On September 8, the North Texas Teen Book Festival, presented by the Irving Public Library in Irving, Tex., virtually hosted “NTTBF Presents: Picture Our World Author Panel” on YouTube, featuring picture book author-illustrators Vashti Harrison (Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World, Little, Brown), Yuyi Morales (Dreamers, Holiday House/Porter), Daria Peoples-Riley (I Got Next, Greenwillow), and Dan Santat (After the Fall, Roaring Brook). The event was part of the North Texas Teen Book Festival’s ongoing virtual panel series, which began this summer in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
After introductions, Irving Public Library outreach librarian Mandy Aguilar, who served as moderator, kicked off the panel by asking which illustration was each creator’s favorite in their respective picture books.
Harrison identified Sister Corita Kent, one of her favorite artists, as an illustration she “had a lot of fun with” in Little Dreamers. Since Harrison uses the same character template for each figure in the Little Leaders series, she gets creative with the costuming and backgrounds. Kent was known for her screen printing and serigraphy, Harrison shared. Since she couldn’t copy Kent’s works exactly, she enjoyed creating her “own Vashti version” of Kent’s iconic work and felt “very proud of having done [her] best there.” Harrison also mentioned she invested a lot of time and effort in her recreations of the prestigious pieces in Peggy Guggenheim’s collection.
Five-time Pura Belpré winner Morales selected an illustration from her book Niño Wrestles the World (Roaring Brook/Porter). When she was writing this book, she was, in some sense, “exorcising her fears,” Morales revealed, as the things Niño wrestles against are the same beings she was afraid of when she was young. She chose the wrestler Cabeza Olmeca as her favorite illustration, based on the colossal basalt Olmec heads unearthed in Mexico in the region where Morales was born. Growing up, Morales always thought they were mysterious; some even said that the Olmec Heads were beings from space, and ancient Mexicans made sculptures inspired by them.
Peoples-Riley indicated that her favorite was her endpapers, which depict murals. “For me, public art was really, really important,” Peoples-Riley said, admitting that she probably hadn’t walked into an art museum until four years ago. “I just didn’t grow up with access to it,” she explained. “But public art was always accessible to me, and it was really important that I paid attention to it, and I wanted my readers to pay attention to public art as well.”
Caldecott Medalist Santat said he had lots of favorites, though he probably liked the ending best, which he did not want to spoil. Most fans’ favorite spread, Santat shared, is the one in which Humpty Dumpty, suffering from “a phobia of heights” after his fall, avoids reaching for his favorite cereals, which are all on the top shelves at the grocery store. Santat employed saturated colors for those upper shelves to represent appealing children’s cereals, which include such brand names as Fruit Hoops, Sugar Bunny, and Free Toy, whereas the lower shelves feature desaturated, unappealing adult cereals such as Grown-Up Food, Fiber Flakes, and Bland, “which are probably the cereals I would eat now,” Santat said with a laugh.
Aguilar added that when she and her six-year-old son read After the Fall, they spent the most time poring over that spread, deciding which cereals would taste good and which would not.
Next came a round of individual questions, first being Harrison’s favorite subject in Little Dreamers.
While Harrison wanted to make clear that all of the women in Little Dreamers are visionaries in art and science, “thinking about things long before many others,” and often underappreciated in their times, she said she has a soft spot for the artists in the book, particularly children’s book illustrators Gyo Fujikawa, “a pioneer in children’s book illustrating,” and Mary Blair, “a colorist who worked at Disney Studios but also illustrated picture books.” Harrison summed up, “Maybe the subject I like the most is creating stories and beautiful art for children.”
Peoples-Riley was up next, explaining the significance of, and inspiration behind, the shadow in her book. On school visits, she talks with children about inner voice, whether affirming or negative. She “wanted to give that inner voice a visual representation,” and decided the shadow was optimal because it is with us always, just as an inner voice is. For I Got Next, which is a basketball story, Peoples-Riley said that the inner voice, and thus the shadow, acts as both opponent and coach.
Morales was asked which of the opponents Niño faces is the favorite among her readers. “La Llorona,” Morales answered immediately, saying that Latinx children know her as “the most famous Mexican ghost. Everyone has a story about La Llorona.”
Aguilar agreed, saying that when her husband read Niño with their son, her husband revealed he, too, had feared La Llorona as a child.
Santat talked about how he was inspired to write a picture book that combined his wife’s anxiety and depression with Humpty Dumpty. Initially setting out to write about getting back up from failure, he realized during the creative process that the tale was a perfect vehicle for normalizing anxiety, especially the ways in which it pervades one’s life. Santat’s editor, Connie Hsu at Roaring Brook, helped him imagine a different ending than the one he originally proposed. Drawing inspiration from his family, as he often does—The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend was about his older son, and Are We There Yet? was about his younger son—Santat wove his wife’s struggles into the book, which resulted in their getting matching After the Fall tattoos. “So we’re married forever now,” Santat concluded.
Aguilar next asked if there were a book or type of book that each creator wished had been around when they were kids.
Peoples-Riley said she wished that teachers and librarians had put the books that were available during her childhood, such as those by Eloise Greenfield and Walter Dean Myers, in front of her. “Because there were so many books that were available during my childhood, but I didn’t have access to those,” she recalled.
Harrison said that Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History was written with “a younger version of [herself] in mind.” She made sure to include a range of careers, because she had not seen those possibilities depicted when she was a child.
Morales shared that in her generation, growing up in Mexico, they did not really have children’s literature. “I would say, all the books that right now are being made,” she continued, holding up Vamos by Raúl the Third, which “really depicts someone like me and my son.”
“I grew up in a very white rural town,” Santat mused, “so #OwnVoices books are a relevant answer.” He named American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang as a book that especially “spoke to [his] soul,” as someone who grew up as “a lonely Asian kid.”
The creators then showed a behind-the-scenes look at their respective processes. Morales revealed her sketchbook with notes and studies and described her use of a pen and tablet. Santat relayed how he creates textures using physical mediums and then scans them into his computer; he screenshared to show his Wacom Cintiq and stylus and demonstrated how he combines a variety of styles in Photoshop, which helps him balance multiple projects. Harrison showed drafts from her picture book Sulwe, in which she tested multiple character sketches in multiple mediums, and her character design process for the Little Leaders series. Peoples-Riley shared how, in the absence of a traditional art background, she is always seeking new inspiration and new styles.
Finally, the creators participated in a q&a with questions provided by the audience.