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Yuyi Morales Talks with Roger

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Photo: Gustavo Barrios.

Emigrating from Mexico to the United States in 1994, Yuyi Morales returned twenty years later. And in Dreamers, she tells a story based on that first journey, when she (and her young son) discovered public libraries — and a new path in life.

Roger Sutton: What has it been like, moving back to Mexico?

YM: It was actually similar to when I first went to the United States in 1994, in a sense, because I needed to revise my identity. I’d been living in the United States for twenty years. I’d become a different person. Here, nobody recognizes me.

RS: How did that feel compared to when you left Mexico the first time?

YM: Very different. I wanted to come back to Mexico. It was a decision that I made with all my heart. My son, Kelly, had gone to college in New York, and I finally felt like I could go and have my studio and work wherever I want. I didn’t have to be in suburbia. I didn’t have to necessarily be in California. I could go anywhere. With college being so expensive, it was a much better choice for me to try to make my living in Mexico and be able to support my son through school. Coming back — it was a different way of choosing what I wanted to be. The first time I was young, and it felt like a commitment to my family. It felt like it was part of my duty as a mother, as part of a family, to do what was best for everybody. But coming back to Mexico was a choice I made all by myself. Just my three dogs and me. I was a different person than the one who left Mexico, that’s for sure.

RS: How so?

YM: Living in the United States, there’s so much you have to change and adapt so that you don’t suffer. You’ve got to become another person. And then coming back here, even though I felt like I’m going back home, and my family is here, it sent me to that place where I needed to think about my identity, who I was, this person who seems to be a constant immigrant. Now I’ve gone to the United States; now I’ve come back to Mexico. I have a new sense of what I want to do. I connect with children. I do art. I feel socially involved in the community. It hasn’t been very different from the question I asked myself when I went to the United States: What am I doing here? Is there any other reason I’m here besides taking care of my son? The reason why I’m back here in Mexico — that’s been a discovery. I love being here, and I’m very privileged and very fortunate to be able to do my work here.

RS: Does it change the way that you will work on your books, with your editor being in New York, or does it not make any difference? We’re all so connected now, I guess.

YM: Yeah, in fact I feel like we are more connected than before. California is almost as far from New York as is Mexico. But now the culture of “we are far apart but we’re going to work together” is more tangible. So we are more in contact now than we used to be before I moved here. It’s been great.

RS: Do you know the Allen Say book Grandfather’s Journey? He talks about how when he’s in this country, he longs for Japan, and when he’s in Japan, he longs to be here.

YM: Yes. That’s exactly it. I feel like once you emigrate, your heart gets divided. Forever you are never and always at home. Part of me feels like I’m at home, but there is another place where my heart also belongs. No matter where you are, your heart is never complete. There’s always another half somewhere else. I feel like that even more because my son lives in the United States.

RS: Right.

YM: But there has always been a process of me letting go of this idea of my son as my companion, because that’s what he was as a six-year-old boy — and obviously he’s not that anymore. The purpose of my life, as a parent, is that he’s a complete person who succeeds greatly without me. The other part of the exercise is to realize that I am a complete person that works greatly without him or anybody else. So as much as it has been that process of letting him go, it has mostly been a process of letting myself go, letting go of my identity as a mother, as a person working in the United States. I’m someone else now. I’m a person living in Mexico who doesn’t have the routines and the work of having to raise someone, and I’m discovering who I am without that.

RS: Dreamers really does have two protagonists, with the mother and the son.

YM: Yes. I wanted it to be a story that could be read or told from either voice, the child’s perspective or the mother’s.

RS: Do you feel like the mother in the story is you, or is she a character?

YM: Now I feel like she is a character, absolutely. At some point very early on, it stopped being me. The story was based on how it was for me when I got to the United States with my son, but very quickly they became these clear characters. It feels to me almost like I’m telling a myth or a folk story, it’s so separate now.

RS: But the essential part of the tale, where the mother sort of becomes comfortable in America and finds a life path at the public library, that is your story?

YM: That is my story.

RS: That’s wild.

YM: It took me years. I started feeling like I was at home, but at the same time I was still homesick; I wanted to be here in Mexico. The first year I lived in the United States I cried every day. It took me about seven years — and then one summer when I was visiting my family in Mexico, like I did every summer, I remember feeling like “I’m going home soon.” The feeling was real — that I was going back home to the United States, to a livelihood, to our apartment. I got back to California and had the feeling — really, really firmly — like, I’m home now.

RS: That was your home.

YM: Yes. But it took me a long time. Something that I missed, every time I went back to Mexico, was the library. I really, really missed the library.

RS: Is there a library where you live now?

YM: There is one, but it doesn’t have a great selection of books. Most of them are encyclopedias and instructional books for children. I do want to make a stronger connection with the library, I just haven’t put in the time to do so. My partner is in Mexico City, so I visit almost every week for a couple of days, and there are some really good libraries there. Again, they don’t have the selection, especially in the children’s section — they don’t have anything close to what there is in the United States. If you want picture books, middle-grade books, any of those things, you have to go to the bookstore. The culture of libraries here is just starting to grow. It has a long way to go.

RS: So it wasn’t part of your childhood, going to the library?

YM: Oh, not at all. I didn’t really know that libraries existed, and I didn’t know that children’s books existed either. My children’s books were the comic books that my dad or mom or aunt would buy, which were not really even for children, they were adult reading material. And then we had some coloring books. That was my reading. There were no transition books. I remember reading Gabriel García Márquez. I read Go Ask Alice in translation. I read a book about Madre Conchita, a nun who was imprisoned for her part in a conspiracy against the president of Mexico who was assassinated in the 1920s. My parents had those books. I must have been seven, eight. A lot of them I didn’t understand very well, but those were the books that were available for me. I didn’t have children’s books, much less picture books.

RS: I love that page-turn in Dreamers where the mother and son arrive at the library. You make it look like such an amazing place.

YM: For me, the library was unbelievable. It was like a world I could not even have imagined existed. Like I said, we do have libraries here in Mexico, but they are not the same vibrant places. It is not a place that is for you like it is in the United States. I was very fortunate. I had librarians who made it easy for me to be there. One of the ways was that they didn’t try to communicate with me, and I guess that helped because at that time I would have been intimidated. I didn’t have the language to connect. I might have been afraid that they were scolding me or telling me that I shouldn’t read the books or take them from the shelf or something of the sort. It’s like in Dreamers — the librarians were around, they were there, but they left me alone for a while until I was there so constantly that we had to talk or communicate, and they became these teachers for my son and for me about how you learn to do all this. It became not just a library. It became a home. It became that place where I wanted to be more than in my own apartment. We could stay there for hours and hours.

RS: That must have been wonderful.

YM: Yes. As a Mexican immigrant, it’s very easy to feel that you do not deserve good things. That those things are for the people who are of the United States. You must understand that this comes from this mentality that we have here in Mexico. We were a conquered country, a conquered people. Part of the legacy that we still have from the conquest is that if you are Mexican, if you look Mexican, the browner you are, then you are less deserving. We are neighbors to the United States, and the view from here of the United States is of a fantastic place in which we aren’t really welcome and we don’t really have what it takes to be part of the country. I always felt like I needed to ask for permission for anything, and that good things were not for me. So to come to a place like the library which is abundant in books, abundant in information — it’s a place in which you can sit and spend the whole day there, surrounded by peace, cleanness, value, that gives you books — you worry the other shoe’s going to drop, and what am I supposed to be giving back for all of this? It cannot be free. And it is not free, because you pay taxes, but that was not what I was thinking at the time. The value of the work that librarians do, what all of them did for me, is they made me feel that I could actually live there. I had to go home at night, but I could go back the next day.

RS: Do you think that turned you into a children’s book author/illustrator?

YM: Yes, it did, definitely. That’s where I saw picture books. Here were these objects, these books, that were beautiful. They had these sturdy covers, shiny papers, and beautiful art. The whole thing, visually, it’s a beauty. My English was still very basic, very rudimentary. I was able to identify in the text some words that I recognized, but that didn’t mean that I could read English. But then I would look at the illustrations, and just like children learn to read from picture books, I did too. I started making sense of the few words that I understood along with the illustrations. That created an infatuation for me. Finally, there was something that I could understand, and that understood me. It’s not so very different from finding someone that I’ve got a crush on. I created these relationships, like “these books really get me.” I would go back to them again and again. And it created this bond between Kelly and me while we were learning English from books. For me, it was how to read, how to speak. But also that one-on-one experience.

RS: How old was Kelly when you came?

YM: He was two months old.

RS: Oh, so he had no language, basically.

YM: None, exactly. And it was from these books that I realized that I had stories, too, and I wanted to be able to tell them to Kelly. Especially stories that I learned when I was a kid, or the stories of my family. I was seeing how the picture books were doing it with words that were very concise. Somehow I could understand and somehow I hoped I could imitate the form. The images, the illustrations — I loved them so much that I also wanted to see if I could make pictures like the ones that I was seeing in these books. Dreamers shows this relationship that I created with the books, which was not only to fall in love with them, but also to learn how to make my own. The way I did it was to go to the public library and go to the children’s book section and find a book that tells me how to write a story. Or you find that book that actually talks about how illustrators work. I did that. I would read all these books. I’ve mentioned before in the speech that I did for the 2016 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards ceremony that some of my first learning material about picture books was The Horn Book Magazine.

RS: I’m so glad.

YM: One of those days when I was there at the library I saw that Nancy, my librarian, had these magazines on her desk, and I asked if I could take a look. I was already more fluent with my English, and I read them, and I asked her, do you have more? She said, I have a lot more, but they are not for the public. These are the magazines that we buy for ourselves. These are librarians’ materials. But then she went to the back office, and she came back with this tower of Horn Book Magazine issues, and she let me take them out. I took them home, and I read them, and I brought them back.

RS: She wasn’t afraid you were going to cut them up and turn them into collages, huh?

YM: [laughing] Yeah. I didn’t do that. I did a lot of my learning about picture books by reading The Horn Book.

RS: I’m so glad we were helpful.

YM: You were very helpful.

RS: Now you’re in it — your books get reviewed in the Magazine. That’s amazing, right? Full circle.

YM: That’s unbelievable to me. At the time, I found books that taught me how to bind books together, and I did that. I went home, I wrote some stories in Spanish, then I bought my first set of paints and brushes. Actually, my first book I did with these pastel crayons, following the instructions from one of the books from the library. I did the binding of my drawings and my writing. I even made handmade paper, because there was a book about how you could make paper from tissue paper. You boil it, put it in the blender, and then you look for a flat surface and just pat the paper, and create new paper. I did the cover of my first books like that, I made the paper by hand, and needle and thread and put it all together, and then I had my books.

RS: Did you have any idea that you had this in you, to be an artist? I read your bio; you were a gym teacher, right? You taught swimming.

YM: Exactly. I wanted to be the best swimming coach in the world. And I also studied psychology, so I felt like I had it all covered — the body, the mind. But I’d always drawn, since I was very little. I started by copying the photographs and portraits that I saw in my home and my grandma’s. Eventually I emulated a bit of what Frida Kahlo did, which was copying my own face in the mirror. I did it so much that I could do it even without looking. But I was a child then, eleven, twelve years old. Although I liked it a lot, it never occurred to me that it could be something that I would do for a living. I had this belief, as a number of people do, that to be an artist is not possible, because artists should be these people who are almost destined to be something very, very special. Maybe you were born when the stars aligned, or you have signs in your body that tell you you are an artist. So having that belief, my family never encouraged me to be an artist, although my mom is very creative. My father, when he saw that I liked drawing, he said, “You’re going to be an architect.” That was the only thing he could think of. It never occurred to me that I could go to art school. So when it was time to choose what I was going to do with my life, I thought, well, I like sports. I had done sports since I was young. We had a very good coach, and I wanted to be like him, so that’s what I was doing. And also, I mentioned that I studied psychology. For most of my assignments, I ended up doing all these creative things — like if I had to do a presentation, I would make puppets and have them demonstrate what I had learned. I had all these opportunities to create, and yet I never heard the call, like “Really, Yuyi, this is what you should be doing; you should be making the puppets rather than all the other things.”

RS: Right, it didn’t click that this, in fact, was your life.

YM: No. It wasn’t until I moved to the United States and I had nothing else. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have the language. I didn’t have anything there. It was this blank space in which I had left everything behind. I had nothing to lose. Am I going to lose money? I didn’t have money. It was this space which I found scary — I told you, I cried, I cried, I cried. But in that emptiness that I felt, there was this richness of starting over.

RS: Well, we’re certainly glad you made it through. And now you’re in the library. All the libraries.

YM: I am glad too. Very, very glad. It was so very difficult at the beginning but it’s very beautiful now


More on Yuyi Morales from The Horn Book

Sponsored byHoliday House

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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