Rodolfo Montalvo is a Los Angeles-based children’s book illustrator with work published in both traditional print and digital media. His illustrated books include The Contagious Colors of Mumpley Middle School and The Amazing Wilmer Dooley (both written by Fowler Dewitt), and the picture book Dear Dragon by Josh Funk. Bye Land, Bye Sea will be his author-illustrator picture book debut. It was co-written with his wife and will be published by Roaring Brook Press in the winter of 2021. For more about him or his work, go to www.rodolfomontalvo.com or find him on Instagram @rodolfomon3.
As a picture book author-illustrator, Rodolfo Montalvo crafts his work with an eye for adventure and a natural sense of diversity. He uses art as a means of self-exploration, working to connect with his Mexican heritage, while at the same time emphasizing the importance of reaching out to other artists, sometimes across oceans. Taking inspiration from art, nature, and conversation, Montalvo strikes a balance between his personal art and his life as a working writer.
I interviewed him at Antioch University Los Angeles on December 13, 2018.
Adrien Kade Sdao: What inspires you? Are there any particular people who inspired you to illustrate or write children’s books in particular?
Rodolfo Montalvo: Not really. I think it took me a long time to find picture books as the work I wanted to do. Early on, I wanted to go into animation, and that was the plan for a long time. And then in college, by then—it’s a long story—at that time, computers were starting to take over animation. I prefer to work traditionally if I can. And so, as I saw the industry shifting to 3-D, I knew I didn’t want to work with computers a whole lot, so that kind of shifted me over to like, “Oh, I guess I could probably still paint backgrounds.” And so that was the idea, painting backgrounds for animation and illustration, but it wasn’t until the end of my college undergrad that I started meeting actual illustrators or people from the industry. Children’s book people didn’t come in until after college. That’s when I started going to SCBWI [Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators]. So, it took a long time to figure out in my mind what an illustrator was, even though I met some here and there. The idea of what it looked like or finding mentors in that specific field took forever.
I love to draw, and I was able to stick with it. That was probably the most amazing thing that has influenced my path, is somehow I just loved it enough to keep going with it
Growing up, or being an artist kid, was not super deep defined. I wish I had children’s book people, or “my uncle was a picture book artist.” That might have defined my decision to go into children’s books earlier. It could have been easier, not that I wanted an easy path, but had I known children’s books are the thing for me earlier on, maybe it would have been a quicker path, like I could have found my voice as a children’s book author and illustrator sooner.
And as far as inspiration, I’m a ’90s kid so there’s cartoons and robots and Ninja Turtles. All those classics. ThunderCats. I feel like I skipped over reading as a kid. I wasn’t much of a reader for sure. So, I missed out on a lot of picture books. Frog and Toad, that’s one of the only ones I remember, and John Scieszka’s [The True Story of the Three Little Pigs], that’s the other one. That was the one book where I read it, and I saw the pictures, and those were the first images where I thought to myself, “Oh, these are good drawings; I like looking at these.”
AKS: Is that Lane Smith who illustrated those?
RM: Yeah. Those were the only ones I remember looking at, but the cool thing now is that as an adult and someone working in children’s books, I get to read a bunch of the classics for the first time. After learning about children’s book illustration, after trying to write my own, everything looks different, right?
AKS: What other illustrators’ works do you like in particular?
RM: Carson Ellis. John Hendrix, who uses those letter forms as part of his composition. Comic book artists like Paul Pope; he’s amazing. Sydney Smith right now is doing amazing work; he’s cranking out book after book after book. But there’s a ton of people inside children’s books—and everywhere really. I love mid-century modern design, so like houses, chairs, whatever. It’s all like space and shapes and colors, right? Photography. I like black and white photography, a lot of things like that. But I didn’t grow up with artists in the family. So, somehow, I love to draw, and I was able to stick with it. That was probably the most amazing thing that has influenced my path, is somehow I just loved it enough to keep going with it.
AKS: It’s your passion. So, when you’re creating—you’re writing with your wife, you said—how do you get your ideas? What inspires your stories?
RM: A lot of them come out from sketchbooks. I love doing character designs. Ideally, I would start my days doing character designs. I need to get back to that, I haven’t done that in a while, but ideally that would be my perfect warm-up, like I’m just going to draw a character, monsters and whatever. I don’t even have to have a story for them yet, but I’m just gonna draw them.
AKS: So, the characters are the seed for you?
RM: Kind of. Sometimes. Or it can just be anything else. The story that we have on submission now was during a hike on this mountain by the beach. So there were these two things happening at the same time. Land and water.
AKS: What’s it called?
RM: Bye Land, Bye Sea. We were out on a hike, and as soon as I thought of it, I had to write it down. And I sat it down for a while because we were working on the [book] with the pig, but eventually we picked it up, and this year was the year that we kind of worked on it.
AKS: You have a lot of ideas but not all of them come to fruition, I’m sure.
RM: But I think if you write them down and you actually try them out, give them a shot, that’s the important thing. And the ones that are kind of working, y’know, you have to take them all the way.
AKS: Are there any adult books you’re reading right now?
RM: Right now, mostly I’m reading writing stuff, like scriptwriting stuff. I do read some novels here and there, like adventure or… In high school, even though I was not a reader, I read a lot of mystery novels. It was either art or “I’m gonna be an FBI agent!”
AKS: Both very worthy careers.
RM: Once I even got to meet an FBI agent. I had an interview by the door of their office because we weren’t allowed to go inside.
AKS: Wow, that’s a little scary.
RM: But, oh, so I’m back in school, and last semester I took a scriptwriting class on novel adaptations, and we read The Giver. And that was the first time I read it, probably because I missed out on all these books as a kid. And I’m like, “Oh, my god, this thing is amazing!” I love that book. I had never read something where it literally took me back to my childhood. It was amazing.
AKS: She’s a great author, Lois Lowry. I feel like with books that have some sort of message, the story always comes first but then you always have that underlying theme.
RM: So, there’s a ton of stuff that I didn’t catch up with.
AKS: I wanted to ask you about diversity and social justice aspects in your work. I know that at least with Dear Dragon, the main character is not white, he’s a little boy who’s a person of color. Do you think it’s important to include diversity or social justice aspects? How does that inform your work?
RM: That’s something that I’m just starting to consider more, to bring out in my work. Even though we’ve been writing for nearly ten years, trying out different picture books, social issues haven’t been ones that were our main topics or the type of story that we’re telling. Adventure is kind of my default; adventures and kids doing fun stuff like that.
AKS: We need those stories that are great adventures and great fun, just with different kinds of people.
RM: Yeah. I’m trying to figure out how to bring that into my work or my voice as an illustrator, as a writer. I still haven’t figured it out completely, but Bye Land, Bye Sea is kind of a little bit of that. I guess it indirectly speaks to some social issues.
I’m trying to discover or learn about Mexican culture through looking at Mexican folk art. I’m doing that because I feel disconnected [from] the Mexican culture because I grew up here, Mexican American, and so even though there’s this big culture in my veins, literally, there’s a disconnect.
AKS: So, it’s an ongoing process for you.
RM: Yeah, for sure. I mean I’ve never been super political or… really opinionated, obviously. I’ve always been the quiet guy in the room.
AKS: I can tell!
RM: So, I keep those things to myself mostly. It’s kind of growing out of myself, right? For example, some of the collage stuff that I’m doing now, I’m trying to make it more personal. I’m trying to discover or learn about Mexican culture through looking at Mexican folk art. I’m doing that because I feel disconnected [from] the Mexican culture because I grew up here, Mexican American, and so even though there’s this big culture in my veins, literally, there’s a disconnect. And so, I’m getting towards speaking about social issues. It feels like, for me, that’s like a big jump to make—to make big, bold statements—because I can barely say something about myself. And so, it’s a big jump for my comfort, I guess. But, y’know, I keep up with the news and things like that, what’s going on, and it’s hard to listen to. Maybe working on my sketchbook or talking with my wife, we’ll stumble upon something. It’ll be right there, and it’ll spark something, it’ll be bold and scary, maybe. I don’t know. We’ll see.
AKS: You definitely want it to come naturally.
RM: Yeah, if I were to say, “I’m going to write a political book, it’s about this,” it wouldn’t be honest.
AKS: We already talked a little bit about your creative process, but I wanted to get more into that. You said you like to work in the mornings. Do you have a certain time to write, or how do you find the time—to write or illustrate—and what’s your schedule like for that? And you’re in an MFA program too, so how does that all work?
If I’m not sketching on something, either notes or drawing, I’m not doing my job. It’s hard to keep it up. It’s discipline.
RM: Right now, it’s the MFA and writing and being on submission, hoping it works out so we can have the next project lined up. But as a freelancer, it’s tough. It’s up and down, up and down, project after project. And with school, it’s pretty busy. That’s a lot of work.
AKS: Do you have a set time every day that you just have for your own work?
RM: Well, right now, with being on submission, everything’s kind of at a halt a little bit. But if it weren’t, we’d be working on some dummies, working on revisions, and it would revolve around the school schedule. My wife, she’s the one who has the structured job, the nine-to-five, so when we work together on stories, it revolves around working on nights and weekends together. When we were in dummy mode—because we can’t get there all the time—but if we have a story we’re talking about, and we’re trying to get it to a certain point, then we’re definitely working nights and weekends. If we can, we take a whole weekend and go somewhere.
But you know, if I’m not sketching on something, either notes or drawing, I’m not doing my job. It’s hard to keep it up. It’s discipline. But right now, with MFA, almost everything is going through that. Although, the only reason we’re on submission now is because of that second semester, I dedicated some of the schoolwork to developing Bye Land, Bye Sea. So that helped us get that dummy done faster. But now this semester, my third semester, I’m kind of shifting things to a different place, so picture book stuff is gonna be definitely more on our own, and there’s other more experimental things for the MFA.
AKS: Can I ask what you’re gonna be working on?
RM: For MFA? I kind of mentioned a little bit, it’s an exploration of Mexican folklore. So ideally if Bye Land, Bye Sea happens, that’ll be work at home since it’s a picture book, and then school is this other body of work that’s different. Even though it’s actually filtering through my picture book point of view, because it is, I’m doing these drawings, these collages of woodcut—those figurines, those really colorful ones—there’s a big sense of wonder to them.
They can be very childlike. So, it’s kind of its own thing, but because I write children’s books, and it’s what I’m going to keep doing, whatever I do is kind of filtering through that point of view, which is cool. I like that.
AKS: Are there any picture book authors who are Mexican or Mexican American that you particularly admire? You had Yuyi Morales, one of her books. Anyone else?
RM: Yeah, she’s one. [John Parra] also does very Mexican themed books, like Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos. I met him, he’s pretty cool. His stuff is amazing, and it’s all traditional. He tapes off every shape and paints it, and tapes off another piece and paints it, and it’s really tedious. And there’s another guy, Duncan Tonatiuh. He’s doing some cool stuff, too. He’s way more in touch with the Mexican culture than anything I do. So, I look at people like all three of them and say, “How can I shape myself in that direction and make it also mine?”
AKS: I love his illustrations. They’re amazing. And I know that he does some like general picture books and some that are more like folktales. Would you ever do a folktale picture book?
RM: Yeah, I guess it depends on the story, but sure. A lot of the ideas that rise up are from René.
AKS: Have you ever had writer’s block or artist’s block? How did you deal with it?
RM: Yeah, that probably happens all the time, but I guess if you want to call yourself a professional, you have to just get over it and start putting your pen to the paper. I don’t know, I guess I don’t think it ever happened like, “Aah, I can’t do anything,” and a whole week goes by. Well, no, that’s not true, that’s happened. I mean sometimes you get, especially as a freelancer, when you’re at home all the time.
AKS: Discipline, like you said.
RM: Yeah, you always have to go back to discipline. “Ok, you’re not doing your job, what’s going on?”
AKS: Right, because it is your job, even though you’re at home, this is your job.
RM: It happens, and you have to get out of it and just find something. Maybe that’s part of why I’m back in school. I’ve always been good with structure, so being back in school gives me a certain amount of structure. Aside from all the other stuff, getting feedback. I essentially doubled the amount of people who get to see my work, and we get to bounce ideas off each other, and all that stuff, right? But there’s a space that, y’know, it’s a job too. Deadlines, things like that. Which is good, I mean, I like it.
AKS: I’ve found the structure really helpful too.
RM: If you wanna keep doing the things you like, well, I guess school is a place where you can keep doing the things you like.
AKS: I did have one more question, which was: do you have any more advice for working writers? I know you said discipline, but is there anything else?
RM: Meeting with people and finding that group or groups that can help you along. School’s this place where you get to do what you like. Deadlines work. You can give each other deadlines. It’s another space where you keep going, meeting people, finding mentors, reaching out to professionals, and saying, “Hey, can I talk to you about this.” Or do interviews. You’re in school right now, so am I. I mean, I’ve actually talked to Marla Frazee, and I see her at the conferences, and she’s around our circles, so I see her often, but I wanted to do a more formal interview and talk to her and share dummies with her, and get her feedback. So, we’ve been emailing, but she’s always busy.
AKS: She’s a big name.
RM: She’s always busy, and so I think it’ll happen eventually, but I think it’s a good idea to reach out to people even if they’re big names like Marla Frazee. Just say, “Hey, I’m in school, I’m doing this project, I’m working on this. Can I talk to you for like 15 minutes?” An illustrator, Lisbeth Zwerger—do you know her? She’s Austrian or German, and she just illustrated one of J.K. Rowling’s newest books. She’s huge, she won the Hans Christien Anderson Award. Well, when I was in my undergrad, we had to interview someone, and my wife knows that I liked her work a lot, and she was like, “You should just call her!” I was like “Okay! Sure.” And she gets on the computer, and she finds a phone number for [Zwerger’s] house, maybe, or her studio, I don’t know, and I punch it in. My wife speaks a little German, and she says, “Tell her this, do you speak English?” I said it in German, and she was like, “Yes.” And it was her. It was Lisbeth Zwerger, and I got to talk to her. She couldn’t talk that very moment. I told her I was doing an interview for school. “I’m way in California, I love your work. Can I talk to you for like ten minutes?” And she’s like, “Not today, but let’s set it up some other time.” And yeah, I got to talk to her. It was amazing. It was really cool.
AKS: So, you’ve reached out and made a lot of good connections.
RM: In children’s books, almost everyone you meet is amazing or fantastic and caring and fabulous.
AKS: Yes, that’s been my experience too.
RM: So, you can reach out. I have another person who I wanted to reach out to, but then they happened to win the Caldecott. It’s like, “Oh, no!”
AKS: You’re never gonna get to talk to them.
RM: It’s going to be a year or two before I can have him for ten minutes. And it was actually for another school project. It was a professional artist skills class, and we had to do an interview. He was on my list, and he was the one I was gonna reach out to, and then the week after that was when they announced the awards. If I had sent my email before that week or something, maybe I could’ve still gotten him. And I still could’ve tried even after they announced that he won, but…
AKS: He was probably getting a lot of those emails.
RM: He didn’t need some illustrator student following him around. He just got this award. I’m sure it gets pretty nuts after that.
AKS: I can’t even imagine. Well, hopefully one day you’ll know how it feels to win the Caldecott. That’s the dream.
RM: That would be nice, but how about let’s build a career first and stay there for a bit. Let’s make Bye Land, Bye Sea happen first.