April 24, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #67: Cozbi A Cabrera

Cozbi Cabrera has mastered a lot of skills. She's a doll-maker, clothing designer, and children's book illustrator, and now she gets to add the word "author" to her resume with My Hair Is a Garden. It is a treasure of a book that focuses on cultivating who you are and reminds readers to take the time to get to know themselves. Personally, it took me years to understand my own hair, and this book is a wonderful reminder of the importance of celebrating every part of yourself, no matter how frustrating it can be! Cozbi was a thrill to chat with, and I'm so excited to share our conversation with you all today.

About the book:
After a day of being taunted by classmates about her unruly hair, Mackenzie can't take any more and she seeks guidance from her wise and comforting neighbor, Miss Tillie. Using the beautiful garden in the backyard as a metaphor, Miss Tillie shows Mackenzie that maintaining healthy hair is not a chore nor is it something to fear. Most importantly, Mackenzie learns that natural black hair is beautiful.

Watch the official book trailer here.

Let's talk Cozbi Cabrera!

LTPB: My Hair Is a Garden feels either autobiographical or very, very close to home! Where did the idea for this book come from? How long did you work on this story before you decided it was ready to submit? 

CC: The book’s not entirely autobiographical, although I had so much hair as a child, my mother didn’t know what to do with it! I have a picture of me at 2 years old, sitting in a harnessed swing, eating from a box of raisins and you can tell my mother struggled with handling my hair. I decided to learn how to care and style it myself as soon as I was able. The idea for the book came because so many women who are starting to wear their hair natural were stopping me in the street to ask for hair tips as were women who didn’t know how to take care of the hair of their adopted black children. I submitted the story to an editor of a larger publishing house, oh, about 10 years ago. When she left many years later, she told an editor at Albert Whitman about the story. She was glad the story found a home. AW invited me to submit. The first editor was glad the story found a home.

LTPB:  What differences have you found between creating both text and illustrations in your own books versus illustrating someone else’s text? When you’re illustrating someone else’s manuscripts, how do you work to put your own touch on the story? 

CC: When I agree to take on a book illustration assignment, I’m very careful not to “over read” the manuscript. I’m only looking for a few things: do I like the character(s), am I in love with the language, do I like the message? If all three criteria are a resounding yes, as opposed to a lukewarm yes, I take it on. The point of not over reading is when I sit down to thumbnail the action and the setting, I want to start fresh, without a lot of preconceived ideas or ideas that are slow to come because of over-familiarity. That’s why it’s so helpful not to hear from the author at this phase. There have been times I’ve come across some issues in this closer inspection of the manuscript––like realizing all the action takes place in one day, and the character’s wearing the same dress the whole time, but that informs me the next time. The ability to read fresh supplies a vitality that I value. I don’t think anyone has to work to put their “own touch” on a story. The very fact that you, as an illustrator, have your own thoughts, experiences, approach, aesthetic and preferences, and are working on a story, that’s plenty of “your own touch” right there!

When I’ve drafted the manuscript myself, I don’t have the luxury of this aforementioned separation to generate a fresh reading. It’s all collapsed together. My job is to separate the strands of text and illustration and treat neither of them as too precious to sacrifice for the sake of the whole.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? What is your process like?

CC: I started with pencil sketches. Page breaks, type placement, and decisions about how best to tell the story visually influenced flow and what I did for final art. I work primarily in acrylic. Sometimes I under paint considerably. One art director remarked about how heavy some of the paintings were, loaded with paint! My instinct is to use oil paint, something I did with my very first books. Imagine waiting for oil paint to dry before submitting! Ha! Had to call on a Krylon matte spray to move things along. Lately I’ve been adding tempera white to some areas, when lightening the values of some acrylic colors. It provides a nice chalky surface that allows for pencil and color pencil markings. My goal always is to get looser. That’s my goal, not my tendency!

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us? 

CC: Delivering on a wonderful biography on Gwendolyn Brooks written by Suzanne Slade, being published by Abrams Books. The research on that project has turned my understanding of the world upside down. Talk about revelation! Also, a new book by Marianna Llanos, being published by Penny Candy Books titled Luca's Bridge

LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who would you want to illustrate it (dead or alive!), and why? 

CC: Whoa! What a great question! That’s a hard one! There are some many extraordinarily gifted artists out there, that I know, love and whose work moves me, at times to tears. I think of the beauty and dignity of John Stepoe’s Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters and the emotional resonance and spirit of Tom Feelings’ The Middle Passage. I think of Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky and Isabelle Arsenault and how I carried it in my bag for many months, looking through it while riding the NYC subway back and forth between destinations, combing through it while eating lunch, at night by my bedside, to share with my communal quilt making class at Lincoln Center, only to place it on my shelf finally––facing out, of course––and you would think I’d say Isabelle Arsenault. But I have to say Carson Ellis ONLY because I’m curious and you never know what she’d would do!

It was such a pleasure chatting with Cozbi––thank you for stopping by!! My Hair Is a Garden published earlier this month from Albert Whitman & Company!

Special thanks to Cozbi and Albert Whitman for use of these images!

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