a man who has embarked on his own journey in this place that he calls home: America,” Morales said in her speech. “Please, continue to make this land the welcoming, diverse place of opportunities for niños and niñas to grow—and please let me be part of it.”
Sue Corbett is the coauthor, with Mariano Rivera, of The Closer: Young Readers Edition (Little, Brown, Sept.)