Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña met when Peña was chosen to design the cover for Quintero's debut YA novel, Gabi, a Girl in Pieces (Cinco Puntos, 2014). Peña texted Quintero, Quintero responded, and the cover became a joint project. The book took off, and the two won a commission to produce a graphic novel about the life and work of seminal Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide, Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide (Getty Publications, 2018), which won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Award. In their new picture book, My Papi Has a Motorcycle, Quintero writes about the motorcycle rides that a girl named Daisy shares with her father every evening when he comes home from work. The story is set in the Mexican community of the southern California town where Quintero grew up. Peña’s artwork conveys the power and joy of the ride while bearing witness to the tenderness Daisy’s father shows her. PW spoke to Quintero and Peña about collaboration, memory, and making stories that open up the meaning of the word “American.”
Where are you both right now?
Quintero: I’m in a parking lot in southern California.
Peña: And I’m in Texas.
Isabel, how did the story grow? Did it start with the memory of your father, or with the memory of Corona?
Quintero: I wrote it, I think it was before Gabi was published, and it is a memory of riding on my dad’s motorcycle. He would get home, I would ride on the back—it was a good time. Sometimes my cousins would be over and we’d take turns; he’d take us around the neighborhood.
Were you one of those kids who hung out in the garage and helped him?
Quintero: I pretended to help him. I was too young. I probably would have been around when he was working on stuff. He taught me how to change a tire, to change the oil, all of that stuff, give it a tune-up—I wasn’t allowed to drive until I could do those things.
How did the memories of Corona enter the story?
Quintero: [My editor] Namrata [Tripathi] said, “I think there’s more to this.” She helped me see that I could write a better story that more kids or folks could relate to. It was like, don’t hold on too much to the memory, because memory doesn’t always serve the purpose of the story.
And it sounds as if Zeke had a role in this, too?
Quintero: My situation with Zeke is unique in that [unlike most author-illustrator collaborators] we communicate throughout the whole process. He’s a really amazing editor. With Photographic, he really pushed the story. A question that Zeke always asks me that I don’t like is, “What do you want the reader to get out of this?”
Peña: I’m treating Isabel as the director, as if she were making a film, and I’m trying to serve her vision. It’s always questions, like asking what she sees when she’s writing: “What colors are there?”
Isabel, can you talk more about Namrata’s part in the story’s growth?
Quintero: When my agent, Peter Steinberg, sent out the book it went to auction—there were six editors interested. I had already been thinking about the story in different ways, and Namrata seemed to be on the same page. I felt that she had really read the story and I connected with the way that she had read it.
Peña: You’re really interested in language and the way it sounds. She encouraged you on some edits. Some you went with and some you didn’t. She was very supportive.
Quintero: I write on the more lyrical end and she’s very supportive of that—maybe even pushing that. Namrata is coming at it from, “How do we make the writing better?” and Zeke is coming at it from, “How do we make the story better?” It also helped me to think of the story that I was trying to write more visually. How could I make it so that Zeke could illustrate it and we could both create the best story possible?
Zeke, as you worked on the illustrations, what did you discover about picture book conventions?
Peña: If there are picture book conventions, I don’t really know them. The way I was approaching it was as a reader. A lot of the stuff was books that I had read when I was a kid, and things that I had read more recently. I know there are schools for this, where they teach this. I didn’t have that. So I sort of made it like a comic for early readers, using tropes and techniques of sequential storytelling. I used what I knew instead of what I needed to learn.
A lot of the energy does seem to come from sequential storytelling techniques—that aerial view of the motorcycle, the action words right in the artwork, the action bursting out of the box—What is that called?
Peña: “Breaking the panel”—it’s like breaking the fourth wall, I guess that’s what it’s called—I honestly I don’t know those terms either. I just draw.
Were there any books that you were thinking about as you drew?
Peña: I can’t think of any specifically. I mean, we definitely gave a shout-out to Cathy Camper and Raúl the Third [Daisy is shown reading one of their Lowriders books]. Raúl is definitely utilizing comic making and sequential storytelling.
I was influenced by Bill Watterston, by Calvin and Hobbes. Although those strips are not children’s books, they’re really dynamic. The drawing is really cartoonish. There’s a lot of movement. I think that’s at work in this book. That’s what I was working on—how to make it an exciting and dynamic ride, a vivid ride.
There’s a calm part to the book, too, to Daisy’s relationship with her father. How did you approach that?
Peña: Yeah, for sure. It’s really vivid. She’s tapping into a very specific memory. I can sense that warm relationship. A lot of it I got from conversations with her. She sent me photographs of her father. You can tell from the body language and things. I’ve had the privilege of meeting her dad and I’ve seen his smile. He has smiling eyes—I tried to capture those things.
How did you go about drawing the town of Corona?
Peña: Isabel drove around and sent me these really cool videos that showed what the houses would look like, what the vegetation would look like...
Quintero: They’re real places—or my memory of those places. A lot of the stuff isn’t there anymore. Corona was the lemon capital of the world, there was a lot of citrus. Now there’s hardly any. The city has expanded. There were specific locations, specific memory landscapes of my childhood. The tortilleria, where there were a lot of stray cats, and the church are next to each other in the book. The church is still there, but the tortilleria is gone—and they were never next to each other.
Peña: That’s a beautiful phrase, Isabel—“memory landscape.”
Quintero: The important thing is the memory itself. What is most important is the emotion and what we connect to it. Zeke has helped me think about memory more. Not 100% factual, but focusing on emotions and smells. It was really helpful—not only with this book, but with other things that I’m working on.
Isabel, there’s a strong sense of the passage of time in the book. Can you talk about that?
Quintero: When I was in school, we’d do a lot of walking field trips. We went to the library, and we had a presentation on the history of Corona and it really gave me this incredible feeling. Years ago, my city, where I lived, where my grandparents lived—it was a racetrack! That was when I first started to realize that nothing ever stays the same.
On that note, my dad was a carpenter, and he still works as a cabinet installer. I come from a working class, lower-income background, and we make up a lot of that city, but we also built that city. When I was little, I was proud that my dad built homes, that he was part of this.
And those things are often lost. The buildings are celebrated, but not the people who were involved in building them. As I got older, all of those things stayed with me, and now I have words that I can put together to talk about it.
I know you two are fans of the work of Raúl the Third. He talks about the importance of finding your own voice, and about telling new American stories. Would you call this book an American story?
Peña: Oh, Isabel, that’s so much a question for you!
Quintero: I want to say, yes, it is an American story. And it’s a Mexican story. I’m the child of immigrants. Being the child of immigrants is always this liminal space of, where do I fit in? It is complex. And the older I get, the more complex it becomes. I was born here. What I celebrate is the America that I grew up in—it’s very brown, it’s very Mexican. It’s not hot dogs on the Fourth of July. But it’s just as important and it’s part of this country.[When]
Gabi [was published], I remember there was a critique about the Spanish language in it—wouldn’t it ostracize American kids who don’t speak Spanish? And my reaction was, which American kids are you talking about? It’s important that these kids be seen, and that their differences and our background be respected. I appreciate Zeke’s Daisy. Daisy is brown, and her dad is brown. It’s not a stereotype. It is a happy family.
Peña: Just because Isabel and I collaborate doesn’t mean we grew up the same way. I think that Isabel and I have had different experiences growing up. Even in my own family, one side of the family looks really different from the other. My story looks different from some Latinx people, but what I’m hoping for is the space for us as a community to explore those complexities. I heard Daniel José Older in a panel discussion say—I’m not sure exactly what words he used, but he said something like, it’s not about us trying to be all the same. It’s about us being different and leaning into those differences.
What have kids said to you about seeing themselves represented in your work? Has there been some way a child has let you know that you made a difference in their life?
Quintero: I’ve gotten several emails from readers telling me that they’d never seen themselves in a book before, and how much they connect with the characters. They’ll tell me, “That’s like my mom,” or, “Tia Bertha is just like my tia.” On school visits, students will often open up about their own families’ addiction, or other vulnerable details about their life. I feel privileged that because of my book, young people feel empowered to talk about things they’d felt cautious about before.
Peña: I think the most significant feedback I get is when young people feel inspired to tell their own story. They connect a certain part of a character or story to their own experience and want to make something about it.
Can you share something about the projects you’re working on now?
Quintero: I’m working on some novels—and a few picture books, too.
Peña: I am finishing up some book covers, and I’m also making illustrated short stories about the river between El Paso and Juarez, which will be published online.
Will we see another collaboration from the two of you?
Quintero: Yes, I hope so!
Peña: At some point!
My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero, illus. Zeke Peña. Kokila, $17.99 May 14 ISBN 978-0-525-55341-0