Matt de la Peña is the author of several YA novels, including Mexican WhiteBoy, We Were Here, and The Living, as well as numerous picture books. Illustrator Christian Robinson’s picture books include the Gaston and Friends series, written by Kelly DiPucchio; Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett; and School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex. In 2016, de la Peña and Robinson teamed up for the acclaimed picture book Last Stop on Market Street, winner of a Newbery Medal, a Caldecott Honor, and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. The duo is back this month with a new book, Carmela Full of Wishes, about a girl whose birthday wish is granted when she gets to accompany her older brother on errands, exploring their vibrant Spanish-speaking community along the way. We asked de la Peña and Robinson to interview each other about their process, and to talk about why Carmela’s story feels particularly timely.
De la Peña: Hey Christian! I’m so excited about the upcoming release of Carmela Full of Wishes. This book is really special to me, partly because of the subject matter, but also because it was another chance to work with you. I’m curious, do you remember anything about the weeks leading up to the publication of Last Stop on Market Street?
Robinson: Honestly, I was a nervous wreck before the release of Last Stop on Market Street. The story was so personal, which left me feeling more vulnerable about how it would be received. I also remember being happily busy with other book and animation projects, which was a good distraction from any anxiety I may have felt. I’d say I’m feeling the same way now as we approach the release of Carmela. :)
Speaking of balancing it all, you recently had a new addition to the family. How has becoming a father influenced the way you tell stories?
De la Peña: It’s so crazy that I now have a daughter and a son. He’s four months old and he’s insanely chubby. Even the tops of his feet are chubby. But he’s got smiles for days (especially when my wife picks him up). The best part is how much our four-year-old daughter likes him. Being a parent is a gift. It really puts everything into perspective. I also love that it’s an excuse to read piles of picture books every night. I’m astonished by the quality of work that’s being published right now. It’s inspiring. I’m just so proud we get to work alongside so many great creators. A good picture book can transport a child to a new world. I’ve seen it with my daughter. She often calibrates new experiences by using the books we’ve read as reference points. I think having children has made me truly appreciate the power of the picture book.
One of my favorite things about your work, Christian, is how you always manage to find a personal entry point. With Last Stop it was obvious. Like CJ, you were raised by your grandmother. But you and I have talked about how Carmela’s story was personal for you, too. Can you share a little about that? And the artwork itself is wonderful. Do you have any images of your process you can share?
Robinson: I grew up in a predominantly Latino community in Los Angeles, and a lot of the backdrop of Carmela was inspired by the neighborhood I grew up in, from the laundromat to the panadería to the street vendors and vegetable stands. I also connect to the theme of forced separation seen in the story. I can’t relate specifically to having a father deported, like Carmela, but my mother was in and out of prison for most of my childhood. There was something healing about illustrating a book that touches on a subject not often seen in picture books, but an experience that affects so many children.
And sure! Here are some picture from my studio:
This might be an obvious question, but is Carmela’s story one you’ve always wanted to tell, or do you think it was a product of the times?
De la Peña: I actually conceived the idea of Carmela about a week after the release of Last Stop. I was still brand new to picture books, and was coming off of a series of YA novels. There was something about the writing process that felt so freeing. I think it was an opportunity to explore innocence, though I should point out that innocence isn’t synonymous with a lack of sophistication. My whole career I’ve been trying to honor my family—especially my grandparents who came to America from Tijuana, Mexico, just before my dad was born. I’m all about respect for the people who come before you. Parents. Grandparents. Aunts and uncles. The way I look at it, a life is also a story. And my story is no more interesting or important than any of the other de la Peña stories that preceded mine. In a way, all I’m doing is picking up where my ancestors left off.
I’ve explored my particular vision of the Mexican-American experience (there are thousands of others, of course) in many of my young adult novels. Carmela was my attempt to share this vision with younger readers. What’s happening politically in our country right now—I’m speaking of immigration but also race relations—gives me a sense of urgency to hurry up and share this story with readers of all kinds. I want to get the book into the hands of Mexican-American children, of course, so they can see themselves as heroes in a story during a time when there’s a lot of fear in their communities. But I believe it’s just as important to put this kind of book in the hands of more privileged children living in traditionally conservative communities. If these kids are exposed to characters like Carmela, my hope is that it might humanize the “other.” There are approximately 16 million people living in mixed-status families today, where family members have different immigration statuses. I believe reading—or being read to—is an opportunity for a child to momentarily consider the world from another’s perspective. This strikes me as incredibly valuable.
The reason I love working with you, Christian, is that you’re conscious of all the factors I’ve listed above, without ever losing sight of the element of fun and play. I feel like this might be a good place to end. Can you tell us what you hope young people take away from your books?
Robinson: At the very least, my hope is that the work might put a smile on a reader’s face. Illustrating books brings me great joy, and it’s important for me to have fun with the work. My intention is for that same spirit of fun and play to be received by readers. Thanks for talking, Matt. I’m so excited for people to meet Carmela!
Carmela Full of Wishes by Matt de la Peña, illus. by Christian Robinson. Putnam, $17.99 Oct. 9 ISBN 978-0-399-54904-5