The first picture book both written and illustrated by Raúl (González) the Third has been a smashing critical success. Published in April, ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market (HMH/Versify) follows an anthropomorphized wolf cub and his dog as the pair makes deliveries at a market near the U.S.-Mexico border. In addition to receiving four starred reviews, the book has drawn comparisons to Richard Scarry’s classic Busytown. Now, like Busytown, ¡Vamos! is poised to become bigger than one book.
“When I started to work on the first book, I didn’t realize how many of the background characters were going to draw attention to themselves,” says Raúl, who goes by “the Third” to distinguish himself from two other artists with the same name. “The cockroach that follows Little Lobo around, El Toro [a professional wrestler], and the other inhabitants of the town started to do things that made my pencil just naturally want to tell their stories, too.”
Raúl pitched his editor, Margaret Raymo, on the idea of books about some of the supporting characters in ¡Vamos! He had already turned in the manuscript for a second picture book, ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat! (spring 2020) set in the same town, which is modeled on Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, where he grew up. The plot of this one involves a group of professional wrestlers awaiting battle who are delivered their pre-match meals by Little Lobo and his dog. “I would make myself very hungry drawing and I would want to leave the house to get something to eat but then I would remember I was not in Mexico,” said Raúl, who lives in Boston with his wife, Elaine Bay, the colorist of his comic-style illustrations.
Raymo enthusiastically endorsed his plan. The first book “just had so much great feedback in-house, from booksellers, from everywhere, that I thought it was time to embrace a bigger project,” said Raymo, senior executive editor at HMH. “He has so many ideas and his work is just a sheer celebration of Mexican culture.”
The new “World of ¡Vamos!” line will include three early readers featuring “El Toro and Friends”: Training Day, Tag Team (both spring 2021), and Team Up (spring 2022). “There’s not really any wrestling in any of them—it’s on the periphery,” Raúl said. “But there’s a dishwashing section in Tag Team, which is about how working with a friend makes a job a lot easier, that makes dishwashing look as exciting as a wrestling match.”
There will also be two board books featuring Coco Rocho, the cockroach who trails Little Lobo and Bernabé as they make their rounds, and a third picture book titled ¡Vamos! Let’s Cross the Bridge, scheduled for fall 2021.
“Margaret suggested a book about vehicles, and I thought about going to Juárez to visit my grandparents and how sometimes there would be an enormous line to cross into Mexico,” Raúl said. “Forget about it on Christmas; you’re on the bridge for an hour or two so what else is there to do but look at all the vehicles? The taco truck, the musicians who decide, since they are not moving, to take out their instruments, the families.”
Raúl said his inspiration was a segment of a Fellini film that focuses on characters stuck on a train. “It went on for 10 minutes, just studying all the different passengers and what they were doing while waiting.” Similarly, ¡Vamos! reflects influences not normally found in picture books—a movie theater called Buñuel, Frida Kahlo puppets, and Chapulín Colorado dolls. And as the first book entered the world at a time when the border between Mexico and U.S. is under intense scrutiny, there is, perhaps inescapably, a political aspect.
“If you look at the illustration [in ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market] of the piñata stand, you might be able to find one that resembles the president,” Raúl said. “My family still works at the mercado in Juarez and they do sell those piñatas.”