Duncan Tonatiuh: Creative process, migration, pre-Columbian & modern art

Ten years ago I was a young dad going back to school when I met artist Duncan Tonatiuh in class. We were both students at Parsons in New York. Duncan was then working on his thesis project and showing me some of what would become his signature style mixing the old with the new.  He also spoke of working with Mexicanos coming to NYC. You could get a sense back then that Duncan was focused, humble, super talented, and determined to tell these stories. So I was not surprised later when I started to see one, two, three, and so many picture books with stories about the people he knew in both homes; the US and Mexico. They served as a beautiful bridge, but they also exhibited an unmistakable pride and resistance that has spoken to so many children, teachers, librarians, and their families. Please enjoy this interview with the hard working and award winning author/illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh.

Robert Liu Trujillo: For the folks who are not familiar with your work, please tell our readers who you are and what you do.

Duncan Tonatiuth: My name is Duncan Tonatiuh. I am the author-illustrator of 7 books for children and I created the artwork for 2 picture books that other authors wrote. Some of my titles are Dear Primo, Pancho Rabbit, Separate Is Never Equal, Funny Bones and the Princess and the Warrior. Some of my books are fiction and some of them are non-fiction. My work deals a lot with Mexican and Mexican-American culture. My images draw a lot of inspiration from Pre-Columbian art.

RLT: When did you first identify as an artist or become comfortable being called an artist?

DT: I went to a very arts oriented high school. It was a supportive environment and it helped me realize that I wanted to pursuit a career in the arts. I wasn’t exactly sure what shape that career would take, but I knew that was the path I wanted to follow.

After high school I went to design school in New York City. Throughout my time in college I often did projects that related to my Mexican heritage. I developed my current illustration style while working on my senior thesis. I feel that that year my voice became more clear and my artwork more interesting. I considered myself an artist before that, but that year I felt more confident about it.

RLT: From the beginning you have both written and illustrated. Whats the process like for you when you get an idea for a book? 

DT: I usually write a rough draft first; an outline really. I always make little thumbnails next to the text. I try to think of what image I will put on each page and I always have in mind how I will break up the book. I revise the manuscript until I feel it is good enough to share with my editor. I would say that only about 1 out of 7 manuscripts I write eventually becomes a book.

After I interest my editor in a project and I receive his comments I’ll revise the manuscript. We send it back and forth like that many times. Once the manuscript needs less changes and it feels like it is close to being done I’ll do sketches for the entire book. Often, while I’m drawing the sketches I will go back to the text and revise it. For instance, if a drawing makes something in the text obvious I will cut those sentences out. Hopefully that makes the words and pictures flow better.

RLT: The first time you showed me a rough concept for what would become one of your first children’s books was in 2008. I was thrilled because I’d never seen artwork like yours remixing the traditional and the modern. Why is it important to you to explore Mexican culture and share it?

DT: I grew up in Mexico, but I came to the U.S. when I was a teenager to attend high school and college. The more time I spent in the U.S. the more I began and miss and appreciate things in Mexico that were always around me and that I took for granted; things like music, food, and traditions. I became more curious about Mexican art and also interested in issues that affect people of Mexican origin on both sides of the border.

While I was in college I volunteered at a worker’s center. I became friends with a Mixtec there. Mixtecs are an indigenous group from the southern part of Mexico. There is a large Mixtec community in New York. I decided to make my senior thesis about my friends journey to the U.S. and about the challenges he faced as an undocumented worker.

One of the first things I did when I began working on the project was go to my university’s library to look up Mixtec artwork. I found images of Mixtec codex from the 15th century. I was struck by the drawings flatness, geometry and repetition of color. I decided to draw the project in a similar style but I began collaging textures into the drawings with photoshop to try to make them feel more modern. I’ve been making art for my books that way since then. I want people, specially children of Mexican origin—in both the U.S. and Mexico—to feel proud and see that their culture is interesting and beautiful.

RLT: What do you think the publishing world is getting right in terms of representing Mexican, Latinx, Hispanic, Raza, or Indigenous kids and their families in books? What would you like to see them get better at?

DT: I think there good books out there. There are some great authors and illustrators making powerful work; Yuyi Morales, Xavier Garza, John Parra, Rafael Lopez, Meg Medina, Matt de la Peña, René Colato Laínez and Margarita Engle are just a few that come to mind. I wish there were more though. The amount of books by Latinxs or with a Latinx protagonist is still very small. I think that some publishers have tried to be receptive to the push for more diversity in children’s literature, but the percentage of books about people of color is very small still and does not reflect the variety of people that live in the U.S.

RLT: In both Dear Primo and Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote you talk about migration and the separation families deal with. In the past and today’s climate what are some of the questions or comments you hear from children about these topics?

DT: I think there is a lot of fear currently. Children notice the hostility towards immigrants and worry that they or their parents will be deported. Fortunately I’ve met a lot of teachers and librarians that do a great job making sure that school is safe space. One of the most powerful experiences I’ve had is when a group of 4th graders from Texas shared a multi-voice poem they made about their own border crossing experiences after they read Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote. Here is a link to it: https://youtu.be/aM6oQEVRyDc

RLT: Do you consider art in children’s books to be political? Why or why not?

DT: I think it is. All art is political to some degree. That doesn’t mean that all children’s books need to be about politics. But I do believe that authors and illustrators need to think about who they choose to represent and how they choose to represent them. Books can help children learn about people that are different than themselves –whether its religion, race, nationality, sexual preference or physical ability. If children learn about different kinds of people through books they are less likely to have prejudices towards them as adults.

RLT: I know you go back and forth between Mexico and the US, are there any experiences you’ve had living in multiple worlds that influence your work?

DT: I feel very lucky that I am both Mexican and American. I feel involved and at home in both countries. Hopefully the fact that I’ve been able to experience both countries from within and from the outside has helped me make art that is authentic and thoughtful.

RLT: What is new for you? Any last thoughts?

DT: I have a book for adults coming out this fall. It is kid friendly, but it is for adults. It will be published by Abrams Comic Arts. The book will fold out like an accordion, the way many Pre-Columbian codex did. The story is about a group of workers, some with papers and some with out, who decided to organize and protest the exploitative conditions at the restaurant where they worked. It is based on my senior thesis. I’m very excited that it is finally going to be published.

You can learn more about Duncan and support his work by visiting him at http://www.duncantonatiuh.com/ or following him on twitter at @DuncanTonatiuh


His most recent book is “The Princess and the Warrior”


ISBN: 978-1-4197-2130-4

Publisher: Abrams

Publication Date: September 2016