A Mini-Interview with John Parra
I met John at the SCBWI Los Angeles Conference in 2010 – the year that he won the Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Illustration for his book “Gracias/Thanks”. I knew his work well and had already added “Gabriela” to my PB collection of Illustrators-Who-I-Admire.
While at the Conference, we both attended a Saturday Multicultural break out session for writers. During the Q&A portion, I asked one question: how to find other Multicultural Children’s Illustrators? I got some great suggestions from panelists and attendees. A little later, the session was over and the day continued its course but later that night… I got to meet John. He remembered the question and introduced himself to offer his help. Oh, how I was star-struck! I looked at his face and his badge one, two, three times while we shook hands. The darker color banner reading “Faculty” should had confirmed my doubts but I had to ask: “Are you John Parra, THE Illustrator of “Gabriela”?” He was. I could hardly believe it. He was generous and helpful. I am glad I asked the wrong question at the wrong panel.
Now a couple of years later, I’m asking him a few questions about his work and career. And, I get to share his answers and work with you. If you know his books and illustrations, enjoy! If you don’t know them yet, get ready for a treat! Now, with you the wonderful, John Parra.
About John Parra
John Parra is an award-winning illustrator, designer, teacher, and fine art painter. He has received multiple awards and honors for his wonderfully illustrated, Latino themed, children’s books including: The Golden Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), The Pura Belpré Honor’s Award from The American Library Association (ALA), The International Latin Award:Best Interior Children’s Book Illustrations from Latino Literary Now, and most recently The Christopher Award from The Christopher’s Inc. organization which annually salutes media (TV programming, feature films, books for adults and children) that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” Parra’s original artwork has also been showcased and displayed in numerous gallery shows and museum exhibitions throughout the United States and South America. He has taught at the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard, CA and now regularly speaks at schools and literary conferences across the country advocating art and reading education.
Describe yourself in five words:
Patient, hardworking, creative, focused, organized, and inquisitive. Sorry that’s six words.
Now, please tell us how you got started in picture book illustration (in more than five words):
Prior to working on children’s book illustration I was working doing commercial art projects for magazines, advertising agency campaigns, and music/ media company projects as well as exhibiting my art as a fine artist in galleries and various exhibitions. All of which I continue to do today. Then back in 2004, Theresa Howell, an editor and art director at Northland Publishing/Luna Rising, upon seeing my work, contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in illustrating a children’s book. Much of my work already used themes of family, childhood, and Latino culture, plus my color pallet made a good match for doing a children’s book, so I decided to accept. The first book was called “My Name is Gabriela/ Me llamo Gabriela”, written by Monica Brown that tells the story of Gabiela Mistral, a famous poet from Chile, who was the first Latina woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.
If you had to describe your work in terms of your artistic influences, you would say it is:
This reminds me of an early review I received describing my artwork from my first children’s books. The reviewer wrote that my style reflected a combination of Marc Chagall meets your child’s best refrigerator art. I actually think that is a pretty fair assessment, although I will like to further add there is a heavy influence of Mexican and American folk art, day of the dead art, Mesoamerican pre-Colombian artifacts, and early twentieth century fashion and style. My style is also specifically influenced by other artists such as: Jose Posada, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, The Clayton Brothers, Thomas Hart Benton, Leo Politi, Virginia lee Burton, Maurice Sendak, Frank Romero, and Grandma Moses.
Of the six fundamentals of 2D design (line, shape, volume, perspective, shading, and color): Which is your greatest strength? Which poses your greatest challenge?
Strength: Color. For me it gives such a weight of emotion and memories to an image. Challenge: Lines, I rarely can draw a straight one.
Given that illustration is different than many day to day jobs, how to you manage your time and maintain a daily routine?
I am generally busy working on a number of projects at once so the goal is to break down each one to a manageable schedule and create goals to finishing all the work. Early morning is a very creative time for me, so I am doing most of my art then. The afternoon I generally respond to emails and business related matters. Then at night sometimes I go back to the art depending on the creative levels and ideas still floating around.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given as an illustrator?
First, always do the best illustration work that you can, because a job well done will get you more work and success. Second, try to avoid art trends. Be original and create in a style that is you and reflects what you like.
What’s your favorite marketing tip or strategy?
Say yes to as many art projects that you are offered. Some art project, even when outside your field and medium, can lead to new possibilities and rewarding assignments, and because taking the road less travelled can lead you to magical places.
What new projects have you got coming down the pike?
I just turned in the art for my next children’s book entitled, “Round is a Tortilla”, due out in 2013. I will start its companion book, “Green is the Chile”, this fall with an arrival date of 2014. Both books were written by the wonderful author, Roseanne Thong. This December you can also look for “When Thunder Comes”, a poetry book written in moving verse by Children’s Poet Laureate, J. Patrick Lewis. The book profiles seventeen civil rights luminaries from around the world, each represented in portraits, showcasing their struggle and dedication to justice, peace, and tolerance. The artwork for the book was a collaborative effort split between four other artists and myself. All three of these projects will be published by Chronicle Books. Another project I just completed was the Papertigers 10 year anniversary poster. They are a wonderful organization committed to promoting multicultural books to young readers as well as educating the public about clean water and protecting the resources. Next year I have some art working with 3CD and Cengage on a reading program that will be released in the spring. I’m also hoping to write out two children’s book ideas that have been in my mind for some time. This will be a new and wonderful challenge for sure.
And this concludes John’s interview. Thanks again to John! I will see you next week here when I’ll be interviewing my great friend and illustrator, Amanda Shepherd.
But wait, don’t go just yet. This week of Mini-Interviews is just starting and we have a great line-up. Come back and listen to:
- Adam Gustavson on Wednesday visiting Molly’s blog
- Kent Culotta on Thursday stopping by Mikela’s blog, and,
- Wendy Watson on Friday dropping in at Laura’s blog
This post is part of the Mini-Interview Series where 4 children’s illustrators interview other Children’s Illustrators and Author/Illustrators throughout the month of November. Our guests include:
- Kevan Atteberry
- Lynne Avril
- Alexandra Ball
- Alexandra Boiger
- David Christiana
- Kent Culotta
- Adam Gustavson
- Jeremy Holmes
- Brian Karas
- Kelly Light
- John Parra
- Greg Pizzoli
- Amanda Shepherd
- Mary Sullivan
- Constanze Von Kitzing
- Wendy Watson