Five questions for Edel Rodriguez

Edel Rodriguez has worked in formats and genres including adult graphic memoir, fiction and nonfiction picture books, and iconic covers for Time magazine. His fantastical wordless picture book The Mango Tree / La mata de mango (Abrams, 4–8 years) is inspired by his own story of migration from Cuba and of separation from his best friend, with whom he used to play in a mango tree. See also Consulting Editor Summer Edward’s recent post “7 Caribbean Picture Books,” as well as the migration tag in the Guide/Reviews database.

1. What do you like most about working with picture books?

Edel Rodriguez: I love the audience, the boisterous enthusiasm that kids have for the characters and stories. Picture books inspire me to create stories with fantasy, wit, and a sense of humor. There’s something magical about seeing children experience one’s books for the first time and seeing how the work connects with them in unexpected ways. Picture books provide a space to create worlds which perhaps wouldn’t make sense in any other medium. The condensed length and format of a picture book also helps one home in and sharpen their ideas.

2. Why did you choose a wordless format to tell this particular story?

ER: While developing The Mango Tree, I considered several formats; one was to create a bilingual book. I went through various iterations, trying to figure out how to make that work. At one point I removed all of the words, and suddenly the book clicked. I got an emotional jolt out of seeing the story evolve from spread to spread without words. It felt more intimate, like I was hovering above the jungle, seeing these kids playing, having fun, being silly — it touched me in a very personal way. The story mirrored how my friend and I played as children on our tree. We were quiet, napping, climbing, taking care of our birds. It was our own quiet place above all of the goings-on down below in our village.

The crucial moment when my friend and I were separated was also a quiet one. We simply stared at each other as I was taken away, and we didn’t talk to each other for fourteen years, until we were reunited. Later, when I arrived in a new country, I was mostly quiet. I couldn’t speak the new language, and communicated via small drawings on scraps of paper.

Wordless and pensive seemed to be the right tone for this story, to allow a child to look, think, wonder what will come next, and slowly figure out the story as it developed. What began as a bilingual idea is now a multilingual one, able to be read and understood by immigrant children from every corner of the world.

3. How did you devise the sea monsters in the ocean scenes?

ER: When I was migrating on a boat to America, I woke up in the middle of the night and looked over the edge of the ship. What I saw surprised me — schools of fish were flying over the waves. It all seemed like a dream. I told my mother, but she thought I was making it up. Years later I read about flying fish and realized what I saw was real, not a dream. When I began working on the two spreads of sea monsters, I remembered the flying fish and then wondered, if fish could fly, what else could they be or do? The creatures I created in this book are an amalgam of fish and dragons, alligators, octopuses, and dinosaurs. I played with random shapes that popped into my mind, added a bit of whimsy, and invented sea creatures that don’t exist…or perhaps they do!

4. Were there any new fruits or foods (or forms of mango!) that made your own new home feel more comfortable?

ER: When I arrived in America, most of the surprises came when we were interned in an immigration processing center. We were handed apples, pears, and grapes, none of which I had ever seen in my life. There was no explanation; we were handed food and had to figure out how to eat it. The fruits had an odd flavor, not as sweet as the tropical fruits we were accustomed to. When we were finally released and settled in my aunt’s house, my family continued to cook many of the things we had eaten back in Cuba. I did enjoy some of the new foods, such as pizza and cheeseburgers, that I discovered our new country.

5. Is all art political?

ER: I think that a large percentage of what we make as artists is political in one way or another. The artistic decisions we make, the why, when, and where we make those decisions, come from personal history and beliefs which are often linked to family, politics, history, culture, and world events.

From the June 2024 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Horn Book
Horn Book

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