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Five questions for Duncan Tonatiuh

Duncan Tonatiuh by Patty Flagger

Photo: Patty Flagger.

Duncan Tonatiuh’s distinctive, instantly recognizable style, heavily influenced by Mixtec codices, perfectly complements his choice of subject matter and his own Latino heritage. His new book Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras (Abrams, 6–9 years), which arrives just in time for El Día de los Muertos, is a picture book biography of the artist who popularized those Day of the Dead skeletons.

1. How much did you know about José Guadalupe Posada before starting work on this book?

DT: I was familiar with Posada’s work before I began working on the book. I had seen many of his calaveras, and I knew that he was the artist behind them. However, I did not know much about his life story. I had to do a lot of research to get the most accurate and up-to-date information on him. His art was well known during his lifetime (1852–1913), but Posada, the artist, was not. There are a lot of facts and details about his life still being discovered.

2. Your illustration style is so distinctive. Can you discuss its evolution?

DT: I’ve enjoyed drawing since I was a kid. In elementary school I liked anime and comic books and would create my own superheroes and write and illustrate their stories. In high school I became interested in painting and emulated painters such as van Gogh and Egon Schiele. Although I was raised in Mexico, it was not until college that I became interested in native Mexican art.

I attended high school and college in the United States. As I spent more time away from Mexico, I began to miss things that were around me when I was a kid. I also became interested in issues that affect people of Mexican descent on both sides of the border. At Parsons The New School for Design in New York City I became friends with a guy named Sergio who was Mixtec, an indigenous group from the South of Mexico. I did not know until I met Sergio that there is a large Mixtec community in New York City.

I was fascinated by Sergio’s story and decided to do a short comic book about his journey to the U.S. as my senior thesis. One of the first things I did was go to the library and look up Mixtec artwork. I came across images of Mixtec codices from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. I was immediately drawn by their flatness, geometry, and repetition of color and decided to do a modern-day codex of Sergio’s story. I’ve been drawing in that style ever since.

3. Much of your work is political in nature. Do you seek that out or do the subjects find you?

DT: I try to create books about topics that I am passionate about, like art, history, and social justice. Some subjects, such as immigration, I’ve been interested in for many years. Other subjects find me. In 2012, for example, I first learned from my editor Howard Reeves about the struggle of the Mendez family to desegregate schools in California in the 1940s. I immediately realized it was an important story and decided to do a book about it [Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, which won a 2015 Sibert honor and Belpré illustration honor].

tonatiuh_funny bones4. In Funny Bones, you manage to incorporate Posada’s original art into the book in a way that feels organic and complementary to your own style.  Was this cohesion difficult to achieve?

DT: I hope people think that the combination of Posada’s art and my art feels organic throughout the book. I tried using several tools and techniques to achieve that. For example, the pages that include Posada’s artwork are meant to look like broadsides, and I used colorful background paper, decorative borders, and typography from the time. Broadsides are shown and referenced throughout the book, so I’m hopeful it feels natural and not jarring. Also, art director Maria Middleton and I decided to use decorative borders, usually with little bones in them, in many of my illustrations. Our idea was to have a common thread throughout my illustrations and also to help those pages resemble the pages with Posada’s artwork.

5. The sidebars in Funny Bones do a great job of delineating the processes of lithography, engraving, and etching — and your nonfiction books in general tend to synthesize information so that it’s very accessible and appealing to a child audience. What’s your secret?

DT: I don’t have a secret except for revising and revising. I rewrote that part and many other parts of the book several times to try and present clear information that a young reader can understand and, hopefully, be interested in. I have a great editor who is very good at helping me find balance in the text. He asks me to explain something more thoroughly when it needs that, but also helps me cut things out so the text doesn’t get too long or confusing.

From the October 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the coordinator of library media services at the San Diego County Office of Education.

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Comments

  1. Dear Mr. Hunt, I ma the creator/owner of http://www.latinopia.com, a video driven website on Latino culture including literature. I would like your permission to republish your review of Duncan Tonatiuh’s book on Posada on Latinopia. We are a self-financed website available to the Latino community for free. If you agree I would need a headshot of yourself and permission to also publish the photo of Dundan in your review. I would like to post it on Halloween week-end, Oct. 31st. Sincerely, Jesus Trevino (www.chuytrevino.com)

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