To celebrate my interview with illustrator John Parra I’m giving away a signed copy of his newest book, GREEN IS A CHILE PEPPER. I am such a sucker for color concept books and this one is MAGIC! It is beautiful, it has heart, and it invites readers to SEE the world, to look, to feel, to listen, to smell, to taste, and to have fun! Roseanne Greenfield Thong’s simple verse is sprinkled with Spanish, which absolutely enriches the experience of reading this book. GREEN IS A CHILE PEPPER will call to all your senses and will be wonderful to share in a classroom, a library, or on a lap.
John Parra is an award winning illustrator best known for his illustrated Latino themed children’s books, Gracias / Thanks and Waiting for the Biblioburro. His books have won him The Golden Kite Award from The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and The Pura Belpré Honor’s Award from The American Library Association.
I first picked his books up at the SCBWI Summer Conference. I kinda fell in love with his art–I bought GRACIAS/THANKS and MY NAME IS GABRIELA. I knew John would be signing books at the autograph party at the end of the conference, but I wasn’t going to be able to stay. So even though I don’t illustrate my books I went to one of his workshops. He talked about his inspiration and his illustration process. He shared cool pictures from his childhood. It was one of those great moments in life when you KNOW you are in the right place, doing the right thing, and you KNOW why something affected you the way it did.
About two minutes into the workshop he started talking about one of the biggest influences on his art: growing up in Santa Barbara. He shared pictures of Old Spanish Days, Piñatas, and lights strung from trees. Santa Barbara is my city, you guys. It is color. It is home. It inspires me too.
After his presentation I chatted John up and got him to sign some books for my students in Santa Barbara (back then I was teaching elementary school). Now, whenever I go into schools to teach writing I still share them. He was incredibly encouraging to me, as a writer. Since then I’ve sold my first picture book manuscript and hope there will be many more to come. I think the SCBWI and John Parra had a little bit to do with my process, my inspiration, and my success. So, gracias/thanks and welcome, John!
ROBIN: Well, I have a bunch of your books, not just Green is a Chile Pepper and what I love about all of them is the visual peek you give inside the characters, not just into their bustling lives and houses and families, but into their busy minds and hearts. All your spreads are jam packed with details and they make me wonder, when you create your art is it like a story? Do you know where everyone is going and why all those little details are there?
JOHN: Much of my art is inspired by my childhood growing up in Santa Barbara. One of my inspirations and favorite places to visit as a kid was the Natural History Museum. I loved all the nature dioramas with their detailed environments. Within each display you could find multiple levels of biodiversity to examine, from large mammals, to small birds and insects, and even plants and flora all set to a beautifully painted backdrop mural. I often think of my paintings as one of these dioramas. We live in a world that has so many levels that exist all around us, interconnecting at all times. There are stories and life in these details and that is what I want to show.*
ROBIN: When you go into schools what do kids always ask you about this book (or about your art in general), and what do you love telling them that they never ask?
JOHN: The most frequent question I get is: “Where do your ideas come from?” I gladly tell them that many ideas for my art come from my family, music, food, travel, museums, paintings, gardens, people watching, hiking, old movies, animals, and nature, but one of the most important influences comes from reading, because reading always inspires me to think visually and creatively. It is a successful recipe for creating good art and ideas.
The question I don’t usually get asked, that I think is important, is: “How long does it take to create the art for a children’s book?” to which the kids usually respond “TWO DAYS!” or there about. They are always a little shocked when I tell them it’s closer to seven to nine months of hard work in my studio.
ROBIN: This book is about color, which I’m such a sucker for; when you were creating the art did you start seeing colors around you in a different way or do you always pay attention to color?
JOHN: I’m not sure if I started seeing colors differently while working on Green is the Chile Pepper but I did have to approach my work in a alternate way. As an artist I tend to l use colors from a wide and diverse spectrum. Since each page in this book had a thematic color assigned to it I wanted to keep the focus as much as possible on that one color. One way to do that was to devise a very narrow color palate scheme for every spread, to complement the main color and help promote its significance. Then I searched to find items and images, associated with that color, to incorporate into the image. One example I used for inspiration regarding a color connection had to do with orange. A favorite TV episode growing up during Halloween was special titled: Peanuts: It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown. There is a scene with a field of pumpkins that I just had to incorporate in that orange, Dia de los Muertos Parade spread. Other color items ideas came from my home, journeys and research.
ROBIN: Do you have a special color you remember from being a kid? (I had a big purple umbrella and since I’m from SB too you know I hardly ever got to use it… but when I did. Oh, PURPLE—I can hear the patter of raindrops on purple now!)
JOHN: Green was my favorite color when I was young (still is). I would find it everywhere, in nature and at home. I use to love to use green when I drew with my big box of Crayola crayons. There was even a restaurant in Solvang, CA called Pea Soup Anderson that would specifically give kids green crayons based on their famous green pea soup. Another reason was I use to also watch a show called Super-Friends on Saturday morning and two of the superheroes I admired the most had green in their names: Green Lantern and Green Arrow. Yep, GREEN was definitely a big influence.
Parents & teachers interested in activities to go along with GREEN IS A CHILE PEPPER can hop over to my author site!
*So, for you guys at home, when I read this answer—John and I were emailing—it was another one of THOSE moments. I went to the Natural History Museum EVERY DAY after school (I snuck in the back—don’t tell) to look at those same dioramas, and now I go a couple times a week with my kids (we go in the front door). My first book is about butterflies, and horn sharks, and a bunch of other animals, and it absolutely started at the museum. I still get inspired there. Right now I’m working on something inspired by these two little guys. They’re spotted skunks. They can do handstands. FOR REAL!*
Here is a little peek inside John’s books: