By Suniti Srinivasan
Today we’re pleased to welcome Joe Cepeda to the WNDB blog to discuss picture book Rafa Counts on Papá, out since May 3, 2022!
For fans of Guess How Much I Love You? and Just Me and My Dad comes a heartwarming story perfect for Father’s Day about a son and his papá who love to measure everything, including their love for each other.
Rafa and his papá love to count and measure together. They know how many branches they climb to their favorite spot, they know how high their dog Euclid can jump, and they know how far they can run. But there’s one thing Rafa can’t count or measure because it is infinite: the love that he and his papá share.
Pura Belpré Honor illustrator and author Joe Cepeda celebrates curiosity and shows the tender and playful relationship between father and son on every inch of the page. With a subtle nod to introducing concepts, from real objects to the abstract, readers feel the immeasurable love of this Latinx family as Papá delights in spending time with Rafa.
I identify that you seem to illustrate many books relating to family/family bonds. Is there some connection between family members that appeals to you and connects with your illustration style?
I definitely think that’s a fair assumption. I definitely think most of my career has been illustrating other people’s manuscripts, so I imagine those editors saw something similar to what you saw and sent me those kinds of stories and it is definitely something that I am doing in the latter part of my career. I think the very first story I wrote years ago,” The swing” or “Rafa comes to papa” or the one I just wrote are all backyard stories. So I guess it’s set around family dynamics and/or bonds.
What appeals to you about these family bonds?
Oh…without delving too deep into personal psychology, I think we normally write what we know more about or what we long for too. So, things in reaction to the way I grew up but also about the families I am creating. Rafa Counts on Papa was initially about a boy and his dad who love math, science, and to count, but as I wrote it I realized, you know, Rafa is the main character but the book was about the dad as much as anything at least for me and that kind of revealed the kind of dad I want to be. Even though the dad really doesn’t say anything in the book, that’s the kind of dad I want to be.
So do you identify more with the father or son or mix of both?
It’s probably a mix of both. But I think I started identifying more with the dad since I have been a dad for 24 years and I just can’t help but yearn for those days when my boy was small and young. The curiosity for a young child can be a whole world and I think that’s what Rafa is kind of about.
In a way, were you kind of missing the awe in the child phase?
I think that’s fair to say. I think we all as children have that sense of awe and curiosity but many of us grow up in situations that aren’t necessarily wide open [in a way] that many people grow up with, limitations of one sort or the other or in a household that is different than the one we might have imagined or whatever, right? So yeah, there is some part of me wanting to paint the perfect world of a father and son in here and some of it is based on the things that I like and some of it, as you say, is trying to create that world.
That’s very cool! I feel like a lot of authors, whether it be through picture books or chapter books, they either paint a character that’s an idealistic version of themself or an idealistic version of the life they wanted.
Yeah! That makes sense.
There seems to be a bright and colorful palette throughout the book; was this used to make the text more positive and was there a happy family vibe that you were trying to portray?
You know, maybe at a very subliminal level. It just seems to me that color is a very responsive activity; I don’t do any color studies, I just usually paint, like, in a reactionary mode. So color just ends up being a pretty wild gamut, if you will.
I still think you did a great job whether that’s your specialty or not, because whether it’s your artistic style, you amplified a lot of meanings behind this book with that, especially for me. I loved how you captured “That is how I love you” at the end of the book with that single kiss on the forehead. I felt like it kind of hit me differently, in a sense.
Yea, maybe you are right, Suniti, in that there is obviously the build up of Rafa asking how much you love me, how much, how much…it’s what every kid wants and so I imagine the color and the drawing sort of get caught up in that slow world to a resolution. So I probably was like that, the pictures got busier and busier, if you will. I mean, it was a busy world and of course there were lot of objects to count that I kept putting in; that’s part of the fun and games of this particular picture book. In a visual sense from the beginning of the book it was about two people who loved to count that I couldn’t stop counting myself. As I was painting I realized someone could count how many slats are on my fence, or how many oranges are on my tree, how many flowers are sticking out on the cement, etc. So it sort of became a wonderful dance of objects and color that probably culminated with what I hope is a satisfying and peaceful resolution.
Do you feel like you wrote the book to reflect how society progresses, in a way, where it starts out really simple and then more and more questions come up as we go until there is something that’s unquestionable?
You know, that’s pretty perceptive! In a sense, it does. We start out at counting or relying on things that are at hand in your immediate world, but Rafa and his dad eventually step outside into their yard and look into the sky and wonder about counting that or, as you say, the uncountable. Yeah, that’s growing up. This is really what the story for me is all about at a very elemental level where I talked about, I wanted the dad [to be what] I hope I was as a dad, or for dads that they create a space for their children whoever they want to be. They literally go on a limb to let them know they are in a safe place, and they can count the unimaginable that a dad in this particular book sort of sets up for them. Whatever you want to be, whoever you want to be, we are going to help you get there.
So I guess in a sense, the measuring was like a motif where you envisioned how you were as a dad and how you hope other dads are?
Yea that’s it! I want my son to live his life to its most and as far and wide he wants to go, and I want him to be the person he wants to be. I was just there to help him early on and he can always count on me, but really eventually you just got to go beyond the backyard and climb on whatever limb he wants to climb on and dress in whatever costume he wants and all of that.
I think that definitely resonates with a lot of things like the LGBTQ movement, interracial marriages and all those types of things.
You know I didn’t write that, but that’s what I thought too! Yes, I want people to be free to be whatever they want to be. I think that’s what I saw as I was creating that “yea, that’s the dad I want to be.”
I very much agree with those words. In a sense we need a good foundation to build ourselves to be a good person
And you know your own backyard is a good enough place to start.
In a sense you don’t need that lavish lifestyle to go places…
Yup, no matter what your beginnings or place or origins are, whether they be modest or splendid, your story is yours and it’s worth telling. I like to believe that Rafa feels his story is worth sharing. He is sharing with his dad and that’s who he will share whatever he wants to share.
Were there any other books that you took inspiration from while creating this book?
I don’t necessarily know… Professionally, I have done a whole number of books, so the book looks like parts of other books, some other books of my own. It looks like movies I have seen. The great thing that I have done all my career which is illustrating other people’s manuscripts is, if you are doing it right, you are surrendering to the story and the story is going to tell you what it needs. So I like to believe that most of my career I have been doing that. The story was telling me what it wants and Rafa was telling me what he wanted, and I like to believe that I settled into that. You know, there are never any limits—when you paint to a certain degree there are parameters—[but] that’s what storytelling is: “Let the story be.”
That’s a very cool perspective I have learnt. Usually I thought we take control of the story but here you let the story control you.
I was talking to a friend of mine, Magma Dina, and she was telling me the same thing, “You gotta get out of the way of the story” and I think that exactly sums it up.
So when you finished this story, I would like to know what you think love means now.
Wow… So I give this talk about illustration and storytelling. You always hear about style and voice being a thing for an illustrator as an essential thing in their toolbox, especially voice. I say there is another element and I refer to it as grace. What that means for me is that level of openness that you need to put yourself in, or state of being, so you are receptive to everything that comes to you and through you, including experience, relationships with people. And if you try to be in a good state of grace you are not filtering, skewing, censoring, all that intake because the first two—voice and style—are mostly about output, and I think nurturing and reaping the intake life has to offer lets you express life in an authentic way. And I guess that’s the way I feel about love.
Would you like to point out a certain example in the book where you show that?
I think in every project I just try to be in a place like that. Yea, and I hope that it’s obvious that Rafa and his dad, certainly his dad is open to Rafa’s zest for life and does not hamper it and creates a safe and sound launching pad for him. So I guess that’s love.
They seem to share similar interests while also being very different at times… can you elaborate?
You know, you connected to something there, Suniti, because it’s not an accident that Rafa wears largely the same clothes for most of the story, which is the suspenders and his blue shorts and the tape attached. He is always pretty organized, like a child who needs a security blanket and children need stability around them, so that’s who he is as a person. His dad, however, changes hats, wears different clothes, does a lot more things. His dad is the person that will jump in the water first, the one who will be silly even if he doesn’t talk, he will do those things, so Rafa knows it’s safe to be that. So when it’s safe for Rafa to wear any clothes, part of his comfort zone, I believe, is the dad has given him enough examples for him to know it’s okay to do that and that’s why the dad changes more than Rafa does.
I felt like inside of the story there is a lot more to interpret—maybe through the pictures?
Well, I think there is an entertainment aspect to it I guess whether it be the counting or the fun and games in the story, but it really boils down to feeling safe and allowing for that, I guess. That’s the love and that’s why Rafa can count on his dad.
I guess Papa is kind of Rafa’s home…
Yup, and as parents we want them to be safe and one day, they are going to leave, whether it’s the backyard or leave the city, they will do all those things. But I remember telling my son once he was probably in middle school, those really awkward times, after a day at school we pulled up to the house and we were still in the car and pointed to the house and I told him, “No matter what happens here, you are always safe there. You will always be safe in your house, and you never have to worry about that.” I guess that’s what I wanted for him. Like I said, one day he will go somewhere to start his life and if he has this safe place, he will probably be alright to face life.
So is there any final statement you would like to make before we end this interview, for parents and kids out there about everything that encompasses this safe space?
Well I hope that’s there, but primarily it’s fun, because if it’s there it doesn’t even need to be spoken about. If you are safe you can be free, have fun, so most of the story is them being in the backyard and having fun. Even if no one gets the other stuff I would like them to just have fun.
Joe Cepeda is an award-winning illustrator of more than thirty-five books for children. He has illustrated books written by numerous notable authors including Gary Soto, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Arnold Adoff, Monica Brown, Julius Lester, and Toni Morrison. Joe is the author-illustrator of The Swing, and several early readers from the I Like to Read Series including Up, I Dig, I See, and I Hop. He received his BFA in Illustration from California State University, Long Beach and is the president of the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles. Joe lives in Southern California and invites you to visit him at http://www.joecepeda.com.
Suniti Srinivasan is a blog volunteer for We Need Diverse Books, and a middle schooler in International Community School. She is very passionate about law and International Studies. When she is not doing schoolwork, she expresses herself through classical dance and finds it to be a great stress reliever. She is an animal enthusiast and has a golden retriever who keeps her busy. She has been an avid reader from a very young age, absorbing the tales of strong characters in fantasy lands and in society. She hopes to share her joy of reading with the world and help highlight more diverse authors through this platform.