Viva Mexico! I wish more people would visit Mexico, not just the resorts, but the cities and pueblos to meet Mexican people. The Mexican people I’ve met are proud, creative, and hard-working.
I know! I know! Not everyone can visit Mexico. So works by Mexican artists and writers become crucial windows into our neighbor’s culture. We’ve reached the point in this country where we desperately need windows more than we need walls. That’s why the work of Duncan Tonatiuh is so important.
Duncan Tonatiuh of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico makes wonderful ‘windows.’ His windows have been awarded the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, The Pura Belpré Medal, Sibert Medal, The Tomás Rivera Mexican-American Children’s Book Award, The Américas Award, and the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book Award.
His distinctive style is based on the Pre-Columbian codices of the Mixtec and Maya people. Despite the burning of nearly all PreColumbian books, a few rare books have survived. Tonatiuh draws most figures and faces in profile. He showed students how he scans patterns, like tin cans or his own jeans, and uses Photoshop to fill the outline with those patters. Note muralist Diego Rivera’s overalls in the image below.
Duncan Tonatiuh came to the Kutztown Children’s Literature Conference as a keynote speaker. Spending time with him was an eye-opening experience. We visited 12th and Marion Elementary, Reading. Most children there speak Spanish at home. He shared his story and the faces of the children lit up as if they were sitting by an open window. They were so proud to meet someone with their ancestry and their complexion who is a so successful.
He also visited a Communication Design class at Kutztown U. He told students he was lucky that San Miguel de Allende has a good library. He was a kid when his family moved there from Mexico City. They had no television for some time. He would go to the library and got hooked on the “Choose You Own Adventure” series. One day, it occurred to him he might write his own stories from scratch. Now he has created a dozen award-winning books.
Since his father was from the U.S., Duncan got to visit often and his American cousins would bring comics when they visited him in Mexico. He grew up with roots in both countries. When he went to college it was at Parson’s in NYC. He graduated in 2008. Parsons is associated with Eugene Lang College, so he was able to take courses in writing and liberal arts.
His college art and writing projects focused on social justice for immigrants. He volunteered at NMASS. the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops. Workers he met there informed his book “Undocumented.” Duncan told Kai Ryssdal of NPR’s Marketplace, “Me, being a dual citizen, it’s very easy for me to enter and exit the U.S. but I just thought it was important for someone to share some of those stories.”
20 Years ago only 9% of children’s books were about people of color. In the last 20 years there has been progress. That number has doubled. But still a slim portion of these are works of Hispanic creators. Some of these books are from small, independent presses like the wonderful Cinco Puntos of El Paso, Texas. Duncan Tonatiuh is published by a major publisher, Abrams. We need more great windows. We need more Duncan Tonatiuhs. Look for his work. It is eye-opening.