Growing up in Mexico City, Rafael López developed a distinctive artistic style influenced by Mexican surrealism, proverbs, and myths. Today, his paintings can be found in spaces as small as a postage stamp and as expansive as the walls of city buildings. In 1997, the artist and his wife, Candice López, masterminded the Urban Art Trail Project, an urban renewal effort that revitalized their bleak neighborhood, San Diego’s East Village, with vibrant murals, sculptures, and art installations. That project, which empowered paintbrush-brandishing children and adults to brighten their home turf, is the inspiration for a new picture book, Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood, written by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell and illustrated by López (HMH, Apr.).

Howell, now a writer and independent editor, first connected with López in 2003, when, as managing editor of Rising Moon and Luna Rising, she worked with the illustrator on a bilingual picture-book biography, My Name Is Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/Me llamo Celia: la vida de Celia Cruz, written by Monica Brown.

“Rafael’s bold, beautiful style was perfect for that book,” Howell recalled. “And when he told me about the mural projects that he, Candice, and their community had created in their neighborhood, I was so inspired I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew this was a story that the world needed to hear – and one that would inspire kids. I’d heard Isabel speak at a conference, about art and transformation, and I loved her passion about the subject. I knew she’d be an ideal person to work with on this book.”

When their paths crossed at a subsequent conference, Howell told Campoy (who has written scores of children’s books, many with Alma Flor Ada, as well as books on Latino art) about Lopez’s San Diego murals and proposed the idea of writing a picture book based on them. “As Theresa and I talked about a potential book, I realized that she and I had just the right combination of skills, perspective, experience, and devotion to the subject,” Campoy explained. “We also have strong mutual respect, which helped our collaboration work marvelously.”

Bringing Beauty to the Page

López was initially tentative about the idea of creating the book that became Maybe Something Beautiful. “We artists tend to think very differently than other people, and I never saw the opportunity to tell this wonderful story in a book, since we were already telling the story in real life, with the murals that have positively affected so many people,” he said. “I never made the connection in my mind between the mural project and a children’s book, but when Theresa suggested it, I thought ‘Here we go again!’ Since Theresa won’t ever take no for answer, I knew the book would happen!”

The authors visited San Diego in 2008 and toured, with López, the murals in the East Village and in other parts of the city. “After seeing the incredible effects of this project, Isabel and I were very excited to begin writing the story,” said Howell.

Both authors realized that Maybe Something Beautiful needed a young protagonist, who they created in the fictional Mira, a child who makes colorful drawings to cheer up her downcast neighbors. After she tapes a picture of a glowing sun on a building, a friendly stranger “with a pocketful of paintbrushes” gazes at her drawing and sees, he says, “Maybe… something beautiful.” He and Mira – and soon the entire community – together create murals that revamp their drab neighborhood.

“The word ‘mira’ means ‘look,’ and what Theresa and I hoped to do is help children transform the realities in their lives into something more beautiful and joyful, as Mira does,” Campoy says. “We want them to look at the world and see that they matter, and that they can make a difference – even beginning with a small drawing of a sun on a wall – that will lead to brighter horizons.”

Howell noted that she and Campoy “were very happy that the book found a home with HMH, where it belongs – everyone there has been so passionate about it from the start.” That was underscored by Jeannette Larson, HMH senior executive editor, who acquired and edited the book. She reported that the project came to her “as a wonderful package, complete with authors and illustrator. It was a great pleasure to work on this project. The book works on its own, and having the story grounded in real-life events gives it even more depth.”

López, who has also galvanized community members of all ages to create murals in Seattle, Chicago, and Fort Collins, Colo., was pleased with the way Maybe Something Beautiful came together, despite his initial hesitation. “I knew I didn’t want to be the center of the story, and creating the character of Mira, and including all the other kids who help paint the murals, was a good way to find a balance that I’m very comfortable with,” he said. “I think this is a very nice way to tell my story.”

Continuing his artistic saga, on April 30 López will join Howell and Campoy at the new San Diego Cooperative Charter School 2 to collaborate with students, their families, and the rest of the school community to paint a mural that will be, without doubt, something beautiful.

Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell, illus. by Rafael López. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-544-39101-7