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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Melissa Christina Marquez, Rocio Mendoza, Review of Sea of Constellations

Melissa Christina Márquez - Known as the "Mother of Sharks," Melissa Cristina Márquez is a Latina marine biologist who has a lot of labels: science communicator, conservationist, author, educator, podcaster, television presenter. You might have seen her on Discovery Channel's Shark Week, National Geographic, BBC Wildlife, heard her TEDx talk or read her Scholastic books.

Author photo of Melissa Christina Márquez

She often writes about sharks, the diverse people who work with them, and why both matter. As founder of The Fins United Initiative, a program that teaches audiences shark conservation and education, Márquez finds it vital that we learn to co-exist with these oceanic predators. That's why her research and outreach efforts largely revolve around human-wildlife interactions.

Collage of Melissa's four published books.

She is the author of Mother of Sharks, illustrated by Devon Kurtz (2023) and the middle grade series Chasing Jaguars (Wild Survival #3) (2022), Swimming With Sharks (Wild Survival #2) (2021), and Crocodile Rescue! (Wild Survival #1)(2021).


Rocío Arreola Mendoza (aka Denarmen on the internet) is a mother, author, and freelance illustrator from North Mexico. Rocio started a degree in Graphic design but found her passion in illustration. Working recently with some publications making textbooks for children and illustrated articles for magazines.

Illustrator photo of Rocío Arreola Mendoza 

She’s the co-founder of Cúrcumas Creative Studio. She has worked with Matamoros City’s Government making any kind of commercial illustration for social media and printed campaigns.


When she’s not working as a bee, she can be seen playing in the garden with her kid, husband, and cats or brewing some tea.

Book cover -  a young girl, with scissors, in front of a patchwork of fabric pieces.

Rocio is the illustrator of Paula's Patches by Gabriella Aldeman (2023).


Melissa and Rocio’s newest picture book, Sea of Constellations, releases on May 28th.


Welcome Melissa and Rocio,

 

Hello! Thank you so much for featuring Sea of Constellations 😊 

 

Let’s start with you, Rocio. Tell us a little about yourselves. (Where/when do you illustrate? How long have you been illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to illustrate? )

 

ROCIO - I have a little studio at home. I think I enjoy working mostly when I’m alone, which is more in the mornings during the week. I try to leave weekends free, when I’m on deadlines I usually work during the night, but my body doesn’t like it a lot, so I try not to do it often. I have been a professional illustrator since 2017. Sea of Constellations is exactly the kind of book I would dream of illustrating, a little bit of fantasy spice, lovable characters, a beautiful text and of course STARS! If you look at my personal work, I always paint stars, they are like my comfort subject.

 

Sounds like the perfect match for you. What is one of the most fun or unusual places where you’ve worked on an illustration?

 

ROCIO - It’s a very old memory, but back when my son Anakin was a baby, I used to paint while I was nursing him and sometimes at the same time I used that moment to eat. I felt like an octopus HAHA. [😆]

 

I remember those days. I am impressed you could paint at the same time! Melissa, what was your inspiration or spark of interest for Sea of Constellations?

Book cover - Aztec godess gifting a whale shark in stars from the night sky.

MELISSA - The spark for Sea of Constellations came from my childhood (and present-day!) fascination with the stars, the sea, and a deep love for the Mexican culture I grew up with. I’ve always been drawn to the mystery and beauty of these worlds, and I wanted to explore the connection between them in a whimsical and imaginative way.

 

I love how you found a way to meld these worlds together. Rocio, what about the Sea of Constellations manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator?

Title page - a portion of the giant whale shark  (side & one fin) float across the spread with the title underneath.

ROCIO -  I was very moved by the story, I fell in love instantly with Maren, and the subject of being a giver, because I can relate to that.

 

You doesn't love a whale shark? Melissa, what was the hardest or most challenging thing for you about writing Sea of Constellations? How did this compare to writing Mother of Sharks? 

 

MELISSA - The most challenging aspect of writing this book was the different directions it could have gone in but needing to maintain a coherent narrative. It was hard to pick just one path to go down, so Sea of Constellations required a different kind of creative navigation than what I’ve had to do before. I still think Mother of Sharks is the hardest book I’ve had to write because it was writing about myself, but this one definitely had its own challenges!

 

I can see where they would both be challenging. Rocio, what was the hardest or most challenging thing for you about illustrating Sea of Constellations?

 

ROCIO -This was a very gentle book, almost felt like I was flowing with it all time. But I think the part that made me feel more nervous, in addition to being accurate with anatomy, (to work with someone as incredible as Melissa who is a marine biologist is such a dream come true to me, I loved to have her guidance all the way!), was also being respectful with my vision of the Goddess. If only my computer could talk about how much I researched on Huixtocihuatl…

  

I think it's obvious that you did a lot of research. How many revisions did the Sea of Constellations take for the text or illustrations from the first draft to publication?

 

MELISSA - Oh gosh, I lost count of the exact number of revisions - but each one brought the story closer to what you’ll see on shelves! And I like to think this is the best draft.

 

ROCIO - First thing I worked on was character design. When it was accepted, I sent a round of sketches for interiors, some notes came after that, and as all those changes were little they told me that it was rare, but I could skip revisions and make those changes directly on final art! I was very happy because coloring is my favorite part. Then I sent a final art sample. It was a very important part of the process because there we could figure out some technical things I was missing, and refine some details and ways of approaching the final art. I also sent sketches for the cover. Then I sent the final interior art, they gave me the last feedback, and I sent the cover colored! So, some little changes here and there, and that was it! Aaah it sounds like it was done in a wink, ha-ha, but those were some months in the making! 


You were obviously the perfect person for the illustrations. Melissa, when you first saw Rocio’s illustrations in Sea of Constellations, did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread? 

Internal spread- on the left, the whale shark and remora are in the deep darkness. On the right, all the fish given a shining scale have returned to help the whale shark and remora complete their journey.

Text © Melissa Cristina Márquez, 2024. Image © Rocío Arreola Mendoz , 2024.


MELISSA I was absolutely delighted the first time I saw Rocio’s illustrations - her vibrant colors and intricate details brought the story to life in ways I hadn’t even imagined! It’s hard to choose a favorite spread, but if I had to pick one, it would be the scene where all the animals come back to help Maren — it’s simply magical.


Rocio, is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? Which is your favorite spread?

Internal spread - The Aztec sea goddess, Huixtocihuatl, holds the whale shark in her hands under a stunning full moon.

Text © Melissa Cristina Márquez, 2024. Image © Rocío Arreola Mendoza, 2024.


ROCIO - I love the spread where Huixtocihuatl holds Maren in her hands. Also, the last spread!


It is stunning. Rocio, many illustrators leave treasures or weave a bit of their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Sea of Constellations? If so, could you share one or more with us?

 

ROCIO - Not in a graphic way per se, but everything about Mareen felt very close to home for me, I really understand the feeling of being a total giver, and to sometimes feel that you give so much that you are left with nothing for yourself. In my personal experience, I have lived this kind of story, my family and friends are always there to help and guide me. I thought about them while making this book, so is impossible to not think about my loved ones when I see Maren's friends. 

 

Thank you for sharing that. What's something you want your readers to know about Sea of Constellations?

 

MELISSA - It’s not just a story about the ocean, sea creatures, stars, or even the Aztec deities mentioned. It’s a celebration of friendship, bravery, wonder, and the interconnectedness of all things. I hope it inspires readers to look up at the night sky with a newfound sense of awe and appreciation.

 

ROCIO -This is a story about adventure, being brave and kind, but also about giving, receiving, and giving in return with love.

 

Such a powerful book which offers so many things to so many people. Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

 

MELISSA - I’m currently working on new books – picture books, adult books. While I can’t share too many details just yet, I can promise that they will be filled with adventure, discovery, and plenty of surprises.

 

ROCIO -Yes! Wait for a very fun story about a kid and colorful surprise eggs.

 

These sound intriguing! I look forward to hearing more about them in the future. Last question, is there a plant or flower you love growing, or wish you could grow, in your yard or garden?

 

MELISSA - I have a soft spot for gardenias and jasmine. Both are delicate white flowers, and their sweet fragrance never fails to brighten my day. I’d love to have a lush jasmine vine climbing the walls of my garden, and big bushes of gardenias, both filling the air with their intoxicating scent.

 

ROCIO - I already have my dream one: a fig tree! [😆]

 

Thank you, Melissa and Rocio, for sharing with us a bit about yourselves and your newest picture book.


To find out more about Melissa Christina Márquez, or to contact her:

 

To find out more about Rocio Arreola Mendoza, or to contact her:


Review of Sea of Constellations


A stunningly gorgeous new aquatic fable about the whale shark and other luminous sea creatures which wraps in Aztec folklore, science, and a message of the ability of friendship and selflessness to defeat fear and hopelessness.


Book cover - Aztec godess gifting a whale shark in stars from the night sky.

Sea of Constellations

Author: Melissa Cristina Márquez

Illustrator: Rocío Arreola Mendoza

Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group (2024)

Ages: 5-8

Fiction/Fable


Themes:

Ocean, stars, sea creatures, Huixtocihuatl (Aztec deity), friendship, and sharing.


Synopsis:

Melissa Cristina Márquez returns with a new underwater story perfect for young readers! When the ocean goes dark, Maren the whale shark and her best friend, Remy the remora, set out to find answers and to provide light for those they encounter in this encouraging picture book.


Maren the whale shark loves her life as the biggest, brightest fish in the sea. She spends her days exploring the water around her and finding fresh new snacks as she travels. But one day, the ocean goes dark and Maren’s adventures come to a halt. With only the glow from the scales on her back and her best friend, Remy the remora, by her side, Maren sets out on her greatest quest yet—to cross the ocean and ask the Aztec goddess Huixtocihuatl about the darkness and to figure out how to bring back the light. Along the way she meets new friends and exemplifies the power of sharing!


Opening Lines:

Once there was a whale shark named Maren.

She was the largest fish in the sea, and

normally she loved to travel the world and eat!

But the day this story begins was not one for

swimming long distances or snacking.


What I LOVED about this book:

This is an ingenious combination of an aquatic origin fable, Aztec deities, and a friendship story. The stunning illustration of a sparkling, huge whale fish gliding under the waves past coral begs the reader to turn the page and discover why this day was different - "On that day, the ocean was dark."


Internal spread - a sparkling, huge whale fish gliding under the waves past coral

Text © Melissa Cristina Márquez, 2024. Image © Rocío Arreola Mendoz , 2024.


Maren and her best friend, Remy the remora, unable to explain the sudden darkness, decide to journey across the ocean to ask the Aztec goddess Huixtocihuatl, since "she rules the sea and probably knows what is going on." After Remy notes that Maren's shiny spots cast the only glow around, Maren offers to share a scale with Remy. Now, with both of them glowing, the dark is less scary, and the slightly anthropomorphized pair head off "with a smile on her face and a splash of her tail."

Internal spread - on left, a whale shark and a remora surround by a jet black circle. On right, Aztec goddess Huixtocihuatl rises out of the sea in traditional attire.

Text © Melissa Cristina Márquez, 2024. Image © Rocío Arreola Mendoz , 2024.


Along the way, they encounter many scared fish - an anglerfish, moon jellyfish, firefly squid, ninja laternshark, comb jelly, and lanternfish. With a selfless kindness, reminiscent of The Rainbow Fish, Maren gives each fish one of her shining scales to help them hunt, find their way home, or locate a friend. Soon everyone, even the waves (explaining bioluminescence), have left with a shiny scale, plunging Maren and Remy into darkness. Lost and afraid, their quest appears over and "with a loud sob, tears slid down her face."


Since this is a PB and fables often have happy endings - at least for the good guys - Maren's moment of despair is short lived as ...

Internal spread- on the left, the whale shark and remora are in the deep darkness. On the right, all the fish given a shining scale have returned to help the whale shark and remora complete their journey.

Text © Melissa Cristina Márquez, 2024. Image © Rocío Arreola Mendoz , 2024.

... Everyone she had given a scale to had returned.

"You helped us find our way in the dark," one fish

said. "If you can share your light, so can we."


I love the bright colors and Rocío Arreola Mendoz's use of white stars and an ethereal glow to bring texture and light to the dark ocean setting. She did an amazing job with the corals, fish, and the movement of the ocean. It is both beautifully realistic and wonderfully fantastical with smiling, talking fish and interwoven origin stories for these unusual aquatic animals. This image of a darkened Maren and Remy despairing in the deep blackness suddenly seeing the sparkling luminous arrival of the other fish and then everyone swimming together to complete the journey, poignantly enhances the text's message on friendship and kindness.


In the end, Maren's selflessness and compassion is rewarded in a beautifully touching moment with Huixtocihuatl and a special gift for herself. If you've enjoyed these spreads, you'll love the ending ones. It's a wonderful fable explaination of how the whale shark got it's shining spots. You'll also enjoy the slightly whimsical illustrations in the fun glossary discussing (and pronouncing) the Aztec deities and the fish Maren and Remy encountered on their journey. It is a wonderful ocean-based fable, which weaves some interesting fish and Mexican culture into a poignant story about the power of friendship and selflessness to overcome fear and hopelessness.


Resources:

Photo of a crayon resist painting of a whale shark.
  • create your own constellation of stars on a whale shark. Maybe even add Remy, coral, or some of the other fish to your picture, using this same technique.

Photo of glowing water in a jar.
  • experiment with making water glow. What happens if you put clear or neon-colored items or glitter in the jar?


  • since you don't have shiny scales to give to others, make a list or draw an image of ways you can help your classmates, friends, or neighbor? This can be a thing, acceptance, or even a simple as your time and attention.


  • pair this with Wombat Said Come In by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Brian Lies, Give by Jen Arena, illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell, and The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig, illustrated by Patrice Barton.

Comments


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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