Jairo Buitrago and Rafael Yockteng Talk with Roger

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Interviewing this durable duo, one of them in Mexico, the other Colombia, required crossing borders both geographical and linguistic, so we corresponded via email about Cave Paintings, with Jairo providing translation for Rafael. Which when you think about it, is a pretty apt description of picture-book collaboration itself! And please see below the interview for a few words from Elisa Amado, the longtime English translator of Jairo and Rafael’s books.

Roger Sutton: The two of you have collaborated on nine books thus far. How did the relationship begin?

Jairo Buitrago: Our professional relationship began after we became friends. Rafael was already an award-winning illustrator, and it occurred to us to do a picture book together. That was Emiliano, and from then on, we have continued creating together. I write the stories and Rafael illustrates them. It sounds simple, but the truth is that we learned to work together, to listen to each other, to know that although we have different personalities, we create stories that we are passionate about and that we both like! When we were young and we met in Bogotá, each of us did different jobs. Rafael illustrated projects and articles for newspapers, and I was working as a scriptwriter for local television and a librarian for the city's Cinematheque. It was our editor of many future projects, María Osorio from Babel Libros, who convinced us that together we could create illustrated books. Sure, we have separated at times to make our own books — I joke that it is my "solo career" — but there is always a project in the making that has us meet again. When I fly to Bogotá (when it was easy to do so), to meet Rafael and work on a new book, I think that although we seem like mature people very busy with their respective jobs, we are still the young people excited about making stories for children, who we used to be.

Rafael Yockteng: Everything started with our friendship. I remember going with Jairo and some friends to see the Tim Burton film Big Fish, and at the end I told him that he was like the father who tells anecdotes of his life mixed with fiction. Jairo is able to tell a story and make you feel like a child again, anxious to hear the ending. Our love for the stories, the movies, music, and sport makes us travel this path of children’s literature; and our differences gave us our own language.

RS: Does Jairo complete the text before Rafael goes to work on it? Or does one or the other of you take the lead, depending?

JB: Almost always there is already a story, which we could say is already "finished." But what does happen is that this story is transformed or made more complex thanks to Rafael’s work. That always happens — or the opposite, where some complex phrase is simplified with the illustration and gains a lot in its poetic sense. I prefer that Rafael reads the whole story, and if he gets excited and likes it, I already know that he will contribute much more to the plot structure of my idea.

RY: The text is usually resolved before I first read it, but then we talk and read the story together. I like to read it aloud — Jairo doesn’t but I insist that we do the exercise. Sometimes we make small changes, and then after I do the first storyboard version we check everything. Jairo is a writer who considers my ideas and words the same way I consider his vision.

RS: Most of the picture books you have published with Groundwood have a sadness at their heart (kindness, too!). They say "life is difficult, but…". Cave Paintings seems more lighthearted. Do you agree?

JB: Yes! We think that it is a different book, in many ways. We wanted to take off like a rocket and get away from the Earth. We wanted the journey of that child protagonist to have no limits. Many of our books can be sad or have some melancholic atmosphere set very close to urban or suburban environments that children can know and recognize. On the Other Side of the Garden or Walk with Me are examples — but there is always hope, there are solidarity or friendly gestures when you least expect it. In Cave Paintings, the fantastic science-fiction atmosphere exacerbates a larger sense of hope for the future. The close relationships that the protagonists can have with their environment and with the adults around them can be very similar, whether they’re in an abandoned and lonely house in the middle of the countryside or bordering the Milky Way inside a spaceship. But it is true that in Cave Paintings we were more interested as creators in showing the starscape, the out-of-this-world design, the visual impact for the readers in contrast to the peacefulness of the images of other books, although we believe that we did not lose the intimate point of view that we always want to highlight. The Cold War was also experienced in Latin America, and in the space race many boys and girls would choose whether they preferred American astronauts or Soviet cosmonauts. Perhaps those childhood memories are captured in this book. 2001 Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, the Russian Solaris, or Mexican science-fiction movies.

RY: With Cave Paintings I show the idea of what will happen with planet Earth, in the universe, in thousands of years, in a time when animals have evolved, when there will be aliens, and "different" will be "normal," where Earth will be healthy and green, full of water and life. It is a story where the memories are kept, a utopic vision of the future and not apocalyptic. It is more lighthearted for sure.

RS: Children leaving their home is a theme for you — how secure and safe did each of you feel growing up? Were you brave children? Would you have crossed the universe to look at a picture?

JB: Yes, we are interested in the issue of growth, the step of starting to leave childhood...perhaps that is why the topic of leaving home, traveling, venturing into the world, by your own will or by others’ decisions, makes it even more complicated. The journey of courage is in Two White Rabbits crossing borders with migrants, or on the way from school to the house of the girl from Walk with Me. My brave journey may have been to explore the downtown of the city where I was born, from a very young age, but I don't think I was a brave child. A dreaming child who might rather create adventure stories than live them. But being a child and growing up in a country with problems of war, inequality, and poverty can make you be a brave boy or girl without knowing it. Interplanetary travel is already a romantic idea in itself. You don't always travel into space in order to fight alien monsters; you can cross the universe just to behold its beauty.

RY: Migration and travel are part of human nature and part of all living beings. We gather in communities and protect each other. We feel part of a group, of a family, and a lot of times when we run into an external being outside of that core, we attack it (like antibodies). In our evolution we didn’t learn a thing! I am a migrant who came to Colombia with my family nucleus, father, mother, and sisters. I was the youngest son. I grew up in a bubble, I didn’t have knowledge of my environment, of the customs, and even talking Spanish — the meanings dodged my comprehension. I grew up inside two bubbles, one social and the other cultural, "boy with money" and "alien," but I never felt fine either with the commodities or even less with ignorance. I found in stories, in voyages, in a walk, in a small talk, in friends and strangers, a way to get out of the bubbles, and I realized that I didn’t have to travel too far to see an image that moves me. I have to learn to seen with other eyes without forgetting they are mine. But I’m not going to lie — I love to travel! I will cross the universe to look at an unknown picture!

RS: Our young hero of Cave Paintings seems destined to be an artist. How and when did you two know you wanted to make books for children?

JB: The stories I’ve always imagined, ever since I can remember, were for children, and most everything I have written is for young readers, although I have written some poems and film history for adults. Illustrated books were not very common in bookstores in Latin America when I was growing up, but it was clear to me that I wanted to write and combine my literary work with images. I would joke back then that at least making a picture book was cheaper than making a movie.

RY: When I started to study, I wanted to be an animator. I’ve always loved animation, and it was a dream that I’ve had. But little by little I realized that what I want is to tell stories with images, and I found in books an opportunity and a language that allow me to explore. Either way, I can see one of our books being animated one day!

RS: Jairo is Mexican, Rafael lives in Colombia, your books are published in English or Spanish for children in many countries. And your books don’t have specific settings. Would you call them "international"? Do you think there is an international experience of childhood?

JB: Well, we have realized that the issues we are dealing with are global. I believe this also has to do with our roots. Rafael lives in Colombia but is Peruvian of Chinese origin. Doesn't it seem international already? However, what happens with our books never ceases to amaze us. Walk with Me (Camino a casa) has been a tremendous success throughout Latin America, from Mexico to Chile and Argentina. For that reason we really wanted Groundwood to publish it in Canada and the U.S. Each country reads it as their own, and that has a lot to do with the story it tells, because it is also published in South Korea!

RY: Jairo’s stories always talk about intimate things, they are stories that happen in a Latinoamerican country, but this intimacy occurs in different ways in many countries. Our stories talk about the human condition, and this fact allows us to empathize with different people.

RS: Where in the world would you like to visit?

RY: I would love to know Africa, the continent, the deserts, the jungle, the Nile. For me, that continent is completely mysterious and beautiful, full of life, so ancient that gods were born there.

JB: The older I get, the less I travel. I prefer to stay at home looking out the window. Sometimes I want to visit the Scandinavian countries, Norway or Finland. I like their design, their lifestyle — so different. I like the children's books they make in those countries, their pop music. But I think about the cold...and that it would be better to travel only in summer! I travel a lot through Mexican towns. I walk and feel good in any corner, or in the squares, their fiestas. I like Querétaro, Puebla and Oaxaca, and the north — the border with the United States, so endless, the desert, the open and limpid skies. I still have many small towns to go. Many of my books were born from those short trips.

On translating Jairo and Rafael (Elisa Amado):

EA: It’s always a thrill to get a new book from Jairo and Rafael. For one thing, each is unique. What a range of stories, ways of telling, and ways of showing they have! For me they are probably among the best picture-book creators working anywhere at this time. And Jairo is never obvious. If you look at a masterpiece like Jimmy the Greatest about a boy from the Caribbean coast of Colombia who becomes a boxer and a reader by discovering Malcolm X; to Two White Rabbits with the girl counting the world going by as she migrates on the Bestia; to Lion and Mouse, the wonderfully original retelling of Aesop — wow! And now a space adventure that combines shooting through space with the cave paintings of Chauvet and impressing the other passengers by drawing with the completely exotic crayons and paper. Plus, Jairo has a great command of voice — always convincing. A privilege for a translator.

 

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Roger Sutton
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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