The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Cozbi A. Cabrera and Review of Me & Mama
i really like making things.
~ Cozbi Cabrera
Cozbi A. Cabrera is the epitome of creativity in every way, fashion, and form. Cabrera was born and raised in Brooklyn and grew up in Brownsville and East New York. She attended Catholic school in an Italian area and Parsons School of Design in order to master, perfect, and put her creativity to the test. Upon receiving her BFA in communications, she spent fifteen years working in design and art direction, including seven years at Sony Music, as Design Director, creating album covers. Seeking to express herself and ideas creatively in new endeavors, she began creating handmade all-natural dolls.
Cozbi is the author/illustrator of the picture book, My Hair is a Garden (2018) and the illustrator of Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Suzanne Slade (2020), Stitchin' and Pullin': A Gee's Bend Quilt by Patricia McKissack (2016), Most Loved in All the World by Tonya Cherie Hegamin (2009), Thanks a Million by Nikki Grimes (2006), Beauty, Her Basket by Sandra Belton (2003), and A Windy Day by Laura Pegram (1995). And a contributing illustrator for Our Children Can Soar: A Celebration of Rosa, Barack, and the Pioneers of Change by Michelle Cook (2012),
Her newest picture book, Me & Mama, released yesterday.
Welcome Cozbi, thank you so much for sharing a bit about yourself and your new book.
ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you illustrate? How long have you been illustrating?)
COZBI: I illustrate in my workroom, which is divided into zones: a zone for cutting, sewing, painting, and writing. My zone for painting and illustrating faces a set of windows drenched with eastern light. When I’m traveling and on deadline, I pack out my painting surfaces – usually illustration boards that I’ve primed with gesso, my brushes, paints, and an airtight palette box, lined with parchment paper. For my latest project, I delivered sketches digitally—which made things easy (I was overseas) with a slim iPad Pro and an Apple pencil.
I’ve been rendering all my life. For me, this recording is an extension of my watching, observing, and imagining. My pre-school teacher was the first to notice.
I'd love to see that workroom. What is something few know about you?
I was painfully shy as a little girl. In first grade, I brought my turtle in to Show and Tell. I let everybody go before me, thinking, “After So & So, I’ll get the courage!” Before long it was “After lunch and recess, I’ll get the courage!” Finally, each of my classmates had gone up to present stone after stone, stuffed toy after stuffed toy, and the dreaded moment arrived. Miss Murphy cocked her head, pointed her chin, and spotted me, “Cozbi, do you have anything to show?” I paused, thinking about Turtle lying in the dark, in a sandwich square of Tupperware with the holes I’d punched out the night before, and the now limp piece of iceberg lettuce beside him. I thought of how I hadn’t been brave enough to take him out of my zipped school bag all day, though my plan was to sun him, out on the classroom windowsill first thing in the morning. I looked up at a frozen Miss Murphy, still waiting for my reply and glanced down at my school bag. I thought about standing at the front of the room. “No,” I said softly.
If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?
Learn the difference between delaying gratification and delaying enjoyment. The former’s a power and a metric. The latter’s a state of mind. Never delay enjoyment. I’d have to think about how I would say this to a child. “Laugh along the way?”
That's a great way to say it! What was your inspiration for Me & Mama?
My inspiration was a cup, an absolute favorite of mine I purchased from an Argentine bakery that was closing and selling off its loose bits and remaining wares. The cup and I were inseparable --for years I drank everything out of it. Then my daughter came along and one day decided that the nicest thing she could do for me was offer me a drink of water in my favorite cup. She used her little hands to squeeze the water spigot, leaving the cup perched unsupported on the narrow ledge of our water cooler. Crash! Splash! Bang! Doesn’t joy sit squarely on the shoulders of equanimity? I wanted to record these moments, the ones marching toward long days and short years, recognizing each of them as precious. Me & Mama percolated in the shards.
Wow! Would you say there is a common thread in the picture books you’ve written or illustrated?
I think the most noticeable thread is a brown girl protagonist. Sadly, this world isn’t always friendly toward Black and Brown girls. I only became aware of this in kindergarten, when a boy named Raymond said an unkind word. I didn’t know what he meant until I went to hang my yellow raincoat in our common closet and I noticed it too. I looked at my hand and arm as if seeing it for the first time. I was the darkest of them all. This revelation followed me all the way home. Unlike Adam in the garden, I didn’t have a fig leaf. It was everywhere I went. So, there’s an empathy I feel and a desire to nourish and celebrate the soul of every girl that might resemble me in some way because by day’s end, it’s almost guaranteed that she’s been torn down, disassembled, devalued, and transgressed upon. Sadly, it’s not hyperbole.
I think your work does that very well. What is your favorite medium? Which is your least favorite? Is there something you’ve always wanted to try?
I don’t love working in acrylics – they dry so quickly and flatten expression—but I prefer acrylics to delivering in oil. I love the richness of oil pigments, but it’s a more toxic choice and won’t dry just because it’s time to pack and ship. Acrylic more closely resembles the opacity of oil, another bonus. I prefer layering, which is why I prefer acrylics to watercolor’s transparency or gouache’s chalkiness. Also, I love working in textiles. Would love to do an all textile or all pencil-sketched book project!
Looking at your dolls and the clothing you create, boy would we be in for a treat! Do you have a favorite spread in Me & Mama?
© Cozbi A. Cabrera 2020.
I like the last spread and feel it captures perfectly my original intention of telling the story and defining the emotion without showing the character’s faces.
How does your doll making inform or bolster your creativity?
© Cozbi A. Cabrera 2020.
I left designing for music because making the dolls feeds a portion of my soul. Even with commissions, the sky’s the limit. I am able to express freely – octane for any creative. And that’s the difference between commercial and personal work. No one has any insight into what’s lies fallow in another, until they are free to express, develop and make it visible. So, to my artist friends out there: express and grow freely! What you uncover can still enrich your commercial work.
Which was your hardest book to illustrate? Which was the easiest? Why?
Hmm, I’ll refrain from naming each book. I think “hard” and “easy” labels sometimes run parallel to circumstances an illustrator on deadline might be facing with life showing up in death, sickness, injury, or profound heartbreak. Over the years, I’ve experienced all these things. Apart from those outer events, there have been times that I’ve challenged myself creatively and felt I was falling short of my expectations given the allotted time. No matter what’s making a project feel "hard,”
professionalism requires we show up, be disciplined, carve out a space to focus, and bring joy while pressing forward. Nothing’s insurmountable. Step by step and day by day always wins out.
I am going to put that above my computer! Thank you. Do you prefer being the illustrator or the author/illustrator? Why?
I enjoy both. I love to tell stories and create robust visual translations for the language of another writer, or my own.
When you author a book, which comes first, the text or the images? What is the hardest thing for you about writing and/or illustrating children’s books?
The text usually comes first. Visuals are always expendable. I’m always willing to throw it all away and begin again. James Parker, painter, Dean, and instructor at the Parson’s in Paris used to say, “Never draw when designing, always cut and paste, lest you find yourself attached to what your precious little hands have done.” Design training teaches you to find several solutions, not just one – to scratch past the surface, past the obvious, the hackneyed, the clique. When writing, I return to the text and revise, understanding that the text is just the husk or container for the idea. And ultimately, the idea’s sovereign. After all these years, I feel I’m only now bringing the power of design principle into illustration, by the dropper-full. I’m inching toward the mark.
I find it interesting that illustrators have as much of a problem with "darlings" as authors. And that would mean twice as many when you wear both hats. Is there something you want your readers to know about Me & Mama?
Listen to the trailer I created for Me & Mama - https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=623352151938249&extid=nuMmEjHzzg0AjG1q.
Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
I enjoyed the Nancy Drew series. I found them in the library. It was my first experience with a “can’t-put-down-read”. I learned how to walk and read, sweep and read, make a bed and read. My favorite author was Judy Blume. Her characters, no matter how flawed were refreshingly transparent. I treasured a little volume given by my mother to a nine-year-old me – How to Make Doll Clothes, A Book For Daughters, Mothers and Grandmothers. It had a red dust jacket and wonderful line drawings.
What is your favorite animal? Why?
I’ve had dogs as pets over the years. They tend to be loyal, intelligent, forgiving, affectionate and deeply empathetic. Like people, there’s such a range in their personalities!
My baby cockatiel named Luca spent the days on my shoulder as I worked for hours, hand sewing. I couldn’t understand how so much intelligence could be packed into his small cranium. I was hanging hand dyed samples on the backyard clothesline with Luca perched on my shoulder all day. Late in the afternoon, Luca flew off, becoming smaller in the fractured glare. I crawled up to the roof, something I’d never attempted, blinded by tears. Looking out I compared the expanse of clear sky, to what now seemed like the smallness of this once considered-sizable tract of Brooklyn backyard. Eeeney, meeney, miny, moe. I cried for several days.
But this question is about favorite animals, not pets. So, the answer is the majesty of a horse in motion and that’s self-explanatory.
I think pets can be definitely be favorite animals. I'm glad you told us about your pets, too. Thank you, Cozbi for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.
To find out more about Cozbi Cabrera, or get in touch with her:
REVIEW OF ME & MAMA
Growing up with two siblings, it was always a treat for any of us to even go grocery shopping by ourselves with Mom. Finding those moments together were, and still remain, incredibly special.
This is a beautiful book that celebrates those precious moments.
Me & Mama
Author/Illustrator: Cozbi Cabrera
Publisher: Denene Millner Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (2020)
Mother-daughter relationship, love, and slice of life.
Mama’s love is brighter than the sun, even on the rainiest of days. This celebration of a mother-daughter relationship is perfect for sharing with little ones! On a rainy day when the house smells like cinnamon and Papa and Luca are still asleep, when the clouds are wearing shadows and the wind paints the window with beads of water, I want to be everywhere Mama is. With lyrical prose and a tender touch, Me & Mama is an ode to the strength of the bond between a mother and a daughter as they spend a rainy day together.
Good morning to you,
sings Mama, bright as sun.
Sometimes she sings it like
the birthday song.
I’ve tiptoed to where
she is in the house.
It smells like cinnamon.
Papa and Luca are still sleeping,
but I want to
be everywhere Mama is.
What I liked about this book:
This is a beautifully illustrated story of the love shared between a mother and daughter. The illustrations are full of texture and soft, but vibrant hues. The end pages feature multiple fun "mommy & me" matched sets of books, clothing, chairs, and combs. Encasing this tender story in love.
© Cozbi A. Cabrera 2020.
Waking before her dad and brother, the little girl sets out to have special time with mama. Tucked within the lyrical slice-of-life descriptions of breakfast, dressing, and preparing for their day together are gorgeous, thought-provoking lines. Such as "The clouds outside are wearing shadows," "I love the grass that grows in the in-between," and "The stores are boxes filled with people." Cozbi sprinkles lots of little nuggets throughout the text and illustrations of things that happen in life (accidents), that spark curiosity (nature), or that show the marvel of mommies (anticipating and understanding).
© Cozbi A. Cabrera 2020.
After singing and splashing in the rain, her brother joins them and the day winds down to stories, laughter, kisses, and snuggly blankets. And one of my favorite lines, "I close my eyes and let the day spin me some pictures."
© Cozbi A. Cabrera 2020.
This is a very tender, sweet celebration of a loving mother-daughter relationship. A wonderful book for snuggly, story times, full of gorgeous comforting and thought-provoking illustrations.
- write a list or draw pictures of things you like to do with someone special.
- do you have a special drink, movie, place to go, or food to eat that the two of you enjoy together? Make them a coupon for a special day with you.
- make a "Mommy & Me" (or "Daddy & Me") hand-print painting.
(© Kimberly Murphy 2014 -
- next time it rains, try one of these activities with someone special - like "Making Mud Angels" or "Searching for Soggy Animals"