Transcript from an interview with Lulu Delacre

Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Lulu Delacre. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

A revelation in Paris

I came to be an illustrator because back in the island of Puerto Rico, art was really my best subject in school. And when I graduated from high school, I went to went to fine arts in the university, and then I realized that if I wanted to make a living, I needed to have some more than just fine arts.

So I went to study graphic arts in Paris, France. One day, coming out of the school that I was studying in St-Germain-des-Prés, in one of the oldest streets in Paris, there was an American gallery right by the school, and I went into this American gallery that, of course, had artwork by American artists.

And there was the complete illustrations, all the illustrations from Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen. And standing in front of that artwork, I had an epiphany. I said "This is what I need to do with my life" — to become a children's book illustrator. However, I didn't know there was such a route until I got there.

In the island of Puerto Rico, I was not… I didn't know there was such a…such a job…such a career as to be an illustrator of children's books because I didn't grow up as children grow up here in America with all these wonderful books that you find in the public library. So it was a revelation for me, and, you know, here I am 31 books later.

I am a writer, but that came later. I started as an artist, and creating characters that came out of boredom literally. One summer in Maine, out of these doodles two little characters were born, and every art director and editor that saw these characters told me go write a story for these characters.

Of course, that was the hardest thing that anybody could ask me because first I didn't think of myself as a writer, and second, how could I write a story in English when my mother language is Spanish?

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Wearing two hats

Well, there is a difference in how I approach the books, the variety of books that I work on. I would say that when I write and illustrate my own work, now I have learned to first write the story and then take the manuscript and, like if it weren't mine, and then think, put my illustrator hat on, and think about how best to illustrate this book.

It has taken me many years to think that way, but I had a very good teacher in one of my editors who taught me this very valuable lesson. And it's very good that I do it this way because since I do different kinds of books, it is almost like…it is almost like if I had to…to change the zone.

When I am doing a picture book it's different than when I am… retelling myths, legends, and folktales from Latin America or when I am…lately I've done a YA (young adult) book. So it is all very different. In terms of illustration, illustration my own…illustrating my own work or illustrating another author's work now has become about the same thing because as I said, I really approach…I take the manuscript and I try to do the best, what the manuscript is telling me that I need to do for it.

And if you see as an illustrator, if you look at all the books that I have done, I wouldn't think that if you don't see the… if you're not…if you don't know the name of the illustrator, you wouldn't be able to tell that it's the same person because sometimes I change techniques and ways of approaching the illustration drastically.

So I don't know that that is good or bad. But in terms of illustrating other authors' work, I would say that one thing that I really love is to get in touch with that author and have a conversation. I think that the book benefits tremendously from that. I am very open at what the author has to say.

And so far my experience has been that the author really is very open as to how I see things. So it's been very enriching for every single project in which I have worked with another author.

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Island inspiration

You know, I think the island gave me a lot of what I use as an inspiration for my work. You know, I went to school, I was a child from, you know, an average family. My parents were university professors, I had a lot of friends. But, you know, I remember very clearly that when I…we went out to play at recess, we actually played, you know, game songs in Spanish. And through song I learned how much fun one can have.

I really had a very, very wonderful, happy childhood. I don't know whether I'd choose to remember it this way or whether it was this way, but it was…it is something that up to today I feel that that island has given me so much that I can draw upon in order to put it into the pages of the books that I either write or illustrate.

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Finding what makes us the same

I think of myself as Latina. I am Puerto Rican. I think of myself as Puerto Rican. But I'm also here in the States, I am Latina. And I'll tell you why. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. My parents are from Argentina. My grandmother was from Uruguay. My father-in-law is from Cuba.

So, you know, in my home I spoke Argentinean with my parents. I went out of my house and spoke in Puerto Rican with my…with my friends. And my mother and I used to have these fights about me talking in Puerto Rican because she thought I should be talking in Argentinean.

And Spanish is Spanish. The Spanish language is Spanish language, but there are different words here and there. There are ways of saying things in each country. That's the beauty of Spanish across…all across Latin America.

So what influence has that had in the way that I view books and the books that I do? I think it has had a lot of influence because what I think I tend to do is to think about what makes us the same rather than what makes us different. I really relish in finding, you know, the songs or the rhymes or the beautiful folklore, that we all can share, that a number of different Latinos can share and share with their children if they are growing up here in America, learning to love, hopefully, two languages and two cultures.

So, you know, it's the same. I love to see the Spanish language written in the books of, you know, in the pages of the books that I write. I think it's important. So I…there are certain elements in the folklore, in the traditions, in the heritage that we have in common. And I relish in celebrating the commonality rather than what makes us different.

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Comparing traditions

Well, I think that you can encourage celebrations of other cultures by just comparing. You know, one thing that I do, one book that I see doing a lot for others is Salsa Stories because it talks about…this book talks about how foods that you really love bring good memories of your childhood.

And many of these foods are actually tied to celebrations. When I ask…when I pose this question to children in schools, what foods bring you a good memory of a certain day of the year, they often have something to say. And for one child maybe pupusas or pasteles.

But for another child is the turkey in Thanksgiving. For another child it might be dumplings for the Chinese New Year. So, by comparing traditions, and I think that a mother or a teacher or a librarian can actually use this book that celebrates traditions and fiestas, and compare to your own, you know, your own celebration at home, whatever that celebration is.

I mean, we live in a multicultural society, which is what makes us so rich. Why shouldn't we profit off this?

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Turning to books

For me, every time that I have a problem or I have gotten to a point in my life where I need some sort of help, I always turn to books. I think that books can offer models of ways to find hope, find healing if that is the case.

They can offer…they can open the eyes of children that do not know anything about other cultures. Like, for example, if I had a child…if I were a teacher and I had a child that I found that perhaps is not getting along with…with someone from another culture, I would actually look for a book that talks about these classmate's cultures.

So for this child to learn because it's really in knowing about each other's traditions that we learn to respect one another that we understand why is it then that…that the other person behaves the way that they behave. It is so important to know about the other's culture, religion, traditions, you know, heritage before making a judgment.

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The library visit that started it all

With the birth of my daughters, I realized that there was a tremendous need for books for children like my own daughters. Children that are born here in America — in the United States of America — from Latina parents. And my first thought living in El Paso, Texas back then, I remember this very clearly, was I'm gonna go to the public library and check out a book for my daughters.

Looking for a book that would have all the songs and the rhymes and the childhood games that I used to play in the island of Puerto Rico, the songs and rhymes that my mother taught me, that my grandma sang to me, the lullabies she sang to me when I was a little girl. And I couldn't find a book like that in the public library, neither could I find it in the bookstore.

So that's when I realized if I need a book like this for my daughters, there must be other mothers like myself that need this kind of book. And that gave birth to the line of book that I have done for a number of years now, that are books that celebrate my Latina heritage.

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"If you know where you come from, you know where to go"

One of the reasons that I started doing the books, or that I continue doing the books that I do, is my firm belief that the children that grow up here in America that come from Latino heritage, they need to be exposed to the heritage of their parents.

They need to be exposed to the language of their parents. They need to know these very first songs that, you know, that really a mother remembers as soon as she holds her baby in her hands that come from generations back. They need these. Why? Because if you know where you come from, you know where to go.

Roots give you the strength to become whatever you want to be. And there is another aspect. It is important for the children that grow up here in America that come from Latino…from Hispanic… or Latino heritage, to know about their roots.

But it's also important to the children that are not Latino to know about their classmates' heritage. Why? Because in knowing about each other, that is how we learn to respect one another. And what best way than books?

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Illustrating the The Storyteller's Candle

Well, The Storyteller's Candle/La Velita de los Cuentos, it's a beautiful book. And I really, you know, I talk about these books like my children because they are. But this is a very special book. I think it's…it's a book that tells a story about another Puerto Rican, Pura Belpre, a librarian, the first Puerto Rican and Latina librarian in the public libraries of New York who was called upon when back in the 1930s during the recession, there was a wave of migration from Puerto Rico of a lot of Puerto Ricans looking for jobs and came to establish themselves in what we call today Spanish Harlem, el barrio.

And Pura Belpre was called upon to see how she could…what could she do to bring these…these new immigrants into the library. These immigrants came with the ideas that the libraries, well, the libraries were not for children. And in the libraries of New York, how could they find books in Spanish, en Español?

So they never dare go inside. It is a beautiful story that I knew not as much as to, you know, initially until I read all the research that Lucia Gonzalez, the author of the book, made. Lucia and I are very good friends. And Lucia herself is a librarian, a public librarian, a puppeteer, a storyteller, and, of course, an author, very much in the same way that Pura was.

And we get along very well. And when she told me that she wanted me to illustrate this book, I thought it was…it's a marvelous combination. And I…the first thing that I did in term of research was actually travel to Miami, meet with her, talk to her. Through her, I read everything that she had read because she had kept everything.

And then, of course, the research. I needed to know about Pura before starting to illustrate the book for Lucia, but also then I went a step beyond. Then I needed to know how to put the illustrations of the book in the…in its historical context. And this is really the very first picture book that I do that is historical fiction.

And so…so in those terms, I really spent a lot of time trying to figure this out. I mean, of course, the very obvious things are to draw the cars of the time, to draw the buildings of the times, you know, the clothing that the people were wearing. That's obvious.

But what else can you do? How can you put…how can you go beyond what it's the obvious? So one of the things that I did is to really…one of the things that I did in order to research for the pictures themselves was to go to the library of…to the New York Public Digital Library.

And the New York Public Digital Library I found amazing pictorial material, photos, of those times. And using those photos, that helped me, you know, draw the things the way that they used to be that back them including the building of the 115th Street branch of the New York Public Library.

But also, you know, one…these photos influence me in the way that I decided to start all of the illustrations in sepia. Every single picture in that book started entirely in sepia tones. And the values were all done in sepia. And then I started layering the colors.

But there was one thing…one other thing that I added. And this is, again, a first for me. With each…each book that I illustrate, I actually let the manuscript talk to me and tell me what is it that the illustrations should be. And in this book it was the same.

I kept thinking that there was something else that I could do for this manuscript in order to put it in that historical context. And that's when I said well how about…how if the illustration could…could enlarge what the text says? In other forms that just simply with a drawing, how about if we…if the reader could know what was going on at the same time that this story takes place. How do I do that?

And that's when I got the idea of doing collage. But collage using The New York Times of the 6th of January of 1930 which I got through the Internet. There are now outfits in the Internet that sell these…these old issues.

And when I got that newspaper, and I opened the package where it came, and I flipped through very brittle and yellow pages, I found treasures. Treasures because all of a sudden in that illustration where I have Hildamar and Santiago, the main characters of the book, walking through the street reminiscing about the time that they came in the summer that they came and they left the island of Puerto Rico, And they came in this boat, in this steamboat, I found that for that illustration, I could actually place the sidewalk…the sidewalk was gonna be the list of the steamships that arrived on the 6th of January of 1930 coming a list that says "Porto Rico" because it wasn't Puerto Rico back then. It was spelled "Porto Rico." And, you know, from San Lorenzo and from San Juan, there were steamships coming.

So I said this is…and for, you know, that's one example. For every single illustration, I found a piece, an article, something that could add another dimension to that picture. Almost like treasures that the careful reader will find perhaps in a second or third reading.

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How Rafi and Rosi were born

Rafi and Rosi and Rafi and Rosi: Carnival are books set in the island of Puerto Rico. They are 'I Can Read' books. They are beginning to read books. And this is another instance where I saw a need, and I went ahead and came up with something that could fill that need because I thought that there was a need of a beginning to read books that would be for the Spanish speaker about characters that actually speak Spanish and that live in a place where Spanish is spoken.

And that is how these books were born. They were first published in English, and I did both the Spanish version and the English version. The characters are tree frogs, but not any kind of tree frog, they are coquí tree frogs.

And if you are from the island of Puerto Rico, you know how beautiful the coquí tree frog sings and how that song is the lullaby to which you actually sleep at night and how difficult it is to sleep here in the states when you move to the states and you no longer have the lullaby of el coquí .

So the books were set in the island of Puerto Rico, but they're more about the relationship of a brother and a sister. And the Rafi is the older brother, the know-it-all brother. He knows everything about everything, and he loves to show off to his little sister, Rosi.

And Rosi is a very adoring little sister. She loves her older brother, but she has a mind of her own, and that's what I really like about Rosi because sometimes she teaches lessons to Rafi, and the lessons are very good lessons.

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Losing Alicia, finding Alicia

Alicia Afterimage was born from, again, my observation that there was a tremendous need for a book like this. And it happened…it happened in a very unusual way. When my daughter passed in 2004, I was…one of my first thoughts was how do I tell her sister?

It happened on a Friday evening. And the Saturday morning my second thought was how do I tell all her friends in the pom squad? How are they going to feel? And even immersed in grief, I was feeling for these kids and for the parents of these kids. What are they going to do when they find out?

So that was the very first thought that I had about is there anything out there for teens that lose a close friend? Three days later at the funeral mass I was struck by the hundreds of adolescents that were there of all socioeconomic backgrounds, of all ethnicities, of all shades.

And I wondered, "How did Alicia touch them? How are they going to go on?" So I started interviewing them. With their permission I recorded every single interview. And during these sessions in my very beautiful sunlit studio, I didn't take any notes. I was there as a mother. I cried with them, I laughed with them, we remembered, we had the most wonderful times just reminiscing.

And what happened was that my memories and their memories joined, and then they enlarged each other. And all of a sudden Alicia became…more for both of us than what she ever was for each one of us apart. And I learned through many months, because this interview lasted for more than a year and a half, and I interviewed 22 of her friends, I learned that teens have a very difficult time when they are grieving. I learned that they feel very isolated. They don't want to talk to the counselors because why would they know about what they're going through? They didn't know about Alicia. You know, they didn't know about their friend. Why would they know?

I learned that they won't talk to their parents because, of course, many of them…they don't want to worry their parents. They want to fit, they want to be normal. And it is very difficult to be normal, to go back to your SAT studies, your visits to colleges, your, you know, you have to do all these tests for the different seven periods that you have in high school.

And you still have to smile and be your normal self when you are internally going through a lot. So what happened in that studio was a marvelous thing.

They still visit me. It's just wonderful. I see in each one of my daughter's friends, a little bit of my own daughter. And that, I think, is a marvelous thing.

And I thank each one of these 22 teens that opened up to me and told me the most…the most personal feelings and what they were going through because they are now models in this book. Through their voices, other teens that unfortunately might have to go through a similar loss will have a book where they can see themselves.

They can recognize their feelings. They can see that "Oh, I feel exactly like Amanda. I can't talk to anyone. I can't really go back to my same…my same lunch group because it's too painful. I can't. I just…I feel like her."

Or no, "I feel like Chad. Now, all of a sudden, I feel closer to God because I do know of someone that I truly love that is with God right now." Or. "I feel like…like…like Lauren that back when it happened, she was so connected to Alicia, and she really believed in an afterlife. But now she doesn't anymore. She's lost all that. She doesn't know where Alicia has gone. For her there's a wall."

So, teens that are grieving will have models. And this… this is really, you know, thanks to these wonderful young people that open up their hearts and minds to me.

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Teen grief & Alicia Afterimage

I wish that a book like Alicia Afterimage would be in the hands of every single high school counselor because, for example, when a tragedy like this strikes a high school, and it happens all the time, there are 5,000 teens that die every single year just in car accidents. Five thousand.

Now, multiply, if every single teen has, let's say, ten friends, how many people are grieving. And, of course, we are not talking about the parents and the family and the relatives. So, what a book like Alicia Afterimage can do, what literature like this can do is to give the teacher, the English teacher, that the day after tragedy strikes, doesn't know what to do with her 25 students in the classroom, a tool.

"OK, class, we're going to open up this book. We're going to read a chapter. And let's start a discussion. Do you feel," after the class has read this chapter, "Do you feel like anybody here? Or do you feel different? Would you like to write about it?" At least there is a way to start a discussion.

Oftentimes I think as teens have a difficulty talking about what they're feeling because they don't think anybody can understand. And this might prompt them to…to see that others have gone through it. So literature like this is needed.

I think that, at least I have felt in my experience, that here in the US, many people shy away from death. And I believe that death is part of life, and we need to talk about it. We need to talk about what happens when a friend dies? How do I cope with it? What happens when someone that I love dies? What happens when my child dies? How do I go on?

One of the things that I did was to welcome in my life anything and everything that could remotely help me. And that is one of the things that I welcome in my life was literature. I read a tremendous amount of books. Books that in my case helped me as a grieving mother.

And I found something very interesting. The books that help me the most were those that allowed me to believe that there was a way to go on, that healing was in the horizon if I chose to go towards it. And that brings me back to literature that would help the grieving teen.

You need to give them books that allow them to believe that they will heal, that life will be normal again, even if it's a different kind of normal, even if they don't have that loved one…physically anymore. But there is hope. They can always reestablish a new relationship with the past one.

And getting to that place, mind you, is hard, but you can get there. And if you…if books can help you through that, isn't that a marvelous thing?

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Excerpt from Alicia Afterimage

Hello, my name is Lulu Delacre, and I'm the author of this book, Alicia Afterimage. The book is not only the memoir of a young girl seen through her friends' eyes, but it's also an exploration in teen grief. And I'm going to read just a brief passage from the viewpoint of Mama at the end of the book.

"Two mourning doves splashed in the waterfall, and a tiny frog sunbathed on a lily pad. Mama sat on the weathered teak bench by the pond, under the Japanese maple tree, and took off her straw hat. A squirrel climbing up the papery bark of a river birch made her look up, and she breathed in the sweet scent of day lilies.

"These days, two months shy of the second anniversary of Alicia's death, Mama felt mostly proud and grateful. She was proud of being Alicia's mother. She believed Alicia had accomplished what she was supposed to in life. She hoped that as a result of Alicia's accident, many teenagers were now more careful on the road, and that the adults in their lives were more aware of the dangers of teen driving.

"Mama knew she was blessed with the love of family, friends, and total strangers who had helped her heal in a myriad of ways. She was grateful for Alicia's friends, who had so loved her daughter, and in whom she now saw bits and pieces of her. Mama was comforted by the certainty that there were still four members in her immediate family.

"The bond of love had never broken, so how could Alicia cease to be? And the driver, Mama had hugged him. He had woken from his coma convinced that he had walked Alicia to her front door, and delivered her home safely. He remembered her warm hug. Mama believed that Alicia had visited the driver in a dream.

"If Alicia could do that, release him, why shouldn't Mama? He was so young, inexperienced. A light breeze blew through the garden and the sound of the wind chimes brought back last Sunday morning."

Thank you.

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Excerpt from The Storyteller's Candle

Hello. My name is Lulu Delacre, and I would like to share with you a little bit of "The Storyteller's Candle/La velita de los cuentos.

"That evening, the family sat down to eat together. 'Bendito,' Mamá Nanita said with a sigh. 'How I miss the soft breeze of December nights on our little island.' 'Ahh,' said Tío Pedro, Santiago's father. 'I miss the delicious pasteles and the smell of roasting pork everywhere. I remember the parrandas and aguinaldos, when family and neighbors came to visit, sing, dance, and eat!" said Titi Maria, Santiago's mother, closing her eyes and humming."

"'El Dia de los Reyes, Three Kings' Day, was the best day of the year,' Santiago chimed in. 'Do the kings travel this far?' asked Hildamar. 'Will they come this year?'"

So I want to share with you now how, in illustrating this book, I extended the text by adding these bits of newspaper collaged that you see over the book. And the newspaper comes from an issue of The New York Times, of the sixth of January of 1930.

That's why you see this yellowish color. And I found this wonderful article that talks about the tradition of Three Kings' Day in the island of Puerto Rico.

It says, "According to a beautiful tradition here, it has been customary for centuries for children to place little baskets or boxes filled with greens in suitable places in their homes or out, and put into them messages to the wise men from the East, suggesting what toys they want on the morning of Kings' Day." And that's a tradition very cherished in Puerto Rico, and in Latin America. Thank you.

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Excerpt from Rafi and Rosi: Carnival

Hello. My name is Lulu Delacre and I will be reading from this book that I both wrote and illustrated, and the title is Rafi and Rosi: Carnival. And it is really about the sibling relationship between Rafi, who is the older brother, and the know-it-all brother, always showing off to his little sister, and Rosa, the adoring little sister. They're both tree frogs, coquís, from the island of Puerto Rico.

And in the story I'm gonna read you just very briefly from the very first story in this book that is titled "Queen for a Day." It is set, the book is set in Carnival in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and you know, in the story, Rosie wants Rafi to push on the swing, and Rafi's very busy, you know, he's an older brother, he has other things to do, and he's actually doing a mask for Carnival, so he doesn't have time to go, you know, swing his sister.

So, he goes and tells her, "Go find yourself an outfit. You can be the queen of this year's Carnival." And Rosie believes him. "So she went to the dress-up chest. She lifted out the pale green scarf, the hot-pink scarf, the sky-blue scarf, and the crown with red feathers. She tried them on. She skipped and twirled in front of the mirror. 'Hmm,' she said. 'Something is missing.'"

And you're going have to read the book to find out what it was. Thank you.

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"What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person ..." —

Carl Sagan