September 18, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #82: Duncan Tonatiuh

Given the current political climate it's no surprise that there are many books being published that speak to the unfair treatment of immigrants and the need for legal reform. Duncan Tonatiuh's Undocumented: A Worker's Fight does that in spades, but the format of the book—a leporello—seems to drive the point home even further. In a standard picture book readers can flip pages and forget what they've seen previously, but with a leporello at least half of the story is always in view at a time. For those unfamiliar with the term, leporellos are accordion-style books that are only bound at the very edges, so when readers open them they stretch far and wide, providing at least half the story at a time. In lieu of retreading familiar ground, I suggest you check out my leporello post from a years ago here, but right now, let's take a closer look at Undocumented.

About the book:
Undocumented is the story of immigrant workers who have come to the United States without papers. Every day, these men and women join the work force and contribute positively to society. The story is told via the ancient Mixtec codex—accordion fold—format. Juan grew up in Mexico working in the fields to help provide for his family. Struggling for money, Juan crosses over into the United States and becomes an undocumented worker, living in a poor neighborhood, working hard to survive. Though he is able to get a job as a busboy at a restaurant, he is severely under compensated—he receives less than half of the minimum wage! Risking his boss reporting him to the authorities for not having proper resident papers, Juan risks everything and stands up for himself and the rest of the community.

Let's talk Duncan Tonatiuh!

LTPB: Where did the idea for Undocumented come from, and how long did you work on it? How did it go from "picture book" to "leporello" (an accordion-style publication)?

DT: Undocumented began as my senior project in college ten years ago. I was inspired by books like Maus and Persepolis, and I wanted to create a short graphic novel. At the time I volunteered at a worker’s center. There I became friends with a worker who was Mixtec. Mixtecs are an indigenous group from the south of Mexico, and there is a large Mixtec community in New York, where my university was. I found my friend’s journey from his small village in Mexico to his life as busboy and later as a community organizer in a large U.S. city interesting and important. I decided to make my senior project about him.

When I first started working on the book I went to my school’s library and looked up Mixtec artwork. I found images of Mixtec codices from the 14th and 15th century. I was drawn in by how flat and stylized the images were and also by the geometry and repetition of color. I decided I would make a modern day codex of my friend’s journey. That is how I came up with my illustration style. I designed the book to fold out like an accordion because that is the way the Mixtec codices folded.

While I was still working on my project a professor at my university came to critique my class’s work. She really liked what I was doing and she introduced me to a children’s book editor she was friends with. I was not able to publish my project then, but that meeting opened the door of the children’s book world to me. After I graduated from my university I began working on my first picture book Dear Primo; A Letter to My Cousin. I have written and illustrated many books since. A couple of years ago I tried getting what began as my senior project published again. I had to revise the project and finish it—I only finished the first half half while I was in school—but Undocumented is now available.

LTPB: It seems like you have a penchant for being an author-illustrator, so where do you find your everyday inspiration? Which appeals to you more, writing and illustrating or illustrating?

DT: My books are all very different from one another. Some are fiction and some are non-fiction. The thing they all have in common though is that they are about Mexican or Mexican-American culture in some way. I am originally from Mexico. My culture is something I am proud of and interested in. There are millions of Latinx children in the U.S., and I hope many of them can relate to my work. 


I find inspiration for my books in a variety of places. I’m very interested in art, history and social justice. Some of my books are about issues like immigration and segregation that I find important. Others are about artists, like Guadalupe Posada and Diego Rivera, that I want to learn more about. Folktales and legends are also a source of ideas for me. Observing my community and the people around me has also lead me to the creation of books. 

I prefer writing and illustrating my own work because I can go back and forth between the text and the drawings. I can revise both as I work on a project. Hopefully, that helps me make picture books that flow smoothly. I’ve enjoyed illustrating books for other authors though. Other writers do things differently than I, and that is sometimes an opportunity to try something new. In Esquivel!: Space-Age Sound Artist, for example, Susan Wood includes a lot of noises and sounds in her text. I did a lot of hand drawn words to illustrate those sounds, and it was a lot of fun. 

LTPB: What are you working on now?

DT: I’m working on a new picture book about a Mexican-American soldier that fought in World War I. He kept a diary and wrote about his experiences in Europe every day. But he also wrote a lot about the discrimination people of Mexican origin faced back in the U.S. I am still tweaking the manuscript, and I am almost done with the first round of sketches for the book.

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

DT: I’ve never thought about that before. I’m not sure. Maybe Rius. He was an incredible and prolific Mexican cartoonist that passed away last year. He made a lot of books about Mexican History, World History, Politics and Philosophy among other topics. I often referred to his work for my school projects when I was young. Not only were his books informative, they were also hilarious and very critical of the government. It would be incredible if he could illustrate and write my biography too.

A million thanks to Duncan for taking time to answers some questions! Undocumented: A Worker's Fight published from Abrams earlier this year.

Special thanks to Duncan and Abrams for use of these images!

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