September 24, 2019

Let's Talk Illustrators #119: Carlos Aponte

When I saw Carlos Aponte's Across the Bay, I was immediately struck by the use of bold lines and vibrant colors that I saw on the cover. And then I read the story, which confirmed my suspicions that this is indeed a special book. I caught up with Carlos about it, and I even got some illustrations from the cutting room floor that I can share! Enjoy!

About the book:
Carlitos lives in a happy home with his mother, his abuela, and Coco the cat. Life in his hometown is cozy as can be, but the call of the capital city pulls Carlitos across the bay in search of his father. Jolly piragüeros, mischievous cats, and costumed musicians color this tale of love, family, and the true meaning of home.

Let's talk Carlos Aponte!

LTPB: Since this is autobiographical, why did you choose to tell the story in Across the Bay now? How long did you work on this book before you decided it was ready to submit? 

CA: Right after my first book A Season to Bee I told my then-editor Max my wish to tell a story of a kid who travels for the first time to San Juan. Their family was from Puerto Rico, and they wanted their son to experience the culture of the island. That was going to be my second book. I had the title "Carlitos Goes To Puerto Rico." But Junot Diaz already began working on his first children book, and the story was somewhat similar. They asked me for other ideas, and I sent them a few I liked. My editor picked one, and I worked on the story. I sent him what I had in mind, but it was not there yet. During that period, hurricane Maria devastated the island. I was broken-hearted, helpless, and very depressed. I was even more determined to write about growing up in Puerto Rico. One rainy day my editor came over my house to discuss the story. All I knew was that I wanted my character to visit Old San Juan. I was obsessed with it. Max asked me why. I thought about it for a minute, which felt like an eternity and finally told him he wanted to visit the ancient capital to search for his father. It was not an idea, but a personal story buried deep inside of me that unconsciously I wanted to tell. I began to write, and the story ended being seven pages long. I wrote a complex story, and it was seven pages long, but I'm glad that most of the details I thought necessary of the tale were preserved in the final edit.

LTPB: What research did you do for Across the Bay? How did your research inform your story? 

CA: I went to Puerto Rico and visited Old San Juan during the San Sebastian festivities. It was January just a few months after the hurricane. Most of the businesses in San Juan were closed and the streets pretty much deserted. The people needed the festival to lift their spirits; music has always been our healer. The ferry service that connects the town of Cataño to Old San Juan had stopped working until further notice. Luckily, the government arranged special trips due to the festivities. This short boat trip was essential to relive those childhood memories. On my journey from Cataño to the capitol I noticed a kid sitting next to the window enjoying the view of the bay. The boy reminded me of my character. Images of my book were becoming alive. Once I made it to the other side, I tried to imagine how my character/myself would feel arriving by himself in this town. Who would be the first person he would ask about the whereabouts of his father. Kids love piragüas, and a piragüero/a was an obvious choice. I didn't have to worry about who would encounter in his search; San Juan is a friendly place. 

Old San Juan is like entering into a large Crayola box. The brilliantly colored historic buildings spell one word; festive. San Juan not only dictated the color palette of my story but whole Puerto Rico! I wanted to capture as many sights from San Juan as possible, but I mapped the journey geographically, so it had to make sense for those who know the capitol. For this reason, a few of my favorite images didn't make it to the book. But I included plenty: the view from the bay, the streets of San Juan, the cathedral, seniors playing dominoes, San Sebastian street and the festival, El Morro castle, and the pigeon park. I also included cats––many cats––San Juan is full of them! I wanted the reader to be part of Carlito's journey, the reason why the spreads have a cinematic scope. This book could easily be an animated film. So I'm planning on working on one!

I sketched people at the San Sebastian festival. Each person is so different from the other and diverse in shapes and skin color! I did not want to idealize them. I tried to make them as varied and fun as possible. A lady who wore a zebra printed top gave me the idea for the cat lady in the book. That followed many others. This annual celebration helped me enormously to infuse the book with color, music, and personality. Things that would have been tough to convey due to the mood of the island after Hurricane Maria. 

Back in New York, I finalized the sketches of the book and sent them to my publisher. I felt confident about the images, but then my mother got ill, and I immediately flew back to Puerto Rico. I spent a month taking care of her. My story became even more meaningful and powerful to me. This book was not only dedicated to Puerto Rico, but to my mother. She was the hero, she appeared briefly, but she is the reason for me being who I am. By the time I returned to NY I had a full picture, not only of the journey of my character but my own. 

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in Across the Bay? How does your day job as a fashion illustrator inform how you illustrate children's books?

CA: I do a lot of research before I start a book. I look for images to inspire me — photographs, art, graphic design, and in this case, tons of pictures of Old San Juan. In the past few years I've being sketching during my trips. My line has been bold and simple since I only had a certain amount of time to capture on paper a site before I moved on. I wanted to use this graphic style, which is very much a fashion illustration style I used in the past. It gives a lot of movement to the pages. I work very fast. A fashion illustrator is trained to quickly convey an image and do it with an economy of line, the reason why I have always deliver way before a deadline. Once the sketches are completed, I reworked them digitally since I can change my mind a few times about a color or a line, and I also consider the revisions from the designer. My first book was different. It was as loose as this one, but it was the shapes and colors that defined the characters. In this second book, bold lines ground Across the Bay.

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

CA: I have a few ideas for the next book, a ghost story inspired by my grandmother's spooky tales, another dedicated to my art teacher and if Across the Bay does well a follow up to that. I don't want to share any images yet. But I can share with you some images from a collection of greeting cards I'm doing for PAPER E Clips Canada. 

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

CA: If I had to write my picture book autobiography, I would choose an illustrator who would understand where I came from. I have few in mind, including my friends Leo Espinosa and Eric Velasquez, a Puerto Rican illustrator whom I took a book design class at FIT years ago. But they are both on extreme sides of the spectrum. Leo is charming and idealistic, and Eric grounded and realistic. The work also has to convey magic realism, illustrate dreams, revelations, conceptual images, the colors of the tropical island and the devastation of a hurricane. I don't think this would be a picture book, but a graphic novel. I can't think of anyone but Lorenzo Matotti to illustrate my story. His poetic images run from a colorful fantasy dream world to a dark nightmare; he could be romantic or convey the brutality of the world in his unique stylized approach.

A huge thank you to Carlos for answering all my questions! Across the Bay published last week from Penguin Workshop.

Special thanks to Carlos and Penguin Workshop for use of these images!

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  1. I loved this story! He is an amazing storyteller and a magnific illustrator. I am so proud of this awesome artist.

  2. He is incredibly talented -- so glad I got to speak with him!