Last month just before residency at Antioch University I was paying my late fees at the public library’s website, when I came across the main page announcing New York Times Best Seller author/illustrator Yuyi Morales. Since I’m specializing in Writing for Young People, I got excited. When I saw that she was Latina, I got even more excited! And then when I saw that she not only wrote her latest book Niño Wrestles The World but also illustrated her book, I thought this is just crazy! I got to go see her speak. She was going to be speaking that night as a guest of the 18th annual Effie Lee Morris Lecture and the title of the lecture was “Creating Children’s Books: An Immigrant’s Story.”
I flipped through my planner, and I was thrilled to see that I had nothing planned for that night. So, I went and as she started to speak I realized I was meant to be there. As a writer I sometimes question if I’m a good enough writer. She took all my doubts away that afternoon because it’s not about if you are good, it’s about are you willing to stick with it to get good and are you willing to face your fears. Niño Wrestles The World is a children’s book exactly about that: facing your fears. She started by saying that when you write for children you don’t realize but everything you do as a child comes back to you in the creative process as an adult. Where she came from was a land of much color, magic, and endless stories from her family, despite living in poverty. Later she became engaged to an American, who lived in Mexico, and she explains that they had just had a child and wanted to come visit his parents who lived in the states, so she applied under the fiancé’s visa since she couldn’t get a tourist visa. She and her fiancé thought they would just be able to stay for a couple of weeks, and then they would be able to go back to Mexico, but the law said she had to stay for at least six months. She was devastated. Her fiancé went back to sell their things, they lost their jobs, and her family could not even come visit her and the newborn baby.
Her fiancé got a job, and they lived with her future in-laws for a while. She said she became a bit depressed, and she didn’t even speak English. Then her mother-in-law introduced her to the library. She had never seen so many beautiful, colorful, hardbound children’s books, and they were free to take home for a while! The library became her refuge, and the books became her and her baby’s best friends. She learned English through reading children’s books, and she thought to herself why can’t I make a book like this myself?
She did not have the financial resources or the time to go back to learn professionally, and so she said, “The cool thing about the library is that it has books that can teach you how to do exactly what you are looking for.” And that’s what she did. She taught herself to draw, to paint, to create. She explored different mediums, and year after year her English improved. Her baby grew, so she had a little extra time while he went to school, and her illustrations also improved. She joined a writing group (who she still keeps in touch with), and she also joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. SCBWI offered a grant one year, and her writer friends pushed her to apply. She sent in her illustrations and her story. She won.
I think she didn’t win that day she won the grant, or the day her first book got published, or even the day her last book went on the New York Times Best Seller list. She won the day she decided she was going to do something about her new circumstances and never gave up. Yuyi’s tips as an illustrator and writer were perseverance, practice everyday, use free resources that are available to you, and find yourself a good writer’s group.
Sometimes I think we do not give ourselves enough credit for how amazing we truly are. We go about our regular days juggling multiple activities that we wonder—how did we even finish our to do list? Crazier yet is when people have a lot on their plates and face difficult challenges that everyday, average people, do not have to face. I admire people who despite challenges never give up hope, never give up on their dreams, and work hard to achieve them, hardly complaining because they call themselves lucky just to be alive and create.