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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Maria Dolores Aguila and Magdelena Mora

María Dolores Águila is a Chicana author from San Diego. Deeply inspired by Chicane history and art, she seeks to write empowering and inclusive stories about everything she learns. She also loves drinking coffee, browsing the bookshelves at her local library, and spending time with her family.

Author photo of María Dolores Águila.

In seventh grade, she read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and the experience was life changing. She realized Chicanas, just like her, were writing their stories and other people were reading them. It was then that María decided that one day, people would read her stories too.

As the daughter of a construction worker and housekeeper, there was no blueprint to follow her literary dreams. Through sheer determination, she forged her own unconventional path to sharing her stories with the world.

María is dedicated to writing stories showcasing the Chicane community’s rich history of resistance and resilience, so that readers see themselves and feel empowered.

Magdalena Mora is a Minneapolis and Chicago-based illustrator, designer, and arts educator.

Illustrator photo of Magdalena Mora.

When she isn't drawing, Magdalena spends her time reading, cooking, or fiddling around in her ceramics studio. You can find more of her work at

Collage of the covers of 6 of Magdalena Mora's books

Magdalena's illustrated numerous award-winning books including Stephen Briseño's The Notebook Keeper (2022), Claudia Guadalupe Martínez's Still Dreaming / Seguimos Soñando (2022), and Elana K. Arnold's The Fish of Small Wishes (2024). As well as Costantia Manoli's Tomatoes in My Lunchbox (2022), Jackie Azua-Kramer's I Wish You Knew (2021), and Deborah Diesen's Equality’s Call (2020). Her work has been recognized by The New York Times, The American Library Association, and The Chicago Public Library, among others.

María’s debut and Magdalena’s newest picture book, Barrio Rising, releases on June 18th.

Welcome María and Magdalena,


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


MARÍA – I’m an introverted homebody, so I love to write at home and at night. I’ve been writing stories since I was a child, but I didn’t start trying to get published until my early thirties. There’s no book I prefer to write above others. To me, story comes before form. Some stories want to be told a certain way, and as the writer, it’s up to me to figure it out. My favorite kind of stories are those shimmering just beneath the surface of our everyday lives – the ones that explain how our world works. I’m insatiably curious and I always want to know why things are the way they are.

MAGDALENA - I am a children’s book illustrator, graphic designer, and arts educator. I’ve been working  professionally as an illustrator for the past 7 years, but I’ve been drawing and making art since I was a child. I am primarily a self-taught artist. I studied English in school (reading was my first love!) and worked with youth after college, so I’ve had a fairly windy path to illustration and still feel like I have so much to learn.


I come from a family of historians and educators, so I’ve always been instinctively drawn to stories rooted in history - especially those that cover lesser known historical movements and events. Ultimately though, I love illustrating stories that are written beautifully and depict vivid characters with whom I can feel a connection.


It is wonderful to meet you both and learn a little about you and your process. What is one of the most fun or unusual places where you’ve written or illustrated a manuscript?


MARÍA – In my car while waiting for my kids to get out of school! As a busy mom of three school-aged children, I write during the quiet stretches in the rhythms of our daily family life. To be a mom is to be constantly interrupted so I’ve learned to take advantage of all those small pockets of downtime.


MAGDALENA - I completed much of the final artwork for Barrio Rising as I was traveling last year, so I got used to drawing in airports, cafes, and on buses. Specifically, I have very fond memories of finishing my last three Barrio Rising spreads in Cafebreria El Pendulo (a bookstore/coffee shop) in Mexico City, and Chapultepec Park (also in Mexico City), surrounded by duck boats and ice cream vendors.


Magdalena, that sounds like the perfect place to illustrate a picture book about a park. María, what was your inspiration or spark of interest for Barrio Rising?

Book cover - Child with fist in the air in front of an overpass, with a dragon shape curving around the left side. Behind her is an organized protest  blocking bulldozers.

MARÍA – I live less than five miles away from Chicano Park, near Barrio Logan, and never learned how it came to be. One day, I was driving by a mural of Laura Rodriguez, a mural I’d passed hundreds of times, and for some reason, it piqued my interest. After learning the history, I was beyond inspired. I had to share the story with the world, but especially with young Chicane readers who might not know that long history of resistance and resilience in our communities.


I am so glad you saw the mural. Magdalena, what about the Barrio Rising manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator?

Title page - girl sitting on front steps of a house with a purple smoke tree on the right side.

MAGDALENA -So much of the manuscript appealed to me! I had heard about Chicano Park and seen pictures of it but I didn’t know that backstory behind the park. Maria told the story of the park so beautifully. I loved that the manuscript was told from the perspective of a fictional activist but also recognized the real-life community members who led the movement.

Also, the people-powered movements of the 60s and 70s fascinate me deeply. Many of my family members participated in the Chicano Rights Movement in California, so I grew up hearing stories similar to the ones that were told in Barrio Rising. I felt an immediate sense of familiarity and recognition when I read the manuscript for the first time.


I think that personal connection shines through your illustrations. What is the hardest or most challenging thing for you about writing or illustrating Barrio Rising?  What was the most fun?


MARÍA – For sure, the hardest part was keeping it picture book length! There are many fascinating tidbits and side stories I had to leave out to keep the narrative focused. The fun part was working with my editor, Rosie Ahmed. She had an incredible vision of what Barrio Rising could be and challenged me to elevate my writing skills to get there. 


MAGDALENA - The hardest part was figuring out how to weave in imagery from Chicano Park into the spreads. Chicano Park is best known for its murals, but the story of Barrio Rising takes place before the creation of the park and the murals that have come to define it. It took me a while to figure out how to include that imagery throughout the book. This was also the first time I had illustrated a book where I had to recreate other artists’ work. It felt like a fine balancing act to honor the original artists’ murals while still putting my own stamp on it. 


The most fun part of the process was getting to delve into imagery from the 60s and 70s. I spent (probably too much) time designing outfits for each of the characters, especially Elena whose style evolution reflects her journey as a budding activist. I also spent many sleepless nights obsessing over the color palette. The 60s and 70s had such a defined aesthetic and palette - I loved thinking about how color could be used as another storytelling layer. 


Wow. Thank you both so much for sharing these aspects of the book's creation process. María, I hope some of those tidbits and side stories ended up in the back matter. How many revisions did Barrio Rising take for the text or illustrations - from first draft to publication?


MARÍA – Honestly…I don’t know. Over a hundred at least. No exaggeration.  That’s why you have to be really passionate about what you’re writing! But I loved every minute of it.


MAGDALENA - I usually lose count but I’d guess that there were about 3-5 rounds of revisions for sketches, depending on the spread. The final artwork came together fairly quickly since I had gotten the work to a polished place in the sketch phase. I’d say there were probably an additional 3-4 rounds of edits for final art. 


Magdalena, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Barrio Rising? If so, could you share one or more with us?


MAGDALENA -Yes! On the spread where we first meet Dona Laura, there is a pot with fishes and starfish on it. About a year before starting on the Barrio Rising artwork, I took a trip to Oaxaca and visited the studio of José García Antonio, one of my favorite ceramicists/sculptors. He had a similar pot on display in his studio that I decided to recreate for Dona Laura’s porch. Dona Laura tended to her community and neighborhood the same way she tended to her plants - watering/nurturing them, encouraging them to grow into something beautiful. I wanted her space to have the same feeling of beauty, warmth, and care that I felt when I visited Jose Garcia Antonio’s studio. 


Thank you so much for sharing this with us! Maria, when you first saw Magdalena’s illustrations in Barrio Rising, did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread? 


MARÍA – I know I’m a writer, but I don’t think I have the words to properly describe the moment I saw Magdalena’s illustrations. Imagine your wildest dream coming true, and it’s even better. Magdalena’s illustrations are ethereal and full of emotion. I was floored with how perfectly she brought the text to life.

Internal image - young girl and her mom shoppping in the tiendita with seven others when a girl rushes through the door.,

Text © María Dolores Águila, 2024. Image © Magdalena Mora, 2024.

My favorite spread is the one where Elena (the main character) and her mom are in the tiendita, and they find out they’re not building a park. I love how there is so much to look at and the way Magdalena uses an inset to move the story forward, inviting the reader to turn the page.

I also love Magdalena's select use of color with the characters, highlighting who the reader is to focus upon. Magdalena, is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? Or perhaps one which is your favorite spread? 

Internal spread - a woman, surrounded by jacaranda blossoms, lays down in front of the bulldozer.

Text © María Dolores Águila, 2024. Image © Magdalena Mora, 2024.

MAGDALENA - My favorite spread is the one where Dona Laura lays down in front of the bulldozer, surrounded by jacaranda blossoms. That scene came to me immediately when I first read the manuscript and remained unchanged throughout all the rounds of revisions. I wanted to capture the quiet power of that gesture, even when faced with such an enormous threat. I can’t imagine how much courage that took.  


You nailed it; this illustration is stunning. What's something you both want your readers to know about Barrio Rising?


MARÍA – I want readers to be inspired after reading Barrio Rising. To remind them of how ordinary people working together can accomplish amazing, incredible things. I want readers to see their communities with new eyes and support the people doing the good works in them.


MAGDALENA - I hope that readers come away from the story feeling inspired to make changes in their own neighborhoods and communities. Chicano Park started off as a dream of a park where people could play and gather, and it became something bigger than anyone could have imagined. 


I hope that this book helps inspire a greater appreciation of our own communities and a desire to be the change. Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


MARÍA – My second picture book, Menudo Sunday, illustrated by Erika Meza, comes out next year. I can’t wait to share the cover for it! I have other projects in the works, so make sure you are following me on social media to stay current.


MAGDALENA - I'm currently wrapping up edits on a new book project, Home is a Heartbeat, written by Laekan Zea Kemp. I have a few months before starting on my next book project, so I'll be traveling this summer, participating in an artist residency, and (hopefully) working on some stories of my own!


We'll have to keep our eyes open for these books. Last question,  what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

Photo of ChicanoPark © Kelsey Kaline, 2019

© Kelsey Kaline, 2019

MARÍA – Chicano Park, of course, is my favorite park to visit. I love grabbing a coffee from one of the nearby cafes and studying the murals. I always find or learn something new every time I go. 

Photo of Big Bend National Park ©NP Service

© National Park Service

MAGDALENA - My favorite national park is Big Bend National Park in Texas. I’m longing to visit Chicano Park though! I’ve passed through it on my way to Tijuana but I dream of spending a few days in the park just taking in all of the murals.


Thank you, María and Magdalena for sharing with us a bit about yourselves and your new picture book.

Book cover - Child with fist in the air in front of an overpass, with a dragon shape curving around the left side. Behind her is an organized protest  blocking bulldozers.

Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF Sneak Peek post on Barrio Rising.

To find out more about María Dolores Águila, or to contact her:


To find out more about Magdalena Mora, or to contact her:


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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