Siete Preguntas Durante el Desayuno
con Yuyi Morales

h1 November 11th, 2009 by jules

How’d I do? I don’t speak Spanish, but that’s my seven-questions-over-breakfast welcome to author/illustrator Yuyi Morales, who is here this morning for a chat.

I’ve never been in the same room with Yuyi, but I have a feeling that, if I were, I’d be bowled over by her passion for what she does. This is what comes across in her work. Yuyi, who has been awarded the Pura Belpré Illustrator Award three times (2004, 2008, and 2009) and an Illustration Honor in 2004, has created one of contemporary children’s literature’s most unforgettable characters, Señor Calavera, the traditional Mexican skeleton character from the Day of the Dead celebrations and the star of her original trickster tales, Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book (Chronicle Books, 2003) and last year’s Just In Case: a Trickster Tale and Alphabet (Roaring Brook Press). The latter was the 2009 Pura Belpré Illustrator Award Winner, as well as an Author Honor Book, and featured motifs from Mexican culture for each letter of the Spanish alphabet. (Incidentally, to hear her talk about why she chose to bring that particular character to, well… life, you can watch and listen at the interview she gave to At Your Library at the bottom of this post.) The Belpré committee praised Yuyi’s “vibrant, shimmering jewel-tone colors.” That would pretty accurately describe all of Yuyi’s books so far. (Did you see Little Night in ’07? Gorgeous.) I mean to tell you that her art wakes me right up.

Yuyi’s newest title—narrated by a young boy who is assisting his grandmother, a professional storyteller, in preparing for a local school visit—has been met with accolades as well. My Abuelita (Harcourt 2009), written by Tony Johnston, was illustrated in polymer-clay sculptures and digital photography, and Publishers Weekly calls it “wonderful work.” (“Impishly expressive puppets,” the reviewer writes, noting Yuyi’s “glowing palette drawn from Mexican folk art. The vignettes seamlessly knit together realism and fantasy, giving every spread a dreamy physicality.”) The New York Public Library added My Abuelita to their just-released Children’s Books 2009 — 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing. Below in the interview, Yuyi shares a making-of video for this new title, highlighting her puppetry work, and there’s also this detailed post at her blog about the book.

I’m happy to have Yuyi over for breakfast. Her morning meal-of-choice is “slices of pineapple with plain yogurt, cereal on top, and cajeta, which is a goat milk caramel we eat in Mexico.” I’ve got my cup of coffee…Let’s make that a gingerbread latte, my addiction-of-late, and I’m ready to chat with Yuyi. I thank her for stopping by and, especially, for sharing so much of her beautiful art today.

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Yuyi: Artist. Art is endless — paints, words, stories, colors, comas, accents; they are all part of my work.

From Marisa Montes’ Los Gatos Black on Halloween (Henry Holt, 2006)
(Click to enlarge.)

7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?

Endpapers for Just In Case:
A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book
(Roaring Brook, 2008)

Yuyi’s poster for the 2009 Pura Belpre Award celebration


Click to enlarge.

Back cover of Tony Johnston’s My Abuelita, Harcourt, September 2009
(Click to enlarge each.)

7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or––if you use a variety—your preferred one?

Yuyi: Most of my work is made with acrylics on paper, where I always include elements from hand-made stamps and cut-outs. But most recently, I have started using puppets and photographs.

Middle image is from Tony Johnston’s My Abuelita, Harcourt, September 2009.
Bottom image is the materials used for the book (click to enlarge).

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Yuyi: I live in the San Francisco East Bay in a small suburb called Pleasant Hill.

7-Imp: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?

Yuyi: A few years after I arrived in the USA, I began taking evening courses to learn how to write and illustrate children’s books. At an illustration class, I wrote and made a dummy and two paintings for what years later would become my book, Just a Minute. Then, I submitted it to the SCBWI Don Freeman Grant, and I won. I felt like I was rolling! So, I got brave enough to ask the SCBWI if I could send my portfolio with one of my friends for their portfolio display at their annual conference in LA, and they said yes. At the event, Harcourt Editor Janet Larson took my sample sheet, and a few months later she called me to offer me…my first {illustrated} trade book, Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez. {See images below. Click to enlarge each.}

7-Imp: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?


7-Imp: I see at your site that you do school visits. Tell me what they’re like.

Yuyi: They are full of surprises. Literally, I arrive to the schools with my bolsa de sorpresas, which is the name in Spanish for bag of surprises. As a child, I was fascinated by the fact that I could go to the store and buy an actual sorpresa, a surprise, for only a few cents. Sorpresas were these small paper bags stapled to a piece of cardboard. After paying, I would be allowed to yank a sorpresa bag from the cardboard and find out what was inside. Ah, what a joy it was getting one of these cheap toys, or a plastic ring, or a little card, or some other trinket.

Because I love surprises so much, I decided I would bring a few of them to my school presentations, too. When I go to schools, children are very curious to know what is inside my big bolsa de sorpresas. I always tell them that you never know what you might find inside and that it can be really cool, but sometimes surprises can also be strange and even scary. Occasionally, children scream when a sorpresa comes out — just the way I remember doing it, too, when I was a child.

7-Imp: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?

Yuyi: This Fall is the release of a book I illustrated, titled My Abuelita, written by Tony Johnston. This book is actually different from the work I have done in the past, because this time, in addition to painting, I built and staged puppets, took photographs of the scenes, and finished the illustrations digitally. You can see a few images of how I made this book here:

Right now on my drawing table are two books I have started working on: Georgia in Hawaii, written by Amy Novesky, is about Georgia O’Keeffe’s trip to the islands, commissioned to paint a pineapple, and her artful exploration of Hawaii as a paradise — while painting no pineapple at all.

The other book is Ladder to the Moon, a beautiful story written by Maya Soetoro-Ng.

Mmm. Coffee.Our table’s set now for six questions over breakfast. Yuyi’s got her cajeta, and I’m all set with my latte. Let’s get a bit more detailed, and I thank Yuyi again for stopping by.

1. 7-Imp: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Yuyi: I am a big disciple of inspiration, and so most of what I do every day is a constant search. I look for words, images, ideas, and all those things that marvel me, or that scare me, or that keep me thinking, or that make my heart jump. However, I have also learned that the inspiration I am looking for will most likely come to me if I am working: words call for more words, images call for more images. I can hardly develop any stories by just thinking about them; instead, I need to start writing them or drawing them, even if I don’t know yet what that story is about. And so I am also a big disciple of sitting on my table and doing something, anything, but doing it!

My work at the beginning is always a jumble of words without sense and a wiggle of drawings without shape, but I have learned that, as long as I sit on my chair and I keep writing words on keyword or tracing lines on the paper, and I keep breathing, inspiration and stories will arrive sooner or later.

When I am illustrating, the initial inspiration comes from the text. Whether the story was written by another writer or by me is irrelevant. What counts is that I am moved by the text and that it makes me imagine things.

I am also a big disciple of thumbnails, and I submit to their power — how is it that these, the smallest and simplest of drawings, can contain so much seed inside them? It is in the thumbnails that the book is gestated; what comes afterwards—the refining of the sketches, the painting of the final illustrations—is just thumbnails coming out of age.

2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Yuyi: When I started my career in books, I was still living in San Francisco in a little apartment, where my studio was the remains of a small closet. My first three books were conceived and painted in a space that fitted only a small drafting table and my chair. But when my family and I moved to the suburbs into a new house, my husband told me that, yes, it was okay with him if I took the biggest room as my studio. And so now I work in a space whose closet is three times bigger than my studio in SF was.

My studio opens up to the garden, and it is colorful. The walls are painted hot pink; the wall-to-wall desk that my husband, Tim, built for me, I stained it yellow. I have a drawing table that Tim and I designed together. In this table, all my supplies, my palette, and my paints fit inside their own drawers, and a floating thick acrylic top makes a double working surface above the wooden top. Tim made all my shelves and furniture; it took him many months, while I went crazy holding up a book I needed to be painting, but at the end I had the studio I wanted: one where I want to be the first thing in the morning and I don’t want to leave in the evening.

Illustration from Little Night (Roaring Brook, 2007)
(Visit this 2007 kicks-post to see another spread.)

3. 7-Imp: As a book lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Yuyi: Gabriel García Márquez was the author that marked me forever as a reader. I was in middle school, and—at the time—the only reading that I did was the comic magazines that my father bought for us every weekend. When I was growing up in Mexico, books for children really didn’t exist as such, and so most of what I read were stories I found in the encyclopedia my mother had bought for my sisters and me, the cheap adult graphic novels that my parents bought at the corner store, and a bunch of my father’s books, many of which I didn’t really comprehend. But, when at school, I was assigned to read La Triste y Candida Historia de la Cándida Eréndira y su Abuela Desalmada (Cándida Eréndira), I found myself adoring this world that Marquez created with words. While I found his stories incredible and fascinating, I also found them to be so similar to the family stories that my aunts, uncles, and grandparents had always told me. And so, I felt like Gabriel García Márquez and I were family.

4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Yuyi: Gabriel García Márquez, of course! If you know where I can send him an invitation, please, let me know. I want to sit with him and have pineapple with yogurt in the garden and just breathe the same air as him. Ok, I know, he is not an illustrator; but please, someone make it true!

My author/illustrator number one is a person I already know, but I have never had breakfast with him. Does that count? I would love to invite to drink a banana shake the incredible Peter Sís. He is my hero.

I don’t drink coffee, and I don’t really drink wine either, but here is an illustrator I have never met and I would love to meet for something sweet and juicy to sip one morning: Rebecca Dautremer. Have you seen her work? Wow!

After that, the list is enormous, filled with illustrators I already know and also with many I haven’t {met} yet, because the people I admire are in hordes, and from them all I am always learning, even if they don’t know it.

Yuyi and and Señor Calavera
(Click to enlarge.)

From Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book (Chronicle Books, 2003)
(Click to enlarge.)

Yuyi and her artwork from Just In Case:
A Trickster Tale and Spanish Alphabet Book
(Roaring Brook, 2008)
(Click to enlarge, and visit this 2007 kicks-post to see
a couple more spreads from the book.)

5. 7-Imp: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Yuyi: I need music like I need colors. Music bits the rhythm at which I work. There is also a little bit of dancing around my drawing table involved.

I just came back from Mexico, where my family, friends, and I were doing a lot of dancing and singing, and—upon arriving back to my studio—the first thing I did was to add a new play list I titled, A Bailar, To Dance. Some of my new favorite songs are sultry cumbias, and also work from a group called El Gran Silencio, which plays a combination of rock in Spanish with folk Latin influences and a killer accordion.

I am also a great lover of music from my state, Veracruz, with its traditional son jarocho and son huasteco. And so, I have been listening to groups like Sonex from my hometown, Xalapa. Another favorite in my play list is the Mexican band, Café Tacuba. I have been listening to this band since I was a teenager.

On the other hand, my son has been very influential in my recent music selections, and now I have been listening to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV On The Radio. Actually, for Mother’s Day last May, my son and my husband bought me tickets to a TV On The Radio concert in Oakland — their idea of Mother’s Day present, huh? It was very cool, though.

6. 7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Yuyi: That I am afraid of UFOs coming to take me away. Or does everybody already know that?

Well, what about that I have very rough and scratchy hands — the same hands which with I make the all the things I love the most?

Or that I was a swimming coach before I came to the USA and fell in love with children’s books?

Or that my English pronunciation is so bad that I avoid publicly saying words like “sheet” and “beach”?

Or that, although I have never seen a ghost in my life, when I got invited last spring to speak at a conference in a haunted hotel in Virginia City, Nevada, I went to bed with the lights on and couldn’t sleep anyway?

Or that when I am sad, I cry, and when I am happy, I cry, and if I see something beautiful, I cry, and I hear the song of La Llorona, the weeping woman, and I cry, and when I went to see Frida Kahlo’s paintings at the museum, guess what? Yes, I cried.

Or that I sleep with my eyes half open and sometimes people think I am awake?

But it is possible most people already know all of these — oh, well.

Remember this, everyone? This was Yuyi’s snowflake,
“Little Night: See Me Shine” (a music box) for the 2007 Robert’s Snow auction. Click here to see the video she made about the creation of this snowflake.

Luchadora, self-portrait

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Yuyi: I love old Mexican words, like the names of Aztec deities, Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl. Can you say those?

I also love how it feels to say and write words like Iztlaciuatl, Popocatepetl, and Citlaltepetl, which are the names of the tree most famous mountains in Mexico — mountains I see from my airplane every time I travel to Mexico, and which remind me of the legends my mother used to tell me about them.

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Yuyi: Hate words. I don’t even want to conjure them here. And yet they are so common. In my country, we have names to call every kind of people we don’t understand, and we often don’t even realize how hurtful they can be to others. It is taking a lot of extra learning to exclude these words from the culture.

From Marisa Montes’ Los Gatos Black on Halloween (Henry Holt, 2006)

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Yuyi: Old images, forgotten words, the heat and the humidity, music, imagining what else exists that I can’t see, legends and stories, books, other’s people passion for what they do. Nothing moves me more than to witness the beauty and force that other people put into creating something of their own. I am a flowing river when it comes to being in the presence of art and creation.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Yuyi: Places without plants, contamination, dispassion, cruelty, and math — not because I don’t think that there is beauty in numbers, but because they are a challenge I rather put aside.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Yuyi: “Sheet!”

Luna, jumping

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Yuyi: The ocean sound and my son making music. I have heard mermaids sound amazing, too, and even Columbus saw one on his way to discovering the American continent, but I, myself, have never heard one.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Yuyi: I don’t like the sound of cars honking, which in Mexico is a very common way of communicating in the street. But I specially don’t ever want to hear someone crying in pain — that sound just shouldn’t exist.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Yuyi: Film-maker and street clown.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Yuyi: I would not like to be in the garbage force or work in an airport; specially I would not want to be a flight attendant. I am glad other people are very good at being of service while they fly so that I can bite my nails instead.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Yuyi: “You are going to love it here. We all have been waiting for you for a long, long time!”

The wee version of Yuyi, la mariposa

* * * * * * *

Photos of Yuyi, all other photos, and all the illustrations are courtesy of Yuyi Morales and used with her permission. All rights reserved.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred. He was created by Matt Phelan, and he made his 7-Imp premiere in mid-September. Matt told Alfred to just pack his bags and live at 7-Imp forever and always introduce Pivot. All that’s to say that Alfred is © 2009, Matt Phelan.

* * * * * * *

Interview with At Your Library, September 2009:

21 comments to “Siete Preguntas Durante el Desayuno
con Yuyi Morales”

  1. *sigh*
    Thank-you, thank-you, I needed a dose of Señor Calavera to get my day started right. I absolutely adore Yuyi Morales, and was, in fact, in a room with her in person once in San Francisco, for a conference, which was something that really changed the way I write. There was passion. There were tears — not on her part, probably, but on my part — as she talked about what it takes to be an artist, and walked us through a prayer to Señor Tlalocan (know to many as Tlalocan Tecuhtli, Lord Tlalocan), who is one of the gods of creation in Mexican mythology.

    It was, in a word, amazing. As is she. As is her art. It makes me so glad to know she exists. (I found out we even existed in the same town, until I moved here!) She is truly amazing.

  2. Yuyi is a force of nature: talented, funny, passionate, adorable, gorgeous. It is impossible to be in a room with her and not want to get up and dance and draw and make books–whatever age or stage one is in.

    I have only met her a couple of times in person (though I have met Senor Calveras more often!) but she reinvigorates me each time and reminds me again about my own passions for books, stories, poetry, song, life.


  3. Wow wow wow! Yuyi is absolutely amazing and I would love to meet her. She sounds absolutely wonderful! And her artwork is so stunning. Does she sell anything outside of the books she illustrates? Thanks so much for bringing this to me this morning. It certainly made me smile!

  4. Umm…I think I’m in love. Please don’t tell anyone, as this could be awkward for my marriage.

    We’re huge fans of Just a Minute, but I have no idea why I had never gone out to find her other stuff. This work (play?) is all fantastic, and reminds me of Ana Juan’s style and verve. It gives the impression that anything she touches turns to gold.

    Wonderful profiles of remarkable creative people like this always split me: half inspired and stewing on how to do more creative work…and half indicted (and stewing the other way) for following the wrong paths in life; the practical, well-worn paths: boring university programs, dull work and the embarrassing results of trying to keep up with the Joneses. I’m trying to ignore the latter stewing and enjoy the inspiration.

  5. WOW – Yuyi is like an ever-blooming flower. Thank you.

  6. What a beautiful interview — I feel like I have been bathed in color and inspiration. I hadn’t heard of the alphabet book — and now I’m SO anxious to see Georgia in Hawai’i. Eeeee!!

  7. Thanks to both of you for sharing and inspiring. I’d like to add a profound comment, of course, but I don’t have one – just appreciation!

  8. Thanks, you all.

    Jeremy, dear, dear Jeremy: I have been thinking since yesterday about your comment. I hear ya, I really do, but WOW JUST WOW to the art you bring to your life and others’ …your photography. I mean, it exponentially improves my quality of life every time I SEE it. I know I speak in hyperbole usually, but I mean that. I know you weren’t fishing for compliments; I understand that “split” feeling myself. But you yourself are, to use your wording, a remarkable creative person.

    I, like you, have a job—for now, while I take a break from librarianship in order to be home with my children—that is not in the creative arts (far from it), so I use this blog to satisfy that arts-lover in me. At least you are creating beautiful art yourself. Sometimes I think I need to take up the study of something in the arts: an instrument, take an art class, etc. I love inviting the artists/authors/book-creators to this cyber-salon to talk, but sometimes I think I need to do my own art, too. Your photography is one of the things that inspires that in me.

    I’m rambling.

    Thanks to everyone for visiting. Yuyi is really an inspiration, huh?

  9. Thanks for these wise (and kind) words, friend.

    Dwelling on past missteps, could-have-beens and shoulds of every flavor is not a recipe for happiness. Yet I’ve also found that pure thankfulness and positive thoughts aren’t necessarily the recipe for growth. Sometimes I need to look back to where we’ve been to see if we’re going in the right direction. And I also think that after 15 years of dull, conservative decisions, it might take some real rage at myself to bust out and do the actual work of my life.

    I like the stuff I do with my creative time. All three hours a week of it. The real kicker with these remarkable creative people is that they’ve found a way to do it for 30+ hours a week — and no wonder their stuff is so awesome! But yeah, beating myself up over it will only be a good thing if it inspires actual action to reorganize my life to follow that path too. Or just work on acceptance of this very comfortable existence.

  10. And yes, Yuyi is truly inspiring. We got her Cesar Chavez book yesterday and the art is stunning.

  11. […] 7-Imps met up with Yuyi Morales over desayunas this week… […]

  12. Wow! Amazing work, amazing person! Really inspirational!

  13. […] Yuyi Morales, children’s book author/illustrator […]

  14. […] am a one-woman Yuyi Morales fan club band.  And this is her interview at Seven Impossible Things.  […]

  15. […] Yuyi’s PaperTigers Gallery, enjoy her wonderful interview/gasp at the images over at 7-Imp’s, and find out about all her books and her many projects on her website and blog. Grandpa […]

  16. […] Friday at Kirkus, I chatted with illustrator Yuyi Morales about her research for Amy Novesky’s Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keeffe Painted What She […]

  17. […] when Yuyi Morales visited last week (that link is here) and mentioned her next picture book project? Here’s […]

  18. […] I write about Yuyi Morales’ Niño Wrestles the World. (Niño is pictured left.) That link will be here tomorrow […]

  19. […] week at Kirkus, I wrote about Yuyi Morales’ newest picture book, Niño Wrestles the World, published this month by Neal Porter/Roaring Brook. […]

  20. […] is being introduced to many of my favorite current illustrators and authors. Rafael López, Yuyi Morales, David Díaz, Monica Brown, and Alma Flor Ada are a just a few that I have had the privilege of […]

  21. […] whole place is inspiring. I think we all feel that. We’ve talked—me and my fellow Fellows, Yuyi Morales and Jenni Desmond—about how the freedom we’ve been given on this Sendak Fellowship actually […]

Leave a Comment

Should you have trouble posting, please contact Thanks.