Author-illustrator Yuyi Morales and editor Neal Porter have worked together on six books, but Morales’s newest, Dreamers, is her most personal work to date. It recounts, in poetic form, the story of her emigration in 1994 from Mexico to the United States, with her two-month-old son. Scheduled for publication on September 4, the book has received considerable advance acclaim, including starred reviews from PW, Booklist, and Kirkus, which called it “a resplendent masterpiece.” Morales, who lived for many years in the Bay Area, now resides in her hometown of Xalapa, Mexico. We asked Morales and Porter to discuss their newest collaboration.
Neal Porter: Yuyi, I believe we started talking about the story that became Dreamers about two years ago, when there was already much in the news about refugees and immigrants.
Yuyi Morales: Charlotte [Sheedy, her agent] had this idea: all authors who are immigrants should be writing their own story, perhaps collected in an anthology or published as a series of books by individual authors. I don’t know if she convinced anyone else, but she certainly convinced you and me. I thought, if it was going to happen, it wouldn’t be right away as I was working on my graphic novel.
Porter: Well as you know, she is both fearless and persistent! And the question became: what form should the story take? We did have a series of conversations… and then came the 2016 presidential election. And the results really galvanized us to get serious about what this book could be.
Morales: Before that night, I thought, there is no way Trump would be elected. He was not a person I would even let inside my house, let alone be the leader of a free country. I was so angry. The next morning, it felt like I’d experienced a bomb or earthquake… like my life had crumbled. In so many ways, he represented the opposite of everything I had worked for and grown into as a children’s book author: how we treat others, how we communicate, how we fight against bullying, and how we build our perception of ourselves. Everything stopped, and I couldn’t work on anything. Trump was so vocal against anything that came from the Mexican side of the border. If I believed the things he said when I first came to the United States, I would never have made it.
Porter: I disengaged. I couldn’t process the news. In February, after the Women’s March, we started talking again.
Morales: I knew I had to create something that could make a difference.
Porter: The spring went by and I think the turning point was when you sent me a long piece that was written as a letter to your son Kelly, describing how you emigrated with him when he was two months old. He’s now a very tall and handsome 24. It was beautiful, but more suited to an older audience, and we needed to find a way to distill it down to its essence to make it relevant to a child’s experience.
Morales: I wasn’t really putting a filter on it, and it got longer and longer. I remember you said, “This is an adult story. Do you have an idea of how you can write it for a child?” And I thought, well, Kelly was a little boy at the time. It could be from his point of view.
Porter: Ah, that was the key.
Morales: Yes, how it would be like for Kelly to immigrate. That was all I knew, but I had no idea how I was going to pull it off. I was hopeful, since I had a hint of an idea… but then I went to Brazil.
Porter: And I went to China!
Morales: Yes, you’re right.
Porter: And so I abandoned you for a bit, and we didn’t really have time to communicate about the book. And then I radically changed my life by moving to Holiday House. But here’s an interesting thing that I only discovered a few days ago: on September 10, 2017, you sent me a manuscript that read: “No title yet.” But it was remarkably close to Dreamers in its final form. I don’t know what kind of magic you performed while I was in China, but I came back, and read this extraordinary piece of writing on September 11, the day I started my new job. A couple of weeks later I received a simple sketch dummy, thumbnails, really, which is typical of the way we work. In its basic outline, it was also very similar to how the finished book turned out, but it gave me no clue about what the art would ultimately look like.
Morales: From my end, you told me that you moved houses—and that now, I had all the time in the world to turn this story into a picture book! And not to hurry—
Porter: I have no memory of this!
Morales: —and I believed you!
Porter: Well, never believe your editor! But seriously, I keep coming back to the line in Dreamers: “Where we didn’t need to speak, we only needed to trust.” We have that kind of trust in the way we work.
Morales: It says a lot about the creative relationship we have together. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, except that I was taking too long. I felt, “I just really need to do this now.” As I was writing Dreamers, I played this song in my studio called Caminando, which means walking, by Rising Appalachia. It tapped into my memories and captured my emotions at the time, when Kelly and I first arrived in the United States. I felt strong because I knew how to walk places—and Kelly and I explored so many of those places. Listening to the song and remembering how much walking I did, I was transported back to when we crossed a bridge and entered a new universe—which is exactly how it felt when we crossed the border from Mexico to the United States. We’ve kept walking and haven’t stopped! Most of what Kelly and I continue to do, even now, is walk. This is who we are. We are people, mother and son, who walk through life, through cities, through learning. We became people who can live in a country that was once so strange. We walked into the most beautiful place I ever found, which was the library.
Porter: The metaphor of walking is so powerful. When you walked into the library, that essentially became the structure of the book.
Morales: Yes, it was inside the library and in the pages of books that I was able to walk and journey through experiences I had never imagined existed before. Maybe we weren’t walking physically, but the places they took us were amazing.
Porter: When I hear you retell your story, one thing I find so moving is that you came here with very little English. So when you discovered picture books in the library, you were able to read them with Kelly because of the illustrations. And Kelly was learning how to read at the same time.
Morales: I knew a few words, but I couldn’t read the text. But if I looked at the illustrations… it was like magic. It is like magic! I want to make sure that in my books, you can read the story even if you can’t completely make out the text. It wasn’t that different than falling in love with someone who understands you. My infatuation with picture books was real. I wanted to go to the library every day.
Porter: So you found books that inspired you, but you were also inspired to create your own books.
Morales: I was so homesick. I copied the picture books I loved. I also used the library to find books about anything—including making books. There was one on making handmade paper. There was another book on how picture books are made. I tried to recreate that story in Dreamers.
Porter: Yes, with the mother sewing the book. And I think one of your original handmade books actually made it into our book!
Morales: The last book on the last page is actually scanned from my first handmade book. It was a fantasy story of Kelly visiting his grandparents in Mexico. I wrote it in Spanish because I wanted to be able to communicate with Kelly. No one I knew could read it.
Porter: And the books you made as a child are on the title page. What else inspired the artwork of Dreamers?
Morales: When I started making the book and was looking for inspiration I was drawn to street art, so I wanted the two characters in the book to be walking in a city. I’m also a big admirer of Mexican folk arts and crafts. In Viva Frida, I used some techniques like the embroidery of her dress. I wanted to do the same for Dreamers, which again led to finding that knowledge at the library. My mother created so many things in our house, with her hands. She sewed, she embroidered. With my hands, I tried to do the same. I’m inspired by so many things, a color or a texture, metalwork, textiles. I had no idea how Dreamers would look in the end.
Porter: It occurs to me that just as the books at the end of Dreamers are a tribute to a place where you learned, the actual artwork is a tribute to Mexican artisans, handicrafts, and culture.
Morales: I didn’t go to art school. Everything I’ve learned I’ve done by copying and imagining that I could do it. If it doesn’t look good, I’ll do it again and again until it looks like something I could be happy with. Dreamers honors that learning process, and yes, most of it happens at the library. It just goes back to the line at the end of the story, “Someday we will become something we haven’t even yet imagined.” It comes from the willingness to learn.
Porter: And it also requires a certain amount of bravery. And again, trust. When the first image arrived, I was completely stunned. I had no idea what you did, how you did it, or where these images were coming from. I only learned later that you were photographing things around you—the floor of your studio, a woven blouse, flowers and plants from your garden—and using them as textures in the book! I began forwarding the spreads around the office and feeling this groundswell of excitement, like, “Tune in next week for the next installment of Dreamers.” It was thrilling, me with a new “family,” and this thing we were creating! In January, you first mentioned the notion of recreating the actual books that you found in the library.
Morales: It couldn’t have been the story without the books. And I didn’t tell you I was doing it.
Porter: Ha, like I told you that you had all the time in the world to make this book, right?
Morales: I don’t know if it was bravery or foolishness, but I decided to start drawing the books and then see what you thought. I’m afraid that if I say what I’m going to do, I won’t do it. Or I might be stuck. I didn’t know how it would work, but I loved doing these book covers. It wasn’t too different than me drawing Kelly over and over again when he was born. These books were my family—they understood me, I understood them, and they grew with me. Drawing their covers was like drawing a portrait of someone I love. Could I draw these actual books without getting into trouble?
Porter: But it’s clear that these are loving tributes to those books. They’re not the actual books, but your loving recreation of those books.
Morales: I tried to put in the way they act in the story, too. Like A Mother for Choco. Instead of being on the shelf, it’s flying in the air, because that book has a personality to me—it’s the first book I remember loving. I found books with people of color in them, ways of life that were familiar. I found books with people like me. I could never have imagined it! I thought all the books had to be about Dick and Jane. When I realized that these books were then made by people like me, something clicked. I never felt that I was valuable enough to be part of books.
Porter: What’s fascinating for me is that the change happened in my lifetime—I had Dick and Jane books in school. And Little Black Sambo. Only when I was well past picture book age did books reflecting our diverse population appear, and this still continues to be a process. In a sense, Dreamers is not just about an immigrant’s journey but also about taking the skills and talents you have and, in your case, creating a career out of what you learned from books in the library.
Morales: I always have to fight against this narrative that I came to the United States with nothing, even though I believed it at the time. I didn’t speak English, I left everything behind, I was a child who depended on my mother-in-law. I didn’t even bring a gift, because again, I had nothing. When you feel inferior to someone, you are grateful for everything, even when it is not very much.
Porter: In the book that narrative is inverted; it’s about the gifts immigrants bring with them. That reversal is so relevant today, given the prevailing narrative that immigrants come here to take things away from Americans. When did that occur to you in this process?
Morales: I had conversations with people who asked me about why I came. I know the United States has a lot to offer. In contrast to our home countries, it appears that we are trying to flee. But what’s not usually taken into account is that most of us love the places we come from. If we have to leave, we leave with a broken heart.
Porter: And that was true of you.
Morales: And we don’t talk about it, just how difficult the journey was and how much we wanted to come. But that conversation isn’t complete. We aren’t here because we are somehow less—though we are treated that way. We have actually come to share, not take. This is something I took a long time to realize. I’m not inferior because I’m an immigrant. We have come to add to the dreams of the immigrants who have come before.
Porter: Let’s talk about the language. Typical of the books we’ve done together, they’re in English, but there are lots of Spanish words as well. We chose not to italicize the Spanish words.
Morales: One of the most joyful things for me, in the way we make books, is that we honor the love I have for Spanish. And the importance Spanish has for me. Spanish is not a language that opposes or cancels English, but is equal. The text of Dreamers combines them into one language—a better language. Isn’t that marvelous? Which reminds me just how delighted I am with the translation that Teresa [Mlawer] did for Soñadores. Did you ever worry about the Spanish in the text?
Porter: The meaning of Spanish words in your books has always been clear to non-Spanish speakers because of the context. I had learned that there was a move away from italicizing Spanish words, as has been the common practice; italicizing has the effect of making them seem “other” or even “less than.” Spanish is not “foreign” to Spanish speakers in this country. At the same time, as the book took shape, it was clear that we needed to do a separate Spanish edition of the book. It was fascinating observing your conversation with Teresa in selecting the Spanish words. You both had very definite points of view! Nuance matters so much, and I’m not sure people realize that when reading a translation.
Given the fact you probably started making the final art in October 2017, producing the book and a simultaneous Spanish edition and having physical books by June was a bit of a miracle, at least by publishing standards. We knew, because of the book’s subject, and the headlines that greeted us each day, that we had to publish as soon as we possibly could. We had originally scheduled it for October, and ended up moving the on-sale date to September 4 for both editions, Dreamers and Soñadores.
Morales: I remember you telling me that the sales reps worried about the book being late?
Porter: Our benevolent sales director actually worried that you were working too hard! I had to reassure him that we were both going to come out of this alive. It was definitely a journey—certainly for you, but for us as well: Jennifer Browne who designed the book, Lisa Lee in production who moved heaven and earth to get our books in time, and the marketing, publicity, and sales team that has been so supportive. To quote a certain female politician, “It takes a village.” It’s inevitably a book that is political and makes a political statement. With that, what do you see as your role as a children’s book creator? What do you hope people will take away from Dreamers?
Morales: To even try to be neutral in this time would be a disservice. As a children’s book creator, I take on a huge responsibility in that I hope my book will raise consciousness and awareness in children. My voice might not always be the one worth hearing, but I feel that, in putting myself out there, I can open the doors for the stories of those who need more attention. The point of Dreamers is not that others can admire my journey. It’s an invitation that we should all use our own voices to tell our own stories.
Porter: And that’s how you conclude the book: “Now I have told you my story. What’s yours?”
Dreamers by Yuyi Morales. Holiday House/Porter, $18.99 Sept. 4 ISBN 978-0-8234-4055-9; Soñadores, $18.99 Sept. 4 ISBN 978-0-8234-4258-4