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Five questions for 2018 BGHB Nonfiction Award winners Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña

In this year’s Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Award winner, Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide (Getty, 12 years and up), author Isabel Quintero and illustrator Zeke Peña seamlessly blend lyrical text and striking sequential art with their subject’s own words and black-and-white photography. The result is a unique graphic-novel biography that’s both informative and inspiring.

Isabel Quintero.

1. This is the Getty’s first-ever Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. Were you surprised to see the announcement?

IQ: I was! I’m very proud of the book we made, but I don’t usually have any expectations for a book of mine to win anything. I feel my job is to write the best that I can and keep on doing that. If we focus on prizes, we’ve lost track of what writing is.

ZP: I was very excited and extremely surprised to receive this news. It is such an honor to be amongst some amazing storytellers that this award has acknowledged over the years.

2. This isn’t your first book together — Zeke did the cover art for Isabel’s novel Gabi, A Girl in Pieces (Cinco Puntos, 2014). How did this project, Photographic, come about, and what was your collaboration process like?

IQ: Cover artist, book designer, and/or illustrator don’t usually work closely with the author, but Cinco Puntos thought Zeke would be a good artist for the cover of Gabi, and he actually wanted my input. Gabi was a first book for both of us, so that was a neat shared experience. It wasn’t until after I met other authors that I realized that this type of collaboration is not very common.

In 2016 Ruth Lane, our now-editor at the Getty, emailed me to ask if I was interested in writing the text for a graphic-novel project about Graciela Iturbide. I said some expletives to myself and then emailed a very professional response saying, yes, I would be delighted. She asked if I had an illustrator in mind and I said, yes, Zeke Peña. Zeke and I had been talking about graphic-novel ideas already, so this project seemed to come at a good time.

Working with Zeke is great. He’s really hardworking. He isn’t just an amazing illustrator, but also a great editor. Before I would send drafts to Ruth, Zeke would see them first. We spoke a lot on the phone — a lot. He’s out in Texas and I’m in California, so there was a time difference. Sometimes we would be on the phone around midnight or after. We were on a very tight deadline.

ZP: Our collaboration process is really fluid, and we bounce ideas back and forth. It makes editing a little crazy, but I feel like it produces a strong bond between the image and text. For this project it was even more unique because it was also a collaboration with Graciela’s story and work, so most of the concepts were developed from her powerful images. Isabel gave context to the making of the images, and I built the visual narrative around her photography. It just went in cycles like that; from Graciela’s work, to the text, the illustration, and around again.

Zeke Peña.

3. The narrative is so layered in structure and format. The first-person narrative told in the graphic-novel sections is interspersed with third-person text addressing the reader, and Graciela’s photographs are woven in with the illustrations. How did you decide how to tell her story?

IQ: To be honest, I was reluctant to use first person because Graciela Iturbide is still living and I didn’t want to put words in her mouth. Initially it was all in third person, but Ruth and Zeke kept urging me to try first. Ultimately, and pretty much last-minute, I reorganized the book and tried using different voices. A lot of her dialogue is direct quotes pulled from several interviews. The multiple voices felt right, like a good middle-ground between direct first person and third.

ZP: I put Graciela’s photographs at the center of the narrative. That’s the most important visual element of the book for me. So it was a matter of figuring out a way to visually support the photographs and provide more context for the reader without being too distracting. During the research process I didn’t go too deep into the art history or theory about Graciela’s work. I just tried to understand Graciela and her process through her photography — analyzing the images from a technical and visual standpoint to get a better sense of the way she sees things and chooses to capture them. There is a rhythm that she shoots with, and I was trying to stay in time with that. I wasn’t interested in matching the photos or drawing realistically but putting just enough ink down on the page and letting the reader fill in the space. I think Graciela also leaves that space for viewers to explore and revisit.

4. What did your research entail? Did you have access to Graciela or her own writing?

IQ: Research was fun. The drive home from the Getty Institute, however, was not fun — the 405 is terrible. But it was incredible to have access to her original photographs and to the Getty research library. I read and watched a lot of interviews online, as well as interviewing Graciela herself via email. I also spoke to folks that know her.

ZP: Graciela was amazingly helpful in providing us with a lot of personal photos and images that were important to her development. That guidance was key to a critical part of the book, which is Graciela finding her way in photography and growing in her craft. For me that storyline is especially important because it’s something I always looked for as a young person working creatively.

5. Are there particular pieces/series of the artist’s that especially speak to you?

IQ: The series that I really like is “En el nombre del padre,” the series on la matanza, the slaughtering of the goats. I liked that the photographs carry so much history and that their impact is so visceral. The images are violent — I mean, there are goats being slaughtered — but there is such a beauty to that ritual, to all that blood and prayer being mixed. It’s almost like we’ve been made privy to some myth about sacrifice, except that the history of why the goats are being killed and who is doing the killing is very real. Graciela captures all of that reality in her images, and we’re invited into that moment, into that space. We’re so close we can hear the goats bleating, panicking, at the knife.

ZP: Her work about the people and culture in Juchitán speaks to me the most. It gives such an intimate insight into a society of people that is rooted in tradition and ceremony. It’s in some ways radical in terms of gender roles/norms, but also highlights the humanity, humor, and beauty of the way people live there. It also typifies the intentional relationship she has with the people she documents in her work. You can begin to imagine and build the narrative about Graciela’s experience while living with them.

From the June 2018 issue of The Horn Book Herald. Click here for a list of past BGHB winners and honorees. For book reviews, acceptance speeches, and more, click on the tags Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards or BGHB18.

Katie Bircher About Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, associate editor at The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons College. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.

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