Part of the excitement of creating the exhibition Our Five Senses was having the opportunity to curate a show featuring living authors and illustrators. These artists can be found throughout the Free Library of Philadelphia's Special Collections. Illustrator Angela Dominguez is a well-known illustrator of children's books and a two-time recipient of the Pura Belpré Illustration Honor. Her debut middle grade novel, Stella Díaz Has Something To Say, was the winner of the SCBWI Sid Fleischman Award and was named an ALA Notable Children's Book of 2019. We recently sat down with Angela to chat about her work in the exhibition.
We're delighted with this exhibition because it gives us a chance to show off some of the artwork you donated to the Free Library of Philadelphia's Children's Literature Research Collection in 2015. In Maria Has a Little Llama / María Tenía una Llamita, you’ve taken a nursery rhyme from the 1830s—which has a very well-known tempo—and infused it with a new energy by transplanting Mary from Massachusetts to Peru (and renaming the title character Maria). You’ve also paired the English text with Spanish to create an immersive bilingual experience. What made you decide to relocate the story?
My need to impress really motivated the creation of this book. The project began as an assignment for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. As a pre-conference assignment, they wanted the illustrators to dummy out or create a mock-up of Mary Had A Little Lamb in a picture book format. At these conferences, there are a few people from publishing and as a new illustrator, I wanted to stand out.
However, I have to admit when I received the assignment, I was a little bored. I had no idea how to make it my own or separate it from the iconic images. Fortunately, I started researching lambs at my local library and found a picture of a llama in the mix. Llamas reminded me of Peru and then suddenly inspiration hit. With a Peruvian setting, I knew I could incorporate vibrant color, textiles, and impressive landscapes. That’s when I fell in love with the assignment. Fortunately, I had a publisher who felt the same way about my dummy and I was able to create Maria Had A Little Llama.
That is fascinating to hear, especially because the Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter of SCBWI recently organized a masterclass at the Free Library on that same topic. We hope reading this will inspire a local illustrator! The images of Maria feature her with a set of panpipes and at the end of the story she’s playing them with her friends and neighbors [editor’s note: The final artwork of this image is on display in Our Five Senses exhibition and can be viewed online in the Free Library's Digital Collections]. How much research did you have to do with Peruvian music to capture this moment in the story?
I was somewhat familiar with Peruvian music beforehand. My grandfather was a musician and inspired a love of instruments to my mom, who then passed that along to me. I don’t claim to be an expert in instruments, but I have an appreciation for the sounds they make. Photographs also helped with getting accurate shapes and details.
That's right! We learned a little about your grandfather in your 2017 picture book, Sing, Don't Cry. It's evident that you grew up with music because it's infused into so many of your books. Is there a soundtrack to your day? What music inspires you while you’re working?
It varies. When I’m working on a project, I like to create a playlist that follows me along the whole project. Part of it is that I like to create a beat for the story, but I’m also sort of superstitious and I don’t want to mess with the flow. For instance, with the book Let’s Go, Hugo!, I listened to the band Beirut nonstop. I could imagine Hugo’s footsteps matching the sound of the brass instruments. Lately, I have found that when I’m working on the final artwork, I like to listen to podcasts just to change it up.
The American Library Association gave Maria a Pura Belpré Honor for its positive portrayal of Latinx culture. As a Mexican-American woman, what does that mean to you?
It’s such a great honor. It’s like being accepted by family. A few of the award winners and I have even become friendly, like Monica Brown, Meg Medina, and Margarita Engle. I’m very grateful for the recognition. The award also helped put me on the map, especially to the school and library markets.
It feels a little strange talking about music with you because when we think of your artwork, the first thing that comes to mind is texture. You often infuse your images with layers of color and a tissue-like look. How do you create these vibrant pieces?
With Maria Had A Little Llama, I worked mostly with gouache, markers, ink, and colored pencil. At the time, I was inspired a bit by the illustrations in the book, Ladybug Girl. I wanted Maria to stand out with her red hat just like Lulu does with her Ladybug costume. The book also inspired me to create the wonderful watercolor marks, too. However, I also love texture and wanted to incorporate it. I did that by using the ink, markers, and colored pencils.
We've never made the connection between Lulu and Maria before. But now that you've told us, it's easy to see. What a fabulous tribute to David Soman. Thanks for this great conversation, Angela!
For more information on Dominguez's artwork housed by the Free Library, visit the Angela Dominguez Papers finding aid.
Our Five Senses is open now through November 2, Monday – Saturday, 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. For more information, please visit www.freelibrary.org/fivesenses.
Support for this exhibition has been generously provided by Independence Foundation and PNC. The Free Library of Philadelphia gratefully acknowledges additional contributions from individuals.