By Jessica Agudelo
Today we’re pleased to welcome Juana Medina to the WNDB blog to discuss Juana & Lucas: Muchos Changes.
The past two years have certainly seen muchos changes for everyone. Juana & Lucas was first published in 2016, is there anything about your writing or artistic process that has changed since then? What was it like to pick up on her story?
There have been, indeed, muchos changes! Since Juana & Lucas was first published, I’ve had many chances to interact with young readers. It has been inspiring and enlightening to hear their opinions, questions, and desires. These interactions have influenced—whether explicitly or not—the writing and art that appear in Big Problemas and Muchos Changes.
Also, a deeply significant change in my personal life was becoming a parent. This has shifted my very own understanding of life and the world we live in. Making me perceive my own writing and illustration through a new lens.
Knowing there would be a second and third book, ensured opportunities to share more stories and gave me the freedom to let Juana & Lucas exist as the book it is, without wanting to cram in every possible detail about Bogotá, my family, or my childhood into one single book.
Picking up on the story was also really fun, not only because it gave me a chance to revisit the characters and share more about their adventures, but because it gave me an exciting opportunity to continue working with a team I love. This extraordinary team at Candlewick has been essential in order to find the right words and images to tell these stories, as well as to ensure these books could make it to the hands of so many readers. I would have never been able to achieve this on my own and that’s why I find it important to celebrate their dedication to projects like this one.
What has surprised you most about the response to the Juana & Lucas series?
The most thrilling thing for me is seeing how so many readers have been able to identify with Juana; they might not be Colombian or struggling with learning a language, or wear pigtails, or have a dog, or love soccer…or any other singular details that pertain to the character. But for children to find themselves within the pages of Juana & Lucas, is the most extraordinary reward I can think of, not only as an author and illustrator but as a reader that didn’t find herself in the pages of a book until her late 20s.
Sometimes readers will let me know they identify with Juana by dressing as the character or decorating school hallways with their own versions of the books’ illustrations. Sometimes, it comes through quietly, in the form of a crumpled little note, that after much hesitation, is finally shared with me. I try my very best to hold on to these treasures, to be reminded of the importance of the stories we choose to share.
Juana & Lucas is uniquely set in Bogotá, and is full of sensory details—from the Andes mountains outside Juana’s window to the big bowl of ajiaco she loves—which are conveyed in large part by the relation between the text and art. How do you decide how you’ll convey those sensory elements?
Figuring out how to balance text and image is equal parts a challenge and a constant reassurance. They’re both elements at the service of the story. The text often helps get through evocative details, such as descriptions of scents and flavors, that are harder to convey through visuals. Illustrations help me steer away from highly verbose descriptions, getting quicker to the point. An example of this is how I may be able to write in many ways my/Juana’s love for Lucas, but it only takes an image or two to realize the bond between Juana & Lucas. So the book at large is the hemming of these two (image and prose) along with typography (as visual element and text), and the use of language (English and Spanish), all at the service of one story.
There are many prolific Colombian and Colombian American illustrators in kid lit right now. What kind of impact does being Colombian have on your art and writing? Do you have any hopes for the growth of Colombian kidlit?
I have great hope and excitement for what Colombian authors and illustrators have to share with the world! We were raised in a convoluted country, hurt by corruption and an interminable war. But we were also growing up in a corner of the world where storytelling is everywhere and everything—be it in the form of vallenatos and cumbias, or cuenteros that board public transportation to share fantastical stories with commuters, or abuelitas sharing narratives of our ancestors…just listen to a Colombian soccer commentator for 10 minutes: you would have thought the most mundane fútbol match was an epic battle of unimaginable proportions.
A steady diet of hyperbolic and sensory narrative has made us prone to be engaged in storytelling. Perhaps our interest in telling stories—whether visually or through prose—is in great part, an attempt to make sense of a country where very little tends to make sense. I am lucky to share this nationality with my dear friend and extraordinary illustrator Leo Espinosa, as well as with illustrators I admire greatly, such as Luisa Uribe, Paola Escobar, Claudia Rueda, Power Paola, Juliana Cuervo and so many others creating powerful and compelling images. I only hope for more Colombian and Colombian-American illustrators to be joining the world of children’s literature in the US, it would be great to continue sharing our sensibilities with young readers.
In Muchos Changes, Juana adjusts to the arrival of her baby sister, but there are more serious storylines. What was your motivation for depicting her mom’s challenges during pregnancy?
This was something I found very important to share. My mom had a difficult pregnancy and had to stay in bed for months, which wasn’t easy for me as a young kid. Though I didn’t stick to perfectly factual details in retelling this passage, I tried to stay as close as possible to the lingering feelings of uncertainty and expectation. Hoping that by sharing this experience, including rather candid observations on feelings such as loneliness, jealousy, impatience, and all the other emotions that came along with becoming a big sister under such circumstances, could start conversations in households where children might be experiencing somewhat similar situations.
Each book in the Juana & Lucas series features a delightful photo of you on the author page that hints at the story’s origins. How closely do Juana’s experiences in the books mirror your own?
The three books in this series are based on real experiences. Though in the books, these events have been true in essence but the details have been fictionalized for a number of reasons—after all, there are only so many cousins, aunts, and uncles to fit within the pages of a chapter book! In all seriousness, for the sake of clarity, it was important to keep characters recognizable, and to a minimum; events and interactions had to happen in a way that made sense and without needing to dedicate full chapters to backstories for the narrative to be understandable. That’s why relying so heavily on illustration and having pages/spreads with short key descriptions of characters (like Piti, Abue, or Mami), places (Bogotá), or things (like Ajiaco) was very helpful.
I’ll share a concise example of one of the instances where reality was fictionalized: in the first book, Juana is quite frustrated by the idea of having to learn The English. Abue lets her know they will be going to Spaceland to visit Juana’s ultimate hero: Astroman. The only issue is, Astroman only speaks English. This makes Juana want to learn as much English as she possibly can so she can talk to her hero.
In real life, I was equally frustrated by the idea of having to learn English. But it was my mom who said we’d be going to Disney World and she informed me of how Mickey Mouse only speaks English. I learned as much English as I humanly could, to find out during our visit to Disney World that Mickey doesn’t even speak.
To me, it was much more interesting setting the premise on Juana’s journey and her struggles, rather than to center the whole story around her hero. Bringing up Disney in this book could have present trademark issues. Moreover, there are so, so many stories about such a famous mouse…this challenge ended up presenting an opportunity to introduce children to a new and made-up hero. In this, I chose to give a little nod to science, while showing that girls can be and are interested in science, space, and superheroes!
Currently, the book industry is having many conversations about diversity and inclusion. Have you noticed any changes in the industry since Juana & Lucas was first published?
Yes, I have noticed changes. In some ways, not necessarily enough changes and in some instances, not in the most productive direction. But I do sincerely believe many of us in the children’s book industry are trying, genuinely and wholeheartedly, to ensure children are able to find themselves represented in the books they read while being enlightened and becoming empathetic toward realities that might be different from their/our own.
The conversation around diversity, representation, equity, and inclusivity is one that we have to acknowledge as ongoing and at times difficult, not to excuse our limitations but to renew our commitment to creating books that represent more accurately the world we live in. Whether it is in the capacity of authors and illustrators, or as educators and librarians, or as professionals in the publishing industry (from agents to editors to booksellers), we all hold a responsibility in the books we make, sell, review, buy, and read.
As we continue to think of the stories we want and ought to tell, it is humbling to realize the past isn’t perfect and the future is not yet written. Our responsibility to continue this long and complex conversation is one we ought to take rather seriously.
The Juana & Lucas series has such unique formatting, from the placement of the illustrations to the kinetic text. Did you have this format in mind when you began the series? How has your approach changed throughout the creation of the series?
A lot of thought went into the format of these books. I started thinking of how to merge text and image from very early on in the creation process and considered this style essential for this type of story—I felt it injected energy and helped establish the pace while giving the reader a deeper understanding of Juana (and Lucas’s) world.
Despite these being chapter books, there are images on every spread, as a picture book would. Some see this as a hybrid or transitional model between picture and chapter books. I think of it more as an opportunity to let illustration be an essential voice, for the benefit of the story.
Typography is an element that I often find underused in books, which saddens me since I believe it offers great potential. Don’t take me wrong, I’m not saying to make every word jump off the page for the sake of making text pop up. But it is an element that is at the service of the story and is seldom used as more than a vehicle to get words on the page. As a graphic designer, I wanted to rely on type’s versatility to help tell these stories. And to my delight, the universe granted me the gift of a lifetime, by allowing me to work with Maryellen Hanley as art director. Maryellen and I happen to have graduated from the same art school and studied under many of the same professors. In some ways, I believe this offered us a language in common. Also, I have been lucky to learn through her patient and generous guidance, in order to make the most out of the design aspects of these books.
Though it is my name that appears on the cover, each book is a tremendous team effort. I have been incredibly fortunate to maintain a steep learning curve by working with people that not only have vast experience in this industry but are willing to share their knowledge and offer their input. This collaborative spirit offered innumerable opportunities to learn and influence the outcome of each book.
Is there a book you’ve read recently that you wish you had read earlier in life as a child or young person?
Yes. Multiple ones! Right now, Our Subway Baby comes to mind. It would have helped me realize earlier in life that there are many different types of families and that love, commitment, and understanding are what make a loving family. This would have made it possible for my dream of a future filled with possibilities, rather than be scared about being myself, simply because I didn’t fit the mold in the staunchly traditional society that I grew up in.
Is there a book character you feel Juana would be good friends with?
What a lovely question. Juana would have been thrilled to ride along with Daisy and her papi in My Papi Has a Motorcycle. She would have been stoked to enjoy a day with Kooky Dooky, El Toro, Little Lobo, and Barnabás in the ¡Vamos! series. And Juana the character would undoubtedly love young Cece from El Deafo as much as Juana the human being loves and admires Cece Bell the author and illustrator.
Juana Medina was born and grew up in Bogotá, Colombia. At school, she got into trouble for drawing cartoon versions of her teachers. Eventually, however, all that drawing (and trouble) paid off. Juana Medina is the author-illustrator of Juana & Lucas, which won the 2017 Pura Belpré Author Award, and Juana & Lucas: Big Problemas. She is also the author-illustrator of the picture books 1 Big Salad, ABC Pasta, and Sweet Shapes, and the illustrator of Smick! by Doreen Cronin, Lena’s Shoes Are Nervous: A First-Day-of-School Dilemma by Keith Calabrese, I’m a Baked Potato! by Elise Primavera, and Star of the Party by Jan Carr. Juana Medina lives with her family in the DC area.
Jessica Agudelo is a Youth Collections Coordinator at BookOps for the New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library. Most recently she served as chair of the 2021 Pura Belpré Award committee and was chair of NYPL’s debut Spanish language best-of list, Mejores libros para pequeños, in 2019. When she is not reading or writing, you can find her listening to comedy podcasts, amateur birding, or napping. Jessica comes from a large and vibrant Colombian family and was born and raised in Queens, New York.