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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Duncan Tonatiuh

Duncan Tonatiuh (toh-nah-tee-YOU) is an award-winning author-illustrator of both nonfiction and fiction picture books.

He is both Mexican and American. He grew up in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and graduated from Parsons School of Design and Eugene Lang College in New York City. His artwork is inspired by Pre-Columbian art, particularly that of the Mixtec codices. His aim is to create images and stories that honor the past, but that are relevant to people, especially children, nowadays.

He’s the award-winning author/illustrator of - Feathered Serpent and the Five Suns: A Mesoamerican Creation Myth (2020), Soldier for Equality: José de la Luz Sáenz and the Great War (2019), Undocumented: A Worker's Fight (2018), Danza!: Amalia Hernández and el Ballet Folklórico de México (2017), The Princess and the Warrior: A Tale of Two Volcanoes (2016), Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras (2015), Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation (2014), Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant's Tale (2013), Diego Rivera: His World and Ours (2011), and Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin (2010). And the illustrator of Child of the Flower-Song People: Luz Jiménez, Daughter of the Nahua by Gloria Amescua (2021), Esquivel!: Space Age Sound Artist, by Susan Wood (2016) and Salsa: Un poema para cocinar / A Cooking Poem by Jorge Argueta (2015).

For additional information about Duncan see our earlier interview (here).

His newest picture book, A Land of Books: Dreams of Young Mexihcah Word Painters, releases tomorrow!

Duncan, thank you so much for stopping back by to talk about your newest book and your writing and illustration.

What do you like to do outside by yourself or with your family?

I like to read books with my children before they go to bed. I like riding my bicycle. And I like doing capoeira, which is an Afro-Brazilian game that combines music, dance and martial arts.

I had to look capoeira up. It looks both interesting and daunting. What was the inspiration for A Land of Books: Dreams of Young Mexihcah Word Painters?

For more than ten years now my artwork has been inspired by Mesoamerican codices. For my latest book, I wanted to learn more about the people who made them. I wanted to know how they made books in Pre-Columbian times and what they were about.

How long did it take you to create A Land of Books? What was the toughest aspect of researching, writing, and/or illustrating this book?

It usually takes me about a year to make a picture book. I had to do several major revisions of the text for my latest project. My first draft of the manuscript was very long and encyclopedic. I was trying to talk about all the different groups that made books in Mesoamerica. I also tried to include how the books were destroyed after the Spanish arrival.

For my second draft, I narrowed my scope. I focused on the Mexihcah (which were part of the Aztec empire). I did not include the Spanish conquistadores in the text. That helped me focus the story. In my third draft, I decided to make the narrator a young girl telling her brother that her parents are tlahcuilohqueh, painters of words. She tells him how they make books, and what they are about. That helped the story flow better and hopefully make it more appealing to young readers.

I like that it's told by the sister; it makes it more personal and immediate. Maybe there is a second book told by a child in one of the other groups in Mesoamerica. How did you stay creative and inspired over these past few years? Any suggestions for others?

Reading and looking at art is a source of inspiration. When I read a book, I really like how it makes me want to write. Same thing when I look at great art.

I feel very lucky because I make picture books for a living. For me, it is often an opportunity to learn more about things that I find interesting or about issues that I care about. I get to learn about different subjects; like Mesoamerican codices for my latest project. The challenge for me is to then distill all that information and turn it into an interesting and appealing book for young readers.

Diving down those research rabbit holes can be so much fun. But sifting out the nugget for a story (or maybe a few stories) can be daunting. Is there something you want your readers to know about A Land of Books?

There was a rich and vibrant bookmaking tradition in Mesoamerica before the arrival of the Spanish and other Europeans. Mesoamerica was one of the places in the world were books flourished without outside influence. I don't think a lot of people know that. Hopefully, my book will help more people know about it.

I think you'll definitely succeed there. And you made it so fun to discover this rich literary tradition/history. Many illustrators leave treasures within their illustrations. Did you do this in A Land of Books? Can you share one or more with us?

I like when there are images inside of images. I was able to do that several times in A Land of Books. In the third spread of the book, we see a priest displaying an amoxtin, on top of a petatl mat. The codex is not yet complete though. It is still a work in progress. In the last spread of the book we see the amoxtin again. It is being read during the flower festival. But this time the book is fully painted.

Now I have to go back and look again for this. Is there a spread you are particularly proud of or one that is your favorite in A Land of Books? Which one?

My favorite part of the book is the dream sequence, which occupies 5 spreads. I tried to make sure that each spread worked individually, but also that the spreads related to each other in an interesting way.

In the first spread, we see the brother and the sister sleeping and dreaming of books that are about the gods. In the second spread, we zoom in and we only see the sister sleeping and imagining books that are about her people's legends.

Text & Image © Duncan Tonatiuh, 2022.

In the third spread, we zoom even more. We only see the sister's head and hair as she dreams of amoxtin that are about the different rulers and the tributes the conquered people must send their empire.

In the fourth spread, we pan over to the brother and see him imagining books that are calendars and keep the count of days. In the fifth spread, we zoom out and see the brother sleeping and dreaming of amoxtin that are about plants and about the movements of the stars. Hopefully, this dream sequence is a visually interesting and poetic way of talking about what Mesoamerican books were about.

All of these spreads are just stunning! And the series of spreads is such a fun way to show us the parts and uses for the books of the Mexihcah. If you could meet anyone real or imaginary, who would that be? Why?

Hmmm... It is hard to choose one person. There are many artists I would love to have met like Guadalupe Posada or the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Last year you illustrated the award-winning Child of the Flower-Song People: Luz Jiménez, Daughter of the Nahua by Gloria Amescua. What about the manuscript appealed to you? Which is your favorite spread in this book?

There are many books about famous painters. But there are not many books about the people inside their famous paintings. I was immediately drawn to Gloria Amescua's manuscript about an indigenous woman that posed for important artists, like Diego Rivera. But Luz wasn't only a model. She was woman that fought to preserve and teach her language and Nahua traditions.

I am very interested in unsung heroes; people that made important contributions to our world but that are not very well known. I was happy that I was able to illustrate Gloria's book.

Text © Gloria Amescua, 2021. Image © Duncan Tonatiuh, 2021.

My favorite spread is the second to last, where Luz is telling the legend of the volcanoes. The voice coming out of her mouth turns into a kind of speech bubble shaped like the mountains.

Such a wonderful way for Luz to share her tale. What is the challenge or fun for you in illustrating another’s book? Will you continue to illustrate other’s books?

When I illustrate my own books, I have more control than when I illustrate someone else's story. I can change things in the text to better suit my art. I can't do that when I illustrate someone else's work.

But the fun part of illustrating someone else's text is that other authors do things differently and it can be an opportunity to experiment a bit with my art. For instance illustrating Susan Wood's Esquivel! was a great opportunity for me to create hand-drawn letters. The author included a lot of sounds in her story, which is not something I had done in my writing. I had fun trying to make the way I drew the letters express the sound they represented.

Text © Susan Wood, 2016. Image © Duncan Tonatiuh, 2016.

I like being both an author and an illustrator. I'm definitely open to illustrating other people's writing if the project and the timing are right.

Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit or teaser with us?

I have a book coming out next spring. It will be published by Abrams Appleseed. It is called Día de Muertos Números. It is a bilingual Day of the Dead counting book, which shows the different objects that are often included in a Day of the Dead altar. It is my first time making a book for very young readers. I'm excited to connect with a younger audience and to share a beautiful Day of the Dead tradition.

That sounds like such a fun book. And lastly, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park (anywhere around the world)? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

Right now my favorite park is in San Miguel de Allende, where I currently live. It is called Parque Paramo. It is not very big and not very well known. There are lots of cacti and mesquite trees in the park. There are only a couple of benches and there's rarely any people around. At the height of the pandemic my children, my Dad, and I would go to Parque Paramo several times a week. It felt like it was ours. My dad took pictures of cacti while my children climbed trees. I would sit on a bench and enjoy the sunset. It was a stressful time for my family but I felt full of peace whenever we were there. Things are a lot less difficult for us now and we don't visit the park as often. But whenever I'm there I feel peaceful and relaxed.

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

Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on A Land of Books: Dreams of Young Mexihcah Word Painters

To find out more about Duncan Tonatiuh, or contact him:


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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