By Isabel Taswell
Today we’re pleased to welcome Joanna McClintick and Juana Medina to the WNDB blog to discuss their picture book ‘Twas the Night Before Pride, out since May 3, 2022!
Pride’s . . . a day that means “Together, we are strong!”
Joanna and Juana, this is the first book you have collaborated on. What was it like to work together on this book?
Joanna: I wanted this to be as much of a collaboration of queer artists and creatives as possible. We have never met in person, me and Juana. I had this idea that maybe we could show real LGBTQ+ people in the book to increase the learning about who was actually involved. When I got the first draft with the end papers you had made, which show so many real LGBTQ+ people, I cried. I remember seeing the first illustrated draft in June of the first pandemic year during the height of so much activism. Just getting it at that moment in time was amazing. Even though we didn’t talk directly it felt really collaborative.
Juana: Editors generally do a really good job of passing on the feedback and I try my best to incorporate it. This is the first book I have worked on that includes nonfiction, and because of the subject I was particularly committed to getting facts right. It was hard to do the illustrations, especially when it came to protests and riots. I didn’t want anything to feel belittled, sanitized, or curated in such a way that it would take away the honor and struggle that the LGBTQ+ community has gone through. My illustration style can be considered a little cartoon-like, but I wanted things to be taken seriously. For example, I wanted the kickline to represent the struggle. I’m sure they had fun doing it but I didn’t want it to lose its solemnity either. There were a lot of back-and-forths in trying to figure out the right tone to honor so many of our elders. I wanted to feel like I was making justice through this book.
Joanna: One thing I love about queer resistance is how fun it is: the camp and the ridiculousness and the satire and the vibe of being fabulous and out there as resistance. The kickline really happened, to my knowledge. It was actually one of the seeds for this book. When I learned about the kickline, I thought: “Kids need to know about this.”
Juana: And I think that’s a message we’ve learned in struggling in the LGBTQ+ community. There’s so much connectivity and so much power. All that vibrancy and all that tenacity was very clear for me. That’s what had to be represented because that’s what was very beautiful in Joanna’s lines throughout the book. I think that’s what’s kept us going in so many different ways.
This book follows the style of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore. Joanna, how did you know that this book would benefit from that style and rhyme scheme?
Joanna: I definitely didn’t know, but I always tease that Pride is the national holiday of Gaynation. Any national holiday deserves its own origin story and traditions. I grew up with Santa and I really associate ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas with that feeling of anticipation, of doing something great. And I love rhymes!
Juana: It’s not every day you get to rhyme the word “queer” in a children’s book. Kudos to Candlewick for taking it on, especially given that they also published ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.
Joanna, in addition to being an author, you are also a licensed social worker at the Lesbian, Gay, and Transgender Community Center in Manhattan. How has your work as a social worker informed your work on this book, which was originally written as a poem you hoped to share with your future child?
Joanna: I am trained as a social worker but right now I do more program management. There’s a teen and youth program at the LGBT Center where we do all kinds of community building. As a young queer, if you’re not financially independent, you’re pretty vulnerable. Right now I’m doing a lot of work to help people entering early adulthood to get meaningful and sustainable employment rather than unreliable gigs. I don’t really know how this informed the book other than that I love queer history and when I became an adult I was scandalized by how little I’d learned of this history and how mad I was about it.
‘Twas the Night Before Pride features important and complicated themes and instances of homophobia and transphobia throughout history. What was it like for each of you to explore these topics in a way that is accessible to a young audience? In what ways do you hope your book will inspire your young readers?
Juana: I think we often underestimate children’s abilities to deal with difficult subjects. We often label them as “inappropriate” or “difficult,” when in reality it’s adults’ fear or inability to figure out the appropriate language. I think Joanna did a particularly brilliant job with addressing these subjects succinctly and gracefully.
I have five-year-old twins who refuse to read anything where they identify my name on the cover, but they’ve asked me countless times to read this because it’s the first time they identified themselves within a book. When they saw me illustrating, they asked plenty of questions, but with the finished product they could finally see Stonewall and understand what happened and also ask, “Why couldn’t that person wear a dress? That is so stupid, Mami, can I say stupid?” I think thankfully the world is evolving in certain ways and we have the possibility with this book to shape and shift the conversation.
Joanna: For Christmas my three-year-old and I wrote a letter to Santa. He said, “Tell Santa I have a mom and dad.” I felt so sad that at three he thought, “I want Santa to know I have a straight family.” I’m not sure if that’s what it was but with this book it’s like, “Here we are, this is our history.” Books are so powerful; representation is so powerful. It is so important for young kids to be able to find themselves in classic narratives in order to affirm their experiences and identities.
I know children of LGBTQ+ parents are not necessarily LGBTQ+ themselves but I see them as culturally queer, so Pride is just as much for them as it is for LGBTQ+ people. Being part of an LGBTQ+ family isn’t just living in a house with three versus two bedrooms. It’s not neutral difference. You also must navigate the world of homophobia and transphobia as a child. I got to pick and take on homophobia, to an extent, by being secretive until I felt ready to take it on as a young adult. I don’t know about that experience from the perspective of a child of a queer family but I’m going to learn about it as a mom.
My wife and I have this gathering the day before Pride. I noticed the kids kept thinking it’s just a rainbow party—which it is, it’s really fun, but I felt like the resistance and the purpose was getting lost in the rainbows. I guess that’s what assimilation is. In a way, this is what our queer ancestors fought for: to be able to celebrate our queerness openly without it being the most subversive and dangerous thing you could do. But Pride can also be really overwhelming. I don’t want to act like this is a space where everyone feels comfortable. Juana, I love your first illustration. In every window you can see people putting up their flags and getting their hair done and holding up their outfits. This is what we do, this is how we get ready to go out there and be in the throes of it all. I have this fantasy of queer people reading this book to help orient their children to get ready for Pride.
The cast of illustrated characters in this book is very large. What was it like for you, Juana, to imagine each of the characters in the book? Are any of them based on people in your own life?
Juana: The characters came through a number of revisions as I listened to what Joanna was sharing through Candlewick and as I made sure to represent as many people as possible in a genuine way. For example, the mom that is more boyish than girly has a little red band in her hand. This is used as an amulet to grant protection and good luck in a lot of different areas of Mexico, particularly rural Mexico. I chose to depict one of the mothers as a Latine individual because of the strong lack of representation, paired with the pervasive homophobia. Also one of the shirts says “Ni una menos,” which speaks to the struggle of violence against women in Latin America. My hope is that queer people who rarely feel seen in their communities can find themselves represented and acknowledged in the pages of this book.
My family is a family through adoption and we never get to talk about that in children’s books. People often ask us who carried the babies. We both have carried them. I think the conversation has to shift and open up around adoption. Joanna and I had been wondering if one of the moms in the book should be shown pregnant in some of the images. I asked if it would be okay to represent the family as a family that came together through adoption. Joanna agreed but asked to make the adoption clear through the images. Looking into iconography and symbols became really helpful in my illustrations: one of the moms is wearing a shirt that has the international symbol for adoption, and I incorporated the colors of the Pride flag into the symbol specifically for LGBTQIA2+ adoption.
Some people have also asked me about a character that has a port in their arm. They wonder if it’s for diabetes or chemotherapy. I have two neighbors: one has diabetes and the other is going through chemotherapy. I wanted both of them to look into the book and to see themselves. I don’t have to write their medication. They can look at the book and say, “That’s me.” That to me is the superpower of books. You can start seeing details that give a little more information about who each character is and how they carry themself within the world. I just tried to represent a vast section of voices and show who we are as a community.
What do you hope, Juana, to convey to your readers through your art? And can you talk to us about your color scheme and its significance as it relates to Pride?
Juana: As a queer person growing up in Colombia, I never thought I’d get to write about this. It was inconceivable. So as much as I wrote it for kids, I wrote it for my young self and many others who never thought they’d be able to live their lives freely. I illustrated this very much as a healing process of sorts for all of that internalized homophobia. I hope that it shows a different reality and life for myself and the Latinx community. I think it’s important to tell stories where the language is not sanitized or curated to the point where we stop believing in the authenticity of the story but instead we dare to take on difficult conversations so that we can evolve.
I gave a lot of thought to the color scheme. Pride is a very colorful event from a visual standpoint, but at the same time I wanted to make sure that the colors didn’t feel unapproachable or oversaturated. I’ve worked with my art director, Maryellen Hanley, for over a decade now and the color palettes I’ve generally chosen are a lot more vivid, so she was surprised by the calmer tones. If I had gone for fully saturated colors I might have detracted the viewer from spending more time on each page. I also wanted to make sure the color palette would last no matter the era—1969 or 2002 or 2020—that it would be, in a sense, evergreen. I didn’t want it to feel historic because the struggle in a way is still present.
I thought illustrating this book would let me portray an authentic window, so I thought why not add in authentic characters like the dykes with bikes? I even looked at information to find out the phase of the moon on the night that the Stonewall Riots began to get the right orientation in the illustrations, and where the police were stationed so that I knew on which streets they entered the riots. I wanted that level of authenticity, whether children were aware of it or not, just so we knew we were accurately honoring those that took on this fight for us.
Do you think ‘Twas the Night Before Pride is in conversation with any other books? If so, which ones?
Juana: It’s in conversation with so many different books. A Snowy Day shows a similar experience of wonder, quietness, gentleness, and power. If You Come To Earth by Sophie Blackall is similarly trying to make sense of who we are as human beings.
Joanna pointed out that there are many books that deal with LGBTQ+ themes but so many of them are books that introduce kids with two moms or two dads, a single parent, or multiple parents, and then have no further plot. Or else, often many of these characters are depicted as animals rather than people. This makes it especially hard for children to find themselves fully represented. I believe there’s more that could help others empathize and realize queer families are not that different from heteronormative families: we all want to feel safe, to grow, to be healthy, and to have a wholesome life experience. I think ideally this book belongs in the canon of so many books that children look at and won’t be saved for the month of June but will be used throughout the year.
Joanna: Obviously there’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas but to me this feels like a marriage of that and The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin. I love the idea that the night before Pride we’re all getting ready to go to Pride. The Philharmonic Gets Dressed shows a kid-appropriate way of measuring what’s happening when you get ready for something.
Do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming kidlit?
Juana: I’m always looking forward to seeing what Raul the Third is working on. His work and him as a person—it’s fantastic!
Joanna: I’m loving Oge Mora’s books Saturday and Thank You, Omu. I also love anything that Christian Robinson has made and illustrated—another queer illustrator. I also want to use this opportunity to lift up queer kidlit authors that came before us, and couldn’t be out at the time. So Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola, Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, The Babysitter’s Club by Ann M. Martin, and George and Martha by James Marshall, to name a few. We’re not just here in June, but present in almost every kid’s library! When you read these titles with your kids, let them know that the person who wrote the book is part of the LGBTQ+ community. I wish I had known that some of my favorite books were written by fellow queer people when I was first reading! Many of these authors also appear in the end papers in the book, so I know both Juana and I both highly admire these groundbreaking queer kidlit authors.
What one question do you each wish people asked you more often, and how would you answer it?
Joanna: Ask me about the end papers! I have this hope that Jonathan Van Ness will find himself back there and tweet about it and just go nuts.
Juana: Sometimes I wish more people would ask me how to pronounce my name before giving it a try.
Isabel: How do you pronounce your name?
Juana: “Wanna,” like, “I wanna spend some time with you,” or “I wanna read more books.” Every semester I ask my students to pronounce their names and write them phonetically because we all want our names pronounced correctly.
Joanna McClintick is a debut children’s book author and a licensed social worker at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center in Manhattan. When she was dreaming about building her family, she wrote this poem to honor Pride’s history of resistance and imagined sharing it with her future child one day. It has become a tradition to read it at their annual brunch the day before the Pride March with family and friends. Joanna McClintick lives with her wife and child in Brooklyn.
Juana Medina is the author-illustrator of Juana & Lucas, which won the 2017 Pura Belpré Author Award; Juana & Lucas: Big Problemas; Juana & Lucas: Muchos Changes; and many other titles and has illustrated numerous picture books, including Smick! by Doreen Cronin and I’m a Baked Potato! by Elise Primavera. Born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia, Juana Medina now lives with her family in the Washington DC area.
Isabel Taswell (they/them) is an avid reader, writer, teacher, and learner based in New York City. They are committed to decolonizing education and believe in the power of children’s literature to affirm a child’s sense of self and commitment to community. Isabel received their B.A. in English-Psychology from Barnard College and their M.S. in Education from Bank Street College of Education. In their free time, Isabel enjoys climbing mountains, cooking meals, and jumping in puddles.