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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Duncan Tonatiuh

Let's start with a bit of good news. The winner of APPLESAUCE DAY by Lisa Amstutz is:

Linda Hofke

Now onto today's post. I was privileged to meet my next guest at a retreat last summer. In addition to providing amazing critiques, he shared with the group his journey, unique illustration style, and tantalizing glimpses into his works in progress and his Mixtec codex. I hope you enjoy a similar peek into the writing world of Duncan Tonatiuh.

Duncan is the award-winning author and illustrator of both nonfiction and fiction picture books. He has written and illustrated six books - Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation, Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras, Diego Rivera: His World and Ours, The Princess and the Warrior: A Tale of Two Volcanoes, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant's Tale, and Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin. And he has illustrated two other books - Esquivel!: Space Age Sound Artist and Salsa.

His newest book is Danza!: Amalia Hernández and el Ballet Folklórico de México which releases tomorrow, August 22nd.

Happy Book Birthday, Duncan!

Duncan, Thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest books and writing.

ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)

DUNCAN: I've been interested in writing and drawing since I was a kid. I've been doing it professionally for almost ten years now. So far all of the books I have published have been picture books. It is a great format for me because I love both writing and drawing.

What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

Sometimes people have a hard time pronouncing Tonatiuh. It is pronounced Toh-NAH-tee-you. It means sun or god of the sun in Nahuatl. Nahuatl is the language people spoke hundreds of years ago, before the Spanish arrived, in the central region of what is now Mexico. Tonatiuh is actually my middle name. But since my artwork is inspired by Pre-Columbian art I decided to use it to sign my work.

Thank you for sharing that. You’ve written both nonfiction (or informational fiction) picture books and fiction picture books. Do you prefer to write fiction or non-fiction?

I enjoy doing both and I like switching between fiction and non-fiction. I don't want my work to feel repetitive. My process for both kinds of books is actually pretty similar. For non-fiction projects the first thing I do is research. I gather information and I try to understand a person's life or a situation as best as I can to then convey it to readers.

With fiction projects I do research too. I read a lot before I write. I often find inspiration for my stories in fairy tales, fables, and mythology. I did so for my books Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote and for the Princess and the Warrior. Sometimes my book deals with an issue; in the case of Pancho Rabbit it is the dangerous journey that migrants often go through to reach the U.S. I had some knowledge of the topic from a friend’s experience, but I had to investigate and learn more.

For the Princess and the Warrior, which is set in Pre-Columbian times, I tried learning about the fashion, the architecture, and the weapons from that period.

I can see where being the author/illustrator could increase the amount of research you would have to do. What was the inspiration for Danza!: Amalia Hernández and El Ballet Folklórico de México?

I really enjoyed making Danza! I enjoy dancing and watching dance. I have done some illustrations of dance in the past, but never a full book.

One of the main inspirations for Danza! was my wife. She is a dancer. Her mother was a dancer too and so was her grandmother. My mother in law was actually a part of the folkloric ballet in the 70's. She shared some stories about Amalia with me. I thought it would be interesting to make a book about her. Amalia Hernández dedicated her life to learning and sharing the traditional dances of Mexico and this year is the hundredth anniversary of her birth.

What a great way to celebrate her anniversary and share her with the rest of the world. Thank you. How did you develop your particular illustration style?

I went to college in New York. There I met a fried who was Mixtec. Mixtecs are an indigenous group from southern Mexico and there is a community of Mixtec immigrants in New York. I was intrigued by this and for my senior thesis I decided to make a comic book about my friend's journey from his small village in Mexico to his life as busboy in a large U.S. city.

One of the first things I did when I started working on the book was go to my school's library and look up Mixtec artwork. I found images of Mixtec codex from the 15th century. I was familiar with Pre-Columbian art because I grew up in Mexico, but I never paid much attention to that art when I was a kid. When I saw those images that day though, I was attracted by their geometry, repetition of color, and by how stylized they were. I decided I was going to make a modern day codex of my friend's story. I've been drawing in a Pre-Columbian like style since.

Who was your favorite author or illustrator as a child?

When I was in elementary school I really liked reading the Choose Your Own Adventure series. Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss and a book called Macario about a very poor woodcutter whose dream in life is to eat an entire turkey by himself are other books I remember liking.

In terms of art I loved comic books like Spider-man and the X-men. I also liked anime and manga. I would draw my own superheroes and try and make my own little comics. My interests changed a little bit as I got older but I never stopped drawing.

How long did it take you to create Danza!: Amalia Hernández and El Ballet Folklórico de México? What was the toughest aspect of creating this book?

It usually takes me between six months and a year to make a book. First I do research. That takes me at least a month, often longer. Then I write a manuscript and send it to my editor. I revise the story at least five or six times. That process takes me a couple of months. Once the manuscript is done or close to being done I do the sketches for the book. My sketches are pretty tight, meaning they look very similar to the finished illustrations but without the color. That process takes me a few months too. After that I collage textures and color into my illustrations, which takes a couple months also.

The first part of the process, when I'm writing the story and when I'm doing the sketches, is the most creative but it is also the hardest. Sometimes I get stuck. I like working in the library because I need silence to write and draw. The second part of the process, when I'm collaging textures into my drawings takes me a lot of time. I spend many hours for days and days at a time doing it, but I don't have to be as concentrated. I can listen to music, the news, or sports.

It's interesting that different phases require different settings. Of the books you’ve written and/or illustrated, do you have a favorite book? (Perhaps one that was the most gratifying to write? One that means the most you or your family?)

It is hard to choose one. I am proud of all of my books for different reasons.


Dear Primo, the first book I did, is my favorite book to read out loud to kids.

Funny Bones is my favorite one in terms of design. I was able to include Posada's artwork in the book and juxtapose it with my illustrations. On some pages I combined his art with mine. I created borders for some of the pages and used different kinds of typography throughout.

Pancho Rabbit is probably my favorite for the writing. Young kids enjoy it, but older readers and adults can get another layer of meaning from it. The book is a fable, similar to Little Red Riding Hood or The Gingerbread Man, but it is also an allegory of the dangerous journey migrants go through to reach the U.S. The coyote in the book can be seen as both a wolf-like animal from the desert or a person that smuggles people across the U.S. Mexico border.

I love your answer. I have so many great picture books and each is important for a different reason, and sometimes a different time. Is there something you want your readers to know about Danza!: Amalia Hernández and El Ballet Folklórico de México?

Folkloric dance is very important in Mexico. I remember dressing up like a charro and dancing the jarabe tapatío on Mother's Day. Dance is a way to celebrate special occasions. Folkloric dance is also very important in the U.S. It is a way for people to display their heritage and show that they are proud of their roots. On celebrations that are important for Mexican-American people like Cinco de Mayo you'll always find charros and performances of traditional Mexican dances.

Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I'm currently finishing the project that began as my senior thesis. I'm revisiting it after many years. The story will be inspired by my Mixtec friend's journey to the U.S. but also by his organizing effort. He and other undocumented workers decided to stand up against the exploitative conditions at their work place. After protesting and negotiating for months they were able to recuperate years of stolen wages and gained access to basic rights – like overtime pay and sick days—that the undocumented are often denied. The book is for older readers and adults. It will fold out like an accordion, which is the way Mixtec codex folded.

I am fortunate to have seen pieces of this codex book at a retreat and I can’t wait to see it published. I am glad you kept it alive. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or anything you’re glad you didn’t know about in advance?

Getting my first book published was relatively easy. A professor at my university really liked my senior thesis and my artwork. She had illustrated some children's books and introduced me to an editor at Abrams she was friends with. The editor liked my work and told me that he would get in touch with me if he received a manuscript that suited my illustration style. I told him I liked writing too. He told me a few basic things about picture books, gave me his email, and said I could send him my manuscript if I wrote one. Some time after, I had an idea for a book about two cousins that write letters to each other; one lived in a rural community in Mexico and the other one lived in an urban center in the U.S. The story eventually became Dear Primo, my first book.

Getting my second book published was harder. I had a lot of projects turned down. I had assumed that anything I wrote would become a book, but I've learned that is not the case. For every book that I've written and illustrated I've had at least four turned down.

I've also learned that making a book is a process and a team effort. I know that my initial manuscript is going to change. When I first wrote Dear Primo my manuscript rhymed. I assumed it would be good for it to do so since it was for kids. But when the editor read it he said, “We really like this concept and your artwork. But please re-write this without rhymes” I was a little disappointed when he first said that. I had spent a lot of time and effort in the verses. But the truth is my rhymes were not that good. The book was better off without them. I've learned it is important to have a good editor; someone that has experience and that can see the work with fresh eyes.

What is your favorite animal? Why?

I like monkeys a lot. They are fun and smart. I like making monkey noises. So does my little daughter. She loves hanging from rails and going ooh-ooh-ahh-ahh!

Thank you, Duncan for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.

Be sure to comment here or on the Perfect Picture Book Friday - #PPBF post to be entered for a chance to win a free copy of Danza!: Amalia Hernández and El Ballet Folklórico de México. Comment on both and get two entries.

To find out more about Duncan Tonatiuh, or get in touch with him:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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