Lighting the Candle: What Words and Art Can Do

This is a joyful memory, lo prometo, though it’s one connected to suffering as well. I am a writer and walk in this world with gratitude and purpose because of my mother, Isabel María Valdivieso Vexler Brown. In teaching me how to be an artist, she taught me how to survive. Her medium was paint; mine, words. My childhood was filled with love, family, raucous fun, and some dark and thunderous clouds. One was my mother’s illness. Like my abuelita before her, and me after, my mother had a brutal kidney disease that caused her great suffering, and she died prematurely. She wasn’t ready, and decidedly did not want to leave this world she loved. She did not leave me alone, however. I write this surrounded by her paintings.


Voices from the Ground No. 1 by Isabel Brown.

As a young creative, whose mind was a cauldron of lightning and fire, I learned that with pen or paintbrush I could overcome darkness. Books were my escape; writing, a release. I witnessed the way my mother’s faith and art brought her through pain, scathed but still enjoying the marrow of each day. While painting, trancelike and transcendent, she existed in an ephemeral world of color and creation. Yet it wasn’t ephemeral for me. I grew up in the company of her colors, her stories, her artist friends, her moments of joy. My mother taught me to trust intuition and creative expression over logic and the confines of rules, characteristics I gave Marisol McDonald, one of my favorite fictional creations, from my picture book Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match / Marisol McDonald no combina and its sequels. This same spirit is also found in the indomitable Lola, from my Lola Levine chapter book series.

A Peruvian immigrant to the United States, my mother imagined her life into being and gave me the courage to imagine mine. She introduced me to South American writers — Mario Vargas Llosa first — and encouraged me to follow an unconventional path. I would be a journalist, like Gabriel García Márquez! She was the parent who never questioned or mocked my desire to build a life around words, first as a journalist, then as a literature professor and scholar, and finally, and joyfully, as a writer of books for children — picture books in particular, the place where art and words meet.

In prayer, my mother often turned to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Nuestra Señora del Perpetuo Socorro, whom she called her “favorite” virgin, though we had many different statues, sculptures, and images of La Virgen María throughout the house — thirty-two, to be exact. “When you’ve been through what I have,” my mother told me, “it’s not whether you believe in G-d. Rather, you see the face of G-d.” These words were not something I understood until much later.


The author's mother in her studio. (Photo courtesy of Monica Brown.)

My mother prayed. And she painted. Her body was weak, but until the very end her arms stayed strong enough to lift a paintbrush and scratch at the canvas with her fingers. Her paintings surround me, reminding me of the beautiful turns of her brilliant mind — the dark paintings, the dreaming ones, the ones holding secrets, the bold creations demanding attention and reverence. I am a keeper of my mother’s colors — the red blood, the gray stones, the russet nests, and, always, the turquoise of my abuelita’s room and the sea. I’ve turned away from the Catholicism of my youth and toward my family’s Jewish faith, but I like to think that my mother’s paintings offer me succor and perpetual help. Being able to create within the outsized reality of physical pain has surely been one of the gifts of my life, and I have been given many!

My imagination dwells in the place where words and art swirl together to make something wondrous. I hope my books inspire children and offer them delight, adventure, affirmation, and comfort. I hope they chase away storms, as they have been written in light reflected and refracted off my mother’s canvases. Like my mother, I, too, teach about words and art. About what they can do.

From the May/June 2021 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Pura Belpré Award at 25. Find more in the "Lighting the Candle" series here.

Monica Brown

Monica Brown has written six titles that won Belpré Honors for illustration, most recently 2021 Honor Book Sharuko: El arqueologo Peruano Julio C. Tello / Peruvian Archaeologist Julio C. Tello (Children's/Lee & Low). Her latest book is Small Room, Big Dreams (Quill Tree/HarperCollins).

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