Five questions for Monica Brown

In the picture-book biography Sharuko: El arqueólogo Peruano Julio C. Tello / Peruvian Archaeologist Julio C. Tello, illustrated by Elisa Chavarri; translated into Spanish by Adriana Domínguez (Children’s/Lee & Low, 6–9 years), author Monica Brown tells the story of Julio C. Tello, “one of the most important archaeologists in all the Americas.” Tello, whose family was Indigenous Peruvian, unearthed fascinating discoveries and made important connections that centered the accomplishments and ingenuity of Native Peruvian peoples and cultures throughout history.

1. How much did you know about Sharuko’s life before beginning this project?

Monica Brown: Growing up, I heard repeatedly about “the house on Julio C. Tello Boulevard,” where my mother and her siblings lived after moving to Lima from the northern city of Piura, Peru. My mother shared her pride in Peru’s Indigenous history and living present, which she connected to through her mother’s heritage. With a street named after him, I knew that Julio C. Tello was an important figure, and I also knew that he was an Indigenous archaeologist. When I started researching for this book, I discovered he was known by his Quechua nickname, Sharuko, which means “brave.” The more I learned about his life, the more incredible I thought his story was, and the more I knew it would — and should — inspire children across the Américas.

2. How did you approach distilling the information into picture-book form?

MB: I love writing picture-book biographies because as a scholar and former journalist, I enjoy research and discovery. It’s a very different process from writing fictional characters, like Marisol McDonald and Lola Levine. I enjoy the challenge of bringing historical figures to life for young children in lyrical, dynamic, and inspiring ways. I write about people I feel passionate about, and Sharuko is a perfect example. Picture books are where art meets text, so I always think in terms of illustratable action. There was no shortage of action in Sharuko’s life — from his exploration of caves near his home, to riding on horseback to Lima to begin his studies, to his travels and discoveries of amazing Indigenous sites and artifacts.

3. The interplay between text (printed both in English and translated into Spanish) and illustration is so successful — it’s not the norm for picture-book creators to collaborate, but did you here?

MB: Though it is not at all the norm, I felt privileged to collaborate directly with artist Elisa Chavarri during the creation of this book. This takes a lot of trust, but we shared a vision, and Elisa, like me, did a great deal of research. As Peruvian Americans, this project was very personal to us; we were both committed to representing Peruvian history and a great Peruvian hero in the way he deserved. The best example of our collaboration is illustrated by our dialogue about the spread that depicts the Spanish invasion and colonization of Peru. It was very important to us to find a way to present this part of history to children with honesty and integrity. We had many discussions about this, and the initial sketches changed over time. I’m so grateful for the final art on that spread — and, of course, the immense artistic talent Elisa brought to the whole project.

I also have a longstanding relationship with publisher Lee & Low, and there is a lot of trust there (not to mention one of the reasons why I was able to be in touch with Elisa!). Perhaps most significantly, Lee & Low also supported my very strong desire to use Quechua in the title. This may be a first for a children’s book published in the United States.

4. As you say in your author’s note: “archaeology…has been a discipline fraught with problems.” How much of that was recognized during Sharuko’s time?

MB: I don’t think it was recognized at all, and Sharuko is considered the first Indigenous archeologist of the Américas. Before Sharuko, outsiders looked at Peru’s Indigenous history through an exclusively Western lens, emphasizing artifacts over the living knowledge of Peru’s Indigenous communities. For Julio C. Tello, it was imperative that Peru’s brilliant Indigenous history of accomplishment and innovation be a source of national pride and work to counter the systemic racism and colonial mindset that kept Indigenous communities oppressed. He also fought to conserve this history and make it available to all Peruvians.

5. Who are some other Indigenous Peruvians everyone should know?

MB: There are many! The first person that comes to mind is Hilaria Supa Huamán, an Indigenous and women’s rights activist, politician, and author of Threads of My Life: The Testimony of Hilaria Supa Haumán, a Rural Quechua Woman. Liz Chicaje Churay, who belongs to the Bora people, is another amazing Peruvian environmental and human rights activist who has fought to protect rainforests and was instrumental in establishing the Yaguas National Park in 2018. And finally, a doctoral student in Peru recently made history, becoming the first person to write and defend her thesis in Quechua! Her name is Roxana Quispe Collantes and she focused on poetry written in Quechua, the language of the Incas, and the language she grew up speaking with her parents and grandparents.

From the July 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Elissa Gershowitz and Shoshana Flax

Elissa Gershowitz is editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc. Shoshana Flax is associate editor of The Horn Book, Inc.

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