Jun 21, 2011

Yuyi Morales Lecture (May 6th)

     On Friday, May 6th, the Provo City Library hosted a lecture by the amazing children's book author and illustrator Yuyi Morales. She was the guest of honor for this year's Children's Book Festival (held the next day, Saturday, May 7th).
     The lecture room (not the ballroom this time) was sparsely peopled at first, but closer to the starting time, began to fill and the chatter rose. A library lady then gave a short introduction for Yuyi. Apparently on Yuyi's website, there is a disclaimer that she is no longer making public appearances. Provo Library was lucky to get her!
     We learned that Yuyi is from Xalapa, Mexico and now lives in Northern California. She played with dolls when she was little and even made clothes for them. She was a great swimmer along with her sister. She received a BA in physical education. She came to the US with her husband and new son. She couldn't speak English so she learned through picture books at the local library. She also fell in love with the artwork in the books and became a self-taught illustrator as well as a self-taught English speaker.
     Harvesting Hope, written by Kathleen Krull, was the first book she illustrated. It won a Pura Belpre award. She has actually won 3 Belpre awards (+1 honor) in total, being the only person to achieve that so far! Her most recent book is Ladder to the Moon written by Maya Soetoro-Ng, President Obama's half sister. 
     During this introduction, the first slide of Yuyi's PowerPoint presentation was projected showing three quotes which she later told us where her favorites:
"A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."
- Goeth
"I guess I was wrong when I said that I never promised anyone.
I promised myself."
- Kermit the Frog
     After the introduction, Yuyi stood and began her presentation, confessing that she is still learning English. She is a beautiful woman and her voice has that lilting, Spanish sing-song to it.
     She told an Aztec creation story wherein, after being created, the first man and first woman walked away from one another. To bring them together again, God, Señor Tlalocan, gave them lice! They needed one another's help for the process of removing the lice. It also took time, during which they talked and eventually fell in love. They had children and the generations of people began. This story was an illustration of the creativity of God and of the help of a small animal. She reminded us that stories like this are called Legends.
     She then went on to explain that from this story we can learn that even the most powerful beings encounter problems when creating something new. And also that sometimes the solutions come from where you least expect them, even from something very small.
     Yuyi continued her presentation using PowerPoint images and storytelling, centering around the character Señor Tlalocan.
     Señor Tlalocan was trying to create a children's picture book. It's easy right? Even the movie stars are doing it. You have big expectations, then when you sit down to do it, you have a mental block! It's good to start small. Yuyi said that she starts with a blank page, then a line, then "one more and one more at a time" and ideas start to take shape. For every illustration and page for a book, we all have to start small. Start with thumbnail sketches. It is easiest to start with the smallest things. Learn to trust your hands -they know how to do these things already. We need to let our body do it. Then, in her presentation, Yuyi moved on to a slide that had a prayer from Señor Tlalocan, "Mighty hands, may I trust you always...."
     She continued: sometimes our first drawings are really bad and we want to give up. But trust the tools. Trust in what you need to create. Use your pencil and eraser and go little by little to fix the mistakes. She then showed us sketches she had done of stick witches doing X game moves on their brooms. They were light pencil drawings, but so animated, full of visible movement. "Drawing is so magical, I am always in awe" she said. If something is not working, erase and draw again and again. Señor Tlalocan then gave a prayer for the tools. "...trust in their capacity to trace, rub out, and transform." Learn to trust your tools.
     "Now, where do ideas come from?" she asked. Then answered that they are inside of a box in our heads. We see things and have experiences and they are inside of ourselves. We have been storing these images and experiences -these ideas-  our entire lives. This is Genius, she explained. The PowerPoint slide showed a yellow canary sitting on the edge of Señor Tlalocan's open head. With this image, she described certain special birds in Mexico that are trained to pick a piece of paper out of a nearby box and then hop over and give it to a specific person. Genius is that bird. The ideas are what we love, what we are curious about, or sometimes inspiration from childhood. These inspirations can be family, celebrations, sometimes we don't know it when we are doing it -but things we love make their way into our creative work. In Little Night for example, Yuyi's interactions with her mother made their way into the story.
     Going along with this topic of inspiration, she said that just as she used to play with dolls and make clothing for them as a child, she often does so now for her books. She uses figures, photography, felting techniques, etc. Also, as another example, in Los Gatos Black on Halloween she found inspiration from what she had been afraid of as a child. Sometimes for her illustrations she has to be her own model. Sometimes, even her puppy, Luna, makes her way into the books. A lot of inspiration comes from text as well, either from the book or from what you write yourself as research and background information. Yuyi instructed us to "find the gems". The biggest part is to understand what the story is really about. It needs to be truthful. Find references, research, and look and look and look. Focus often on things you love.
     Concerning the thumbnail sketches, Yuyi explained that the thumbnails are a map of the book. They have to give the composition and the idea of what the characters are doing. Refine the thumbnails and work them until they are just right.
     Back to Genius, Yuyi said, Genius is your impulses and decisions. Pay attention. It is the feeling you have when you stop to stare at something. You are reflected in it. It is calling to you and is a part of you. Take care of what you feel. You need to feed the Genius. At this point, Señor Tlalocan gave another prayer, this time for Genius, "...courage to follow you always...commitment to what I choose. Help me stick with my favorite option and work it with conviction and passion so as to make everyone believe it was the only choice."
"Now we are happy in creating" Yuyi said.
     The next step is to send your book to an editor to get published. An image of Señor Tlalocan struck by lightning appeared on the PowerPoint. It is hard when you are told to make changes, called revisions. Yuyi said, "I trusted all and I still have to change things? I take a breath and I realize it is an opportunity to re-see, revive, restore, refresh, look again. Like when you get out of the pool and into the sun, then you jump back in to the pool and revive the experience." Send the thumbnail sketches to the editor and ask for advice and input. Sometimes you'll need to add details, but then sometimes there are too many details that take away from the heart of the story. So revise again. Yuyi explained that at first, concerning her skeleton character, Señor Calavera, she was told by her editor that he was kind of scary. Yuyi remembered her mother had taught her that friendly faces are childish faces -that the eyes sit lower on the face, etc. So Yuyi remade him, but the the publisher still said that he should have some clothes on. Yuyi tried but then decided to go back to her own idea. She gave him a tie and hat and that's all.
     Yuyi went on to say that sometimes you are asked to change an illustration after it has been painted. That can be difficult, but Yuyi told us that because she uses acrylic paints, she is able to simply paint over the parts that are to be changed. She reminded us that every book starts from small to big, from simple to complex. It is a long process. Another prayer from Señor Tlalocan, "Mighty backside, don't ever despair...remind me that the results of my labor are right around the corner."
"If you stay there [at your work area] and keep trying and trying and trying, it will come. I guarantee you it will come."
In conclusion, "Create, rejoice, believe, share" appeared on the PowerPoint slide.
Yuyi directed us to her website for the .pdf of Senior Tlalocan's complete prayers.
The floor was then opened for a few questions and answers:

Q: What are some of the children's books that you like?
A: I started because I was so in love with some of the books at the library. I wanted to make books like these people. David Shannon, especially his older books. I learned on the dining table, trying to paint like him. Also, Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin. Peter Sis is also a favorite because he has stories inside stories inside stories, not just drawings but narrative. Also Chato's Kitchen. I was surprised that in the US there are books about Latino characters. In my childhood in Mexico, there were no children's authors. When I came here, I was in complete awe of so many children's books and that there were books about culture and food, etc.
Q: Someone asked something about the richness of her illustrations.
A: It just comes out, then I can sometimes see memories of what I have seen. Those images keep coming into my books. I can recognize the memories. Ideas of the women in my family, hard working and giving everything. They are big to me, even if they were small in body.

Q: Do you use a computer?
A: All of my drawings are done by hand, but afterwards, the thumbnails are put into the computer in order to make compositions. I scan all of my drawings and play with them in Photoshop. Then I enlarge them and print them in separate pieces because of their size. I then put them on a table. I might eventually scan paintings and add a few things (ex. Ladder to the Moon, sparkly things [glowing stars and title text on the cover]). It's like one more brush, one more color to add.

Q: What medium do you use?
A: Acrylic on paper. You must be brave to use watercolor [the person who asked the question mentioned watercolor because his wife uses that medium]. When I started, I had no education in any mediums. So I chose acrylic and learned. I have never had to throw away any paintings because I can go over, making layers of creation. Like our skin -not one color- created by the things underneath. It is the same with illustrations -flaws and all are there to tell the story to the reader.

     Yuyu Morales' presentation was so motivational, it gave me a renewed sense of gung-ho. Afterward, the book signing which took place in the same room and I happened to be sitting right next to the table! Yuyi signed my copy of Little Night to my daughter Amelia and drew a picture of a flower in it! Then she signed the book plate I had brought along and drew her signature character Señor Calavera (the skeleton).
     In the hall directly outside the lecture room was a table spread with goodies such as cold horchata (mmmmm) and those thin, flaky, cinnamon swirly things (a version of angel wings). I love those. Man, Provo Library, you're the bomb!
     The next day at the festival, Yuyi gave out bookmarks and told stories to the kids. There was even a Señor Calavera puppet play put on throughout the day! It was a great experience and I'm so glad I had the chance to meet such an inspiring woman.
 Don't forget to check out Yuyi's website!


  1. AnonymousJune 29, 2011

    Thanks for the Google calendar! I subscribed to it. Where did you get all the info? I'd like to find more events near me in Salt Lake. The events in Provo look great! I wish I didn't live so far.

  2. I think all of the Salt Lake events look great! The King's English sounds like a really hoppin' place! I usually find book events on the authors' pages, or on bookstore or library pages. Also via Facebook. Hope this helps!


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