In retrospect it seems so inevitable. Duncan Tonatiuh has such a talent for creating children’s books that he must have obsessed over picture books as a child and known from an early age what he was going to do. But that really wasn’t the way it was. As a child growing up in San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico he certainly liked to read. But his most favorite books were comic books, not the classics of children’s literature. “I collected Spiderman and the X-Men. I started making up my own superheroes and villains. I would make drawings of my characters on pieces of paper and make little books.”
So making art started in elementary school but it really was not directed toward children’s books. It wasn’t until his senior year at Parson’s School of Design in New York City that Duncan began to consider working with children’s books. It was a professor who saw something in his work who then introduced him to a children’s book editor at Abrams Publishing. The editor, (who is still his editor), liked his work and eventually that led to the publishing of his first book, Dear Primo: a Letter to My Cousin, in 2010.
Duncan’s signature style also did not date back to a young age or develop out of traditional children’s literature. Instead, his style jumped out at him as he was working on his senior thesis at Parson’s – a definitely non-children’s book telling the story of his friend in New York who was an undocumented Mixtec worker. He decided to look into illustrating the story with appropriately Mixtec images. “I was familiar with pre-Columbian art since I grew up in Mexico, but I had never paid much attention to it. But when I saw those images years later I was immediately drawn to their geometry, repetition of color and by how stylized they were.” He has been trying to reinterprete this ancient art from southern Mexico into contemporary themes as well as traditional folk tales ever since.
It is tempting for Duncan to illustrate other people’s books as well as his own because he can extend the subjects he works on that way. But, when it comes right down to it, he finds illustrating his own books much more satisfying. It is a more effective interactive process. “While I’m drawing I see that some of the writing is superfluous or something in the drawings makes me go back to the text and make changes to the manuscript.”
As with all authors it seems, it is very difficult to pin down Duncan as to which of his books is his very favorite. “It is hard to choose one. Your books are like your children.” But, if you read between the lines, it is likely that his Funny Bones, published in 2015, came the closest to realizing the vision he had for it. “In terms of illustration and design I’m very proud of Funny Bones. I used different motifs to create borders…and I used different fonts reminiscent of the fonts used in the broadside papers Posada illustrated. I was able to include Posada’s actual artwork and on some of the pages I combined his artwork with mine.”
For a guy who says “I wasn’t very aware of other children’s book illustrators before I became one myself.”, Duncan is certainly making up for lost time. He meets many of the stars of children’s literature at meetings and workshops and tries to learn what he can from their work. He particularly admires “Rafael Lopez, John Parra, R. Gregory Christie, Christian Robinson, Melissa Sweet and David Weisner, to name a few.”
But, on a more personal level, Duncan is seriously exploring children’s literature by sharing books with his two-year-old daughter. So far, they have focused on books about colors, numbers and shapes but she is also fond of the classics, such as Green is a Chili Pepper, Lyle, Lyle Crocodile and The Cat in the Hat. Another child will join the Tonatiuh family in San Miguel de Allende in September 2017 so Duncan will get plenty of use out of the children’s books he picks up at meetings. They may even read some of his books! He is making an extra effort to make sure his children get exposed to multicultural books. “It is important for me to make sure that my daughter has diversity in her library. I want her to have books about Latinos so she can feel proud of who she is but I also want her to learn about other cultures.”
What can we expect from Duncan in the future? He plans to continue serving as a bridge between two cultures and focusing on both lesser-known heroes of the Hispanic world and on some of the pre-Columbian folklore and myths that deserve a wider audience. His latest book is Danza!, which is about the founder of Mexico’s Folkloric Ballet, Amalia Hernandez.
He is also working on an adult book based on that senior thesis about his Mixtec friend. The challenging aspect of that book is that he envisions the pages folding out like an accordion, just like the old Mixtec codices of centuries ago. Sometimes innovation leads us a thousand years into the past!