Thursday, August 6, 2020

Q&A with Victor Hinojosa, Coert Voorhees, and Susan Guevara

Victor Hinojosa and Coert Voorhees are the authors and Susan Guevara is the illustrator of the new children's picture book A Journey Toward Hope. It focuses on four unaccompanied children who journey to the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for A Journey Toward Hope, and for your characters Nando, Laura, Alessandra, and Rodrigo?

VH: This came from a course I teach at Baylor University about the Central American refugee crisis. My students wanted to tell the story of these children, firmly believing that if others knew what they knew about the crisis, they would want to get involved and help. Coert caught the vision and the result has been a remarkable partnership and a book we are really excited about.

CV: It was really hard to synthesize everything into 17 spreads of a picture book, so we set up some parameters based on the story that Victor and his students wanted to tell and the information that they wanted to convey.

We said, OK, we need to have a character from each of the countries that make up the Northern Triangle: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. We want a brother and sister who travel together. We want an older boy who’s being recruited by gangs and has to leave to protect himself and his family.

And because some of the children on this journey don’t speak Spanish very well, may speak an indigenous language, we needed to represent that as well.

Victor Hinojosa
The characters grew as we collaborated. Mostly via email, text, phone, and Skype visits with Victor’s class, though I also made the short trip from Houston to Waco to meet Victor and his students in person.

Once the brilliant artist Susan Guevara came onboard, she joined in the Skype visits from New Mexico.

Q: What inspired the book's illustrations?

SG: It’s my job as the illustrator to “flesh” out the visual world of a story. To do that I need to walk within that world as best I can; beginning with my emotional connection to the story, the theme, the characters. I need to feel it in my bones.

Next, I begin research. In every possible way, I study the landscape (physical, cultural, political, historical) of that story. I draw as I research; doodle one might even say. I trust a little mark, a bit of content, that feels right. The final editor is my gut—supported by research and reason.

My research for A Journey Toward Hope began with nine consecutive hours of news video showing and interviewing those making the journey. The effect was mind-numbing and, after many tears, drove me to find some way to depict the hope those journeyers hold so persistently.

I’ve experienced unseen helpers in many forms: some call helpers guides, ancestors or even elementals. I’ve come to think of them as Life Essence. The Life Essence of all things.

Sometimes I imagine the essence in the shape of animals or ancestors, sometimes it is just felt-sense. It’s a force that is usually born out of time spent in nature.

I chose to give helpers to our book characters in the form of animal beings; not to depict the animals as real, but as their essence to show certain personality characteristics of each child. Each animal has its own strength, its own action symbolizing hope.

As I do feel this kind of support in my own life, representing the strength and hope of our book characters in this way was the most personal expression I could offer. I’m grateful for what these children making this journey have taught me.

Q: What do you hope children take away from this book?

Coert Voorhees
CV: To those young readers, I would say: Remember that the children making this journey are just like you.

They have people who love them and desperately want to see them again. They have dreams for the future. They get cold in the winter and hot in the summer, and they have favorite songs they like to sing, and there are smells that make them think of home.

Imagine yourself in their situation, and then ask yourself what think of what might be helpful to you if you were in their shoes.

SG: I hope children take many things from this book: knowledge of others, awe at the courage it takes others to make this trip, wonderment, perhaps hope, that all life is valued, theirs and others.

I hope educators will take the opportunity to set the history of immigration, especially Latinx immigration in context.

I hope they will teach the critical role immigration has often played, as in the Bracero program instituted in 1942 by the United States government to help build the economy of this country.

I hope they will teach the history of asylum in the U.S. and encourage their students to research their own heritage, discover their ancestors’ origins, why they immigrated here, why some children have ancestors that have been here as First Peoples.

The book offers an opportunity for us to know ourselves, our histories, to share those with each other and recognize our similarities.

Q: What do you see looking ahead for people facing situations similar to your characters' situations?

VH: So many children and families are facing dilemmas just like those faced by our characters and unfortunately years-long drought in some areas and now the COVID-19 pandemic is making all of this so much more difficult. 

Susan Guevara, photo by Norman Mauskopf
CV: There was a lot of uncertainty around this issue already, and I imagine that the pandemic is only going to exacerbate the issues that have led to migration up to this point.

I will say that inasmuch as people here in the U.S. can affect the outcome, I hope that we make decisions based on empathy and our shared humanity rather than based fear and demagoguery.

SG: The light shines brightest in the dark. We have the opportunity for significant change in this country. We have to see that change internally in order to create it externally. These courageous journeyers of all ages have envisioned the opportunity for a better life.

I hope we’ll take their lead, envision a better life for all of us and create it in the way best suited to our individual talents and drive.

I love the premise on which the architect and designer, William McDonough begins all his projects and find it a good principle for life in general: “How do we love all children, of all species, for all time.”

Q: What are you working on now?

VH: We are working hard to better understand the Central American migration crisis. We have several academic projects in the works and we are working to establish partnerships with universities in Central America.  

CV: I’m working on a chapter book series about climate change, extreme weather, and sustainability. I’m also really excited about a middle grade adventure novel that I keep finding myself coming back to.

As for Six Foot Press, our next picture book, Love Is Love by Fleur Pierets and illustrated by Fatinha Ramos, comes out in November.

Love Is Love is the sequel to Love Around the World (2020 ALA Rainbow Book List) and follows Fleur and her partner Julian as they get married in 16 more countries that recognize same-sex unions.

SG: My current project is a small bas relief sculpture slated to be placed near a 28’ high by 22’ wide  “green” wall that I helped to plant and maintain for several years in Walnut Creek, California.

The work shows anthropomorphized bugs and birds, flowers and vines, as participants of “A Green Portal,” a block-long ecosystem of beauty that includes the living wall, a green roof, and a sidewalk lined on both sides with overflowing beds of color and fragrance.

Q: Anything else we should know?

VH and CV: We’ve had readers grumble a bit about where we end the book because they want to know what happens to the characters next.

As a storyteller, that’s the best thing to hear, but for this project, we ended it where we did because a lot of what happens next is really up to US, the people of the United States. What happens next depends on the programs and policies we support and the change we’re willing to effect.

And we need to continue fighting to make this country a place worthy of the hopes and dreams of children like Laura, Nando, Rodrigo, and Alessandra.

Check out and to learn more.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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