Developing Bilingual Children’s Books with Oaxaca’s Artisans
by Cynthia Weill, member of the Bank Street Writers Lab
I’m a writer and producer of bilingual children’s concept books. The artwork for my books is commissioned and handmade by rural artisans in Oaxaca, Mexico. Oaxaca is famous for its beautiful crafts. Creating the artisanal work for these books can take from two to four years. Often deep friendships form with the artisans and their families.
My first stop this summer was the Field Museum of Chicago. The Field Museum is slowly acquiring the art from my books for its permanent collection. Jenny Brown, Director of the Bank Street Center for Children’s Literature, suggested giving a talk at the museum to members of the American Library Association in Chicago for its semi-annual meeting. The museum kindly agreed to pull out of storage the ceramic figures from my latest book Count Me In! Mexican Folk Art Numbers in Spanish and English for the guests to view. These pieces were created by “Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art,” the Aguilar sisters, specifically for this book. It was the first time the sisters have ever collaborated on a project. The pieces represent a parade which takes place before the Guelaguetza, a festival celebrating the region’s dance and music. My talk centered on our intercultural collaboration, process and significance of each figure.
After my time in Chicago, I headed to Oaxaca. First stop, the Fuentes family of San Martin Tilcajete. I’ve been working with Rubí and Efrain for two years now. They have been carving and painting 30 figures for an upcoming book on bilingual animal sounds. Rubí is a meticulous painter. It is hard for her to stay focused with four young children seeking her attention. However, she produced some lovely pieces. I brought some little toys and games to keep the children occupied so that their parents could work. It kind of backfired. Dad got really involved in the bubble blowing.
Next, I visited brothers Martin and Quirino Santiago. The Santiago brothers produced the artwork for Opuestos: Mexican Folk Art Opposites in English and Spanish (Cinco Puntos 2010). The Santiago brothers live high in the Sierra Norte. They make little wooden animals from the flowering jacaranda tree and paint them with natural dyes. They make fanciful carvings but also get inspiration from the world around them. A family member helped me to make a video of Martin’s process, which I will use to promote Opuestos.
During the week, I met with Jesus (Chucho) Canseco, to look at the proof of our upcoming book, My Skeleton Family (Cinco Puntos 2013). Chucho handmade each of the little skeletons in the book from paper maché. The skeleton in Mexico is a beloved and humorous symbol. I was delighted to tell Chucho that the book had been designated by the Junior Library Guild as a fall selection.
I also worked closely with artisan Moisés Ruiz throughout my stay. Moisés makes amazing figures out of totomoxtle or corn husk. We are creating a book on clothing. While in Oaxaca, Moisés showed me how he made his figures so that I could understand his process.
Throughout my stay, I visited with ceramist, Guillermina Aguilar. We worked on a new children’s book about her life and process. She and the photographer really bonded.
Now back in New York, I’m relieved to report that all of the pieces made for upcoming books have arrived safe and sound. They are settling in around my apartment, waiting to be photographed for the next volume.
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