By Samantha Leong
Today we’re pleased to welcome Rose Viña and Gloria Felix to the WNDB blog to discuss Alicia Alonso Dances On.
How did you two meet? Did you meet through Diverse Dreamers and decide to collaborate with each other? Or vice versa?
Rose: We have never actually met. As it can be with most publishers, Albert Whitman & Co. chose the illustrator after they bought the book/text rights. Around that same time, I wanted to join a marketing group in the hopes to gain more experience for the release of Alicia Alonso Dances On, my second book. I quickly discovered that most groups had already banned together a year previously, or they were no longer looking for new members. That’s when I decided to start my own group, but specifically for diverse authors and illustrators. Gloria joined the group with eleven others in 2020.
Gloria: I met Rose through my agency, Astound US. They offered me to illustrate her new book and I immediately said yes. After that Rose invited me to be a part of Diverse Dreamers.
Rose, when did you first learn about Alicia Alonso? What inspired you to tell her story?
Rose: During my MFA at Lesley University I had the honor of working with two amazing mentors, Susan Goodman and David Elliott. During one of the terms with Susan, she suggested I try writing a picture book based on, or about, my heritage as a Cuban American. I wrote two stories that term, one of which was about Cuban dancer Alicia Alonso. While researching famous Cubans, I found Alicia to appear many times on various lists. When I learned that her eyesight was greatly impaired at such a young age, yet she still continued to dance, I was inspired to write about her. She had courage, determination, and resilience, which was something I have always wanted to write in a picture book for kids. We need more and more books about strong females. During my last term with David, I developed the story further and it made it into my thesis. Alicia Alonso Dances On was actually written before my debut book but published after it.
Gloria, how long have you been making art? When you started your art journey, did you envision yourself illustrating children’s books?
Gloria: I’ve been making art professionally for about 9 years, but I’ve been drawing since I can remember. I loved reading children’s books when I was little but I never imagined I would be doing it. I didn’t have any idea of how one became a children’s book illustrator. Back then the animation career was still super new in Mexico, and I decided it would be a great option to keep practicing my art while learning new things.
What medium(s) did you use in Alicia Alonso Dances On?
Gloria: I used digital mediums, Adobe Photoshop, and a screen graphic tablet.
Rose, as a Cuban American competitive figure skater, did you relate to Alicia Alonso and how she danced through adversity?
Rose: Most definitely. While it wasn’t a disability for me, I was the only Cuban American skater that I knew for the first thirteen years of my skating. Just after that, I met my best friend, Matthew, who also happened to be a Cuban American figure skater. I couldn’t believe it! We bonded over our Cuban family heritage, culture, and music. While I never had a physical disability, such as eyesight challenges, I did have some injuries and concussions while skating. For me, the choice was simple: If I loved skating I would pick myself up and keep going or quit. Quitting was never an option to me, and here I am thirty years later, still a part of figure skating as a coach. I believe Alicia felt an intense desire to dance, no matter the obstacles, and quitting was never an option to her either.
What was your favorite part of working on this book? What was the most challenging?
Rose: I loved the research part of creating this story. It’s interesting to dive into the world of another person and discover what makes/made them tick, what highs and lows they experienced, and how they overcame their darkest hours. The most challenging part was probably waiting for this book to get its chance in the sun! There are a few Alonso books out there, but this book really focuses on her challenges with deteriorating eyesight. This book was a labor of love. I edited and revamped this book off and on for nearly six years before it got a book contract.
Gloria: My favorite part was illustrating Alicia at different stages in her life. Designing the way she looked when she was little all the way through adulthood. It also was one of the most challenging parts since there’s not a ton of references of how she looked when she was little.
Rose, what kind of research did you do when writing? Is there any interesting or obscure fact that you learned that didn’t make it into the final text?
Rose: Most of my research was via the internet, previously published books about her, and several DVDs that I bought that feature her dancing. It was amazing to watch her dance and see how well she commanded the stage. There is a rich history when it comes to Alonso, but to fit it all in 29 pages is no small feat. Therefore, some of the facts about her first marriage and involvement in politics were not used in the book. This was a conscious decision on my part because I wanted to focus on her overcoming a major life challenge.
How was this similar to or different than your writing process of Ice Breaker: How Mabel Fairbanks Changed Figure Skating?
Rose: Very different. Alicia Alonso Dances On was six years worth of creating, developing, editing, and publishing. I think the original draft took me about a month to write during grad school. Whereas, Ice Breaker took three days to write the first draft (after graduation), and got a book contract just six weeks after I signed with my agent. For me, Ice Breaker felt like it came together swiftly, whereas Alicia Alonso Dances On had a longer journey to publication. When it came to researching and developing the story, that was done in a similar fashion with lots of investigation into every aspect of their lives and then taking from that what I felt could go in the book. I wanted to show readers what a strong female athlete is like for both books.
Gloria, was it difficult to balance your imagination and creative license as an artist with accuracy? For example, depicting Alicia Alonso in the iconic poses and costumes from her photographs as well as being historically accurate in the different times and settings of the book?
Gloria: It can be difficult to balance the imagination with the accuracy in the story but in this case, it was even more inspiring to be able to have such amazing reference material to draw from. Usually, we have to spend some time finding the right pose, the right angle, etc. But with Alicia’s story, the hard part was which photo to choose from for reference because they are all so fantastic.
Some of my favorite spreads were the mirror ones, where Alicia looks at her own reflection! What was the thought process behind those?
Gloria: I’m so glad you liked it! It was one of my favorites as well. At the beginning of the project, we get a description of what the editors and art directors think would be the best fit for the story, and I loved the mirror idea for those pages. It was a bit hard to come up with the right expression for her and the right color scheme. Initially, I wanted to use very bright and surreal colors, but I think the more natural palette we chose at the end was the right move.
What was it like to collaborate with each other on this picture book?
Rose: We never got to collaborate directly, which is common practice in the publishing industry. If there was any collaboration with the words on the page and the art in relation to it, then that was passed between me, the editors, and the art/design team to Gloria, and vice versa. I was privileged to see the art in various stages of development, all of which were incredible. Gloria is very talented.
Gloria: I loved having the chance to illustrate Rose’s book, you don’t often get the chance to have so much fun and depict such beautiful places. Having Rose’s words to start creating the illustrations from was a delight as well. She has a wonderful way to describe situations that let your imagination flow.
What is a question that you wish you were asked more often, and the answer?
Rose: Why do we need more diverse books for children? Answer: Because children need to experience reading about their own world, the world of others, and to witness characters around their ages learning understanding, empathy, and confidence. It’s about letting kids read the many facets of humanity and how beautiful we all are in our differences.
Gloria: I’m not sure if this will be the right answer but after illustrating many books and getting to know the authors and seeing my close friends starting to write stories I guess I would like to be asked if I ever consider writing my own stories and illustrate them. And the answer is yes! I have many ideas I would like to write about and hopefully create a picture book or even a graphic novel one day. I guess I’m using this question for manifesting haha.
What are some upcoming books that you are really excited about?
Rose: I love all the books from the DiverseDream group! You can check out their books on our website.
One of our DiverseDreamers, Margarita Engle, has another book about Cuba coming out called Rima’s Rebellion. It’s got love, a courageous girl, and rebellion! What more could you want? I’m excited to read it when it comes out in February.
Gloria: I’m excited about the Spanish version of Sundays with Abuelita, or Domingos con Abuelita, by Teresa Verduzco. I’m also very excited about the books my colleagues in Astound are illustrating.
Can you share anything about any projects you are currently working on?
Rose: I’m working on a lot of things at once! I’m one of those writers that need various projects at a time to hold myself accountable, it keeps me on my toes! I’m working on two nonfiction picture books, a fiction picture book, and a YA dark fantasy. My agent is currently trying to find a home for an original folktale picture book that is near and dear to my heart. Of course, it’s about a girl finding her inner strength and overcoming obstacles…with a little help from some friends. *wink, wink* Hopefully that project finds a home soon.
Gloria: There’s one book that I’m really excited about. I’m currently illustrating it, and it comes out next year but I’m not able to talk about it yet. Unfortunately, I’m not able to talk about many of the illustration projects I’m involved in at the moment, but recently I started streaming figure drawing lessons in Spanish on Twitch every Monday at 8 pm PST. I’ve also become a host on the Keyfriends Podcast, where we talk about anything related to the animation industry in Spanish. Please check it out if you want. We think it’s very important to have more mediums in Spanish available for everyone in Latin America and the world who is interested in animation. You can find it on all podcasts platforms as Keyfriends Podcast.
Rose Viña is a Cuban American writer from California. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing for Young People from Lesley University, Cambridge. Her debut book, Ice Breaker: How Mabel Fairbanks Changed Figure Skating, was named an American Library Association 2021 Rise Honor book and was a 2020 Crystal Kite Award finalist. Her second book, Alicia Alonso Dances On, releases October 1, 2021. Rose currently lives in Sweden with her family.
Gloria Felix was born and raised in Uruapan, a beautiful small city in Mexico, one of her biggest inspirations when it comes to Art. Her favorite things to do growing up were drawing, watching cartoons and eating, which still are some of her favorite things to do. During high school, Gloria realized she wanted to be an artist for a living, so she moved to Guadalajara where she got a BA in Animation and Digital Art. After that she moved to San Francisco where she acquired a MFA in Visual Development. Soon after she started her career as a children’s book illustrator. Currently Gloria lives and paints in Guadalajara.
Samantha Leong is a Special Sales sales assistant at Ingram Content Group. She has previously interned at Scholastic Library Publishing, Candlewick Press, and Simon and Schuster. Her favorite genre is fantasy, and she loves to bake.