Photo Courtesy of Yuyi Morales
For someone who didn’t think of herself as an illustrator growing up, Yuyi Morales sure has done well for herself.
“I used to think people that could draw had to be born when the stars aligned, or marked somehow,” Morales stated.
A celebrated and autodidactic illustrator and writer, Morales has won many awards, including the Pura Belpre Medal and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for her illustration in “Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez.”
Her most recent book, the self-illustrated “Viva Frida,” which commemorates the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, was named as one of the 2015 Caldecott Medal Honor Books, which annually recognizes the preceding year’s most distinguished American picture books for children.
Morales took time to visit the UTSA Downtown Campus and give a presentation for the UTSA College of Education and Human Development titled “The Power of Story in the Landscape of Memory and Identity.” She shared many personal stories that have influenced her work as an author and illustrator.
Morales started her discussion on how she came to start drawing. “I used to hide in my room and draw my own face while staring at myself in the mirror because I was too shy to ask someone else if I could copy their face,” she laughed. “I think creation is a very personal and intimate thing; whether it be a drawing, plans for a class or a recipe.”
Morales fascination with drawing dwindled as a teenager, her attentions directed elsewhere, or as Morales explained, “mainly towards boys.”
Morales returned to her hobby after her son was born. It was during that time that she also immigrated from Mexico to the U.S. and formed a new life.
Morales found that a new country was like a blank space. She had trouble adjusting to a culture absent of her family, friends, familiar foods and native language.
“All immigrants go through this,” Morales explained. “But since you already lost everything that is familiar, there is nothing left to lose and then the space becomes a blank canvas, or a page for you to start again.”
When Morales mother-in-law brought her to the children’s section of the library, she had no idea it would be a place that would change her life forever. “I didn’t know this existed,” Morales exclaimed. “Mexico didn’t have children’s books that contained words and works of art.”
Explaining her early and lasting fascination with children’s books, Morales stated, “Children’s books don’t use any extra language, only what is needed to communicate with children; so much so that I, who was learning English through ‘Sesame Street,’ understood a few words. It was the pictures that helped me understand the stories. It was then that I realized that I, too, had stories to tell. That is what we bring to other countries: a backpack full of fears, dreams and treasures.”
Morales started submitting her works to publishers, who found her work refreshing and new. Her published books, such as “Ladder to the Moon,” “Georgia in Hawaii,” “Little Night,” “Just in Case,” “Los Gatos Black on Halloween” and “Nino Wrestles the World,” all contain original work done by Morales, with each work gaining inspiration from many places, including her grandmother, mother and sisters.
One of Morales’s favorite books that she wrote, “Los Gatos Black on Halloween,” is all of her childhood fears put into a book.
“This is what happens when you give a Latino a Halloween book,” Morales laughed. “People think The Day of the Dead and Halloween are very similar, but when I would see chainsaws, blood and things hanging from trees, I was scared. But it made me realize that it is okay to celebrate things we are afraid of.”
The stars may not have aligned when Morales was born, but she knows she possesses something much better than luck. “I found something much more powerful,” Morales said, “the ability to move imaginations through words and pictures.”