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Viva Frida

Viva FridaHave you all seen Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales yet? If you have, I think you will agree that THIS book will be getting a lot of consideration by the real Caldecott committee. Not just because it’s beautiful, but there is so much to discuss and wonder about. Then there is the medium. For me, what matters is how the illustrations look on the page and how they work as part of the whole when the book is shared and read aloud. But medium always seems to matter to people during award deliberations.

So I have three topics to tackle here: the beauty of the art; the effectiveness and mystery of the book as a whole; and what the medium is from page to page (it changes!).

Can we just all agree that the art in this book is GORGEOUS? The palette, like Frida Kahlo’s art, has a strong Tehuana influence: deep greens, hot pinks, warm reds, midnight blues. In books like this where 3-D art is photographed, the out-of-focus areas can be distracting (e.g. Fall Leaves by Loretta Holland). That never happens here. Morales keeps a tight reign on her composition, and while there is plenty going on in each spread with photographed 3-D art, she has also put thought into the backgrounds. They aren’t static, but they are simple and support the foreground action with sweeping curves.

The simple text — “I am / I search / I see” — in blocky black letters is shadowed by an elegant translucent white script in Spanish: “Soy / Yo busco / Veo.” But who is she? What does she search and see? The answers are in the art alone, so viewers need to be on the alert for every small detail. The more familiar you are with Kahlo’s art, the more sense you will make from the visual clues. On the title spread, we see paints and brushes, a charcoal sketch of Frida, a folded-up cut-paper banner, and some mysterious glass bottles. Do the bottles hold medicines, or pigments for painting? Does the sketch show Frida on a swing, or is she shown as a marionette? You could make a case for each option. Later we see her with a monkey, a marionette from Día de Muertos, a fawn, and a little black dog. Are they companions, or aspects of Frida? Later, the fawn is shot by an arrow and injured, clearly a reference to her self-portrait as an injured deer. Oh, there is so, so much to discuss!

And finally the medium. (Or should I say mediums?) At the beginning of the book, the three-dimensional photographed scenes show characters molded from polymer clay and wool, painted with acrylics (according to the CIP page). The people look like puppets in a stop-motion film, dressed authentically and easily recognizable as Frida and Diego Rivera.

A few spreads into the story, the text reads “sueño / I dream,” and we see a small 2-D painted version of Frida, identical to the 3-D but with a white dress rather than black. This figure grabs a cloud shaped like a boot with wings, dons a pair of winged boots (real now, not clouds) and flies off to the right. Over the next four spreads, the Frida puppet is gone and the setting gradually changes from 3-D to 2-D. We see the new white-dressed Frida float through the landscape, watch while the deer is shot, comfort the deer, bandage its leg, and carry it home to safety. Then suddenly in the next spread she’s back to her “real” 3-D self, surrounded by the puppets of Diego, the deer, monkey, and dog. The scene radiates love and safety, leading to a scene where we finally see her painting a self-portrait on real canvas. It seems pretty clear that we have just entered her imagination and learned a little about where the ideas for her paintings come from.

I think what most bowls me over in this book is how much Morales tells us with so few words and relatively simple images. The emotional element is key, and that is of course a huge part of Frida Kahlo’s art: surreal self-portraits that depict her feelings. But the more I examine this book, the more I realize the amount of thought, intelligence, and intuition Yuyi Morales exhibits here.

I think we need to tackle one more question. Should the committee be concerned with the fact that part of the success of this book is how well the 3-D scenes were photographed? Tim O’Meara, the photographer, is given credit on the title page. Certainly a less skilled photographer could have made a mess of this book. But does his contribution jeopardize its chances for a medal? I really hope not!

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.



  1. If Tim O’Meara is an American citizen, then isn’t it a moot point about who does what to make the book successful?

  2. What a stunner. Yuyi and Tim are both American citizens, so that shouldn’t disqualify the book, right? Many people contribute to a beautiful book: Editor, Art Director, Production, Printer, and in this case, photographer. I say having so many people dedicated to making a book so delightful only validates its contention!

  3. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    I’ve never bought into the this argument, but I’ve heard people talk about it before with 3-D art that was photographed. The title page spread in particular isn’t just a straight-on photo of Morales’s art. It comes in at an angle and is pretty amazingly composed. The choices about what to bring into focus are artistic in themselves. What we don’t know is how much say Morales had in how her pieces where lit and shot.

    But I am definitely in the camp that says, “Who cares? Give her an award!”

  4. Isn’t Tim O’Meara her husband? If so, then I don’t need to tell you who was in control, right? 😉

  5. Here’s a video about the making of the book.

  6. Thank you for sharing this video! What a wonderful thing to share with children as well, most of whom probably imagine that writing/illustrating a book involves sitting at a desk or an easel all day. I’m really intrigued by the prevalence of “found object” art in this year’s picture books and they way in which it is helping our children imagine and understand representational art in such loose, liberating, and original ways. As someone who struggled as a child because I never felt like I could draw realistically enough, I find books like these to be incredibly inspiring and get SO excited about sharing them with my kids.

  7. Since someone has to be the wet blanket or spoilsport, I think the major strike against VF is… what exactly is this book? (and related, who is it for?) While not strictly part of the criteria, we all know that these sorts of questions often can derail books that would otherwise be considered award contenders. The back matter is interesting but seems incongruous, at least to me, with the rest of the book’s audience. I can’t deny the wonderful execution of the illustration aspect of the book, but I have some suspicions about the package as a whole being universally accepted as an award winner.

  8. This book is beautiful, but one of the things that I noticed was the placement of the gutters. This book for many of the pictures, has the gutters in the middle of Frida, or Diego’s body. This kind of spoils the look for me.

  9. Susan Dailey says:

    When I first looked at the cover of this book, I thought it was titled just “Frida.” The “Viva” part is so decorative that I didn’t see the word. This is a minor quibble, but I wonder if anyone else had this problem. I really liked the way the book handles the Spanish words and the perspective in some of the pages is wonderful, especially the one through the treasure chest.

  10. For myself, this book celebrates the life of the artist, which includes both Frida and Yuyi and all the young artists who read and look at this beautiful book. It explores both the inner and outer life. There is an interesting criss-crossing, for just as Frida plays with her marionette, I have watched Yuyi entertain children using a puppet of Senor Calavero, the small skeleton, who she skillfully guides to pop out of a box. And as an aside, I felt that the use of papel picado on the cover title type is another Mexican tradition that is effectively echoed throughout the book.

    It is a gorgeous book. I hope to see it come January with a shiny something on the cover.

  11. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Thanks, TK. Yes, someone had to say this and thank you for going for it. But I think sometimes a criticism of these awards is that they go to books that exhibit great artistry but/and a limited audience. This is especially true with the Newbery. Not every year but enough to give it that reputation. (A teacher I know once described introducing a Newbery winner to her class. They were doing that thing where they looked at the cover first and made predictions about what the story might be about. The teacher asked, “And what does this little gold circle tell us?” Kid: “That it’s a book grown-ups think is really good?”)

    The very long award criteria does not tell the committee to choose a book that will have a wide audience. I think this book may well have a very small audience: kids who like to create art and have vivid inner lives. But those few who love the book and “get it” may find that it sticks in their memory for years and years, perhaps even shaping how they look at the world and their place in it.

  12. Thanks Cherylynn for pointing out something that I had forgotten – that the gutters do cause some concern about the placement of the art.

    @Lolly, I think it goes even beyond simply the audience (limited, artist-oriented) when I asked “what exactly is this book?” I wonder how it will play among those who are more familiar and comfortable with a story or other conventional picture book. It struck me, to be honest, as a fascinating art installation tribute to Frida put onto pages. I just don’t know how the committee will feel about it.

  13. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Thank you for “papel picado,” KET — I didn’t know what that was called.

  14. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Again, TK has brought up a good point: “It struck me, to be honest, as a fascinating art installation tribute to Frida put onto pages.”

    I see what you mean, but I still see this as Morales using the picture book form to its fullest. One thing that prevents it from being an installation is that there seems to be just one Frida “puppet” and one of each of the other characters. Unlike the 3-D illustrations of Salley Mavor or Molly Bang’s One Fine Day, these cannot exist as separate objects in an exhibit. She created the scenes, her husband photographed them, and then they were dismantled so they could move on to the next scene. At least that’s how I interpret what I saw in the video link Linda posted above.

    I’m not sure if that makes it less like an art exhibit. I think it means it can’t be an installation, but I agree that there is artistry here of a different kind (and medium) than we normally see in picture books.

    I was actually not bothered by any of the gutters and thought they showed a lot of planning ahead. In most photos, the center tends to contain important information. In Viva Frida, they were careful to have the main action on the left or right. Or both. But never in the middle. Any illustrator who puts a large figure on a spread needs to find a place within the figure for the gutter to go. Just please don’t put the gutter down the center of a face!

  15. Barb Outside Boston says:

    When I was getting my MA in Art History, Frida Khalo became HOT! I got thoroughly tired of her work and had no desire to see it again. Therefore I was stunned that I LOVED this book. Morales was able to make me see Kahlo’s work with fresh eyes. For me, this is the most distinguished picture book I have seen so far in 2014, but KET has made the case more clearly than I did.

  16. Katie Bircher Katie Bircher says:

    I got this lovely lady

    for Xmas (just received in the mail yesterday) and I thought I’d share with you all. I didn’t mean for it to look like the tree is growing out of her spine, but it is sort of fitting for Frida, given that she often painted about her injuries…

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