December 13, 2022

Let's Talk Illustrators #233: Marcela Avelar

For my final interview of the year, I'm so excited to share my conversation with debut illustrator Marcela Avelar! Marcela illustrated Valerie June's Grammy-winning song Somebody to Love: The Story of Valerie June's Sweet Little Baby Banjolele, and the light, emotional illustrations are a breath of fresh air. Enjoy our chat, and more illustrator interviews to come in the new year!


About the book:
Grammy nominated musician Valerie June’s Somebody to Love: The Story of Valerie June's Sweet Little Baby Banjolele is a children’s book based on the story of how June wrote the song "Somebody to Love" from her album Pushin' Against a Stone. In the book, Valerie is a child given a toy banjolele. A banjolele is a very unique four-stringed musical instrument. It has a body like a small banjo, and the neck is like a ukulele. At the beginning, the baby banjolele dreams that its voice will soar and be heard all throughout the world, but very soon its musical journey meets with challenges and doubts. The little banjolele just could not play through a whole song! Valerie and banjolele want to play with the other instruments at school, but the others make fun of the banjolele saying " You're just a toy". Embarrassed the banjolele, once more, can not finish the song. But “I have a dream, and I want to sing,” the toy banjolele stubbornly refuses to give up. Finally, the toy finds the courage, and belief, and love it needs, coughs out a last bit of dust, and belts out a gorgeous a song. Valerie names the banjolele Baby and both go on to perform all over the world together forever. Valerie June the adult says of her banjolele: “As I traveled the world telling the story of my banjolele, I always knew it would make an uplifting children’s book. It wasn’t until I got a call from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities that I was encouraged to sit down and write it out. One of the nation’s most historical dreamers is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As a black female artist, his message taught me the power of dreams at an early age. He was a light for me. Each time I’ve shared this story with students, I watch as their eyes light up with wonder. It’s been thrilling to witness that same light awakening within them. Believing you can achieve your dream is a way to be an inspiration for your community, like a great Nigerian proverb teaches us, 'Thoughts and dreams are the foundation of our being.

Let's talk Marcela Avelar!


LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Somebody to Love: The Story of Valerie June's Sweet Little Baby Banjolele? What were the first images that popped into your mind when you were offered the opportunity to illustrate Valerie June’s lyrics? 

MA: Valerie and I were friends before we worked together and I think that made this even more special. When she told me the story, I immediately connected with it; it’s magical but as real as life can be. Sometimes I feel that I don’t pick the projects but the projects pick me. When you get an idea or something that resonates with you, your heart gets bigger, it tickles, you are full of energy, and you want to get home and start creating. Somebody to Love felt like that to me.

LTPB: What did you find most difficult in creating this book? What did you find most rewarding?

MA: The hardest part for me was getting the first line down on the white canvas. It’s always the same dance.


At first, I feel super inspired; I could conquer the world.

Then I have no idea how to start, I am not good enough.

Then I do start and it is not as great as it looked in my mind.

And after some work It finds shape.

And if not, you can always start over.



Long story short, trust the process. I've been an artist long enough that I should know things always find their place with enough work.




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

MA: I don’t know if I have a preferred medium. It is my first children’s book. For this project I used watercolor and pencil and I had to create a voice for myself. I wanted to make it as close to reality as possible, so I used a few of Valerie’s real childhood photos for reference. I drew her grandparents, parents, and some of our friends. Even my favorite dog made it in the book. Fun fact: the baby has my birthday!





LTPB: How was your process for creating a children's book different than for creating some of your other artwork?

MA: I treated this book like a piece of art, like storytelling. A gift that was given to Valerie and me and then us putting it out there to share with the world. For this question we will have to chat after the next one. I do wonder if I should continue with the same style or create different styles for each book. It’s something that has crossed my mind. But we shall see….





LTPB: Can you tell me what else you do in addition to illustrating children’s books, like MA3 Agency and The Artruist?

MA: As an artist in 2017, I decided to donate prints of my art to charity. Then I realized other artists might feel the same way. That’s how TheArtruist.org was founded. Today, we are 10 artists and growing. We donate to four Non-profits: Rainforest Foundation US, NAACP LDF, Feeding America Covid-19 Response Fund, and Al Otro Lado. The Artruist was a project that was born out of the need to make a positive change in the world. Hopefully more will join.


The thing I love the most is creating and if I can do it in a community setting, even better. MA3 is a branding agency that has been a platform to create branding and work with incredible people, clients and now amazing friends. It has been 10 years and I went from intern to partner and couldn’t be more grateful for the experience and people I met during the journey.

I also love designing album covers. I've worked for musicians like Special K’s, Aloysius 3, Pete Remm, Wes Hutchinson and 9-time Grammy Award winner Norah Jones. In addition to album covers, I also had the opportunity to design the stage for Norah Jones’s 2017 Day Breaks Tour and it was wonderful to see it travel all over the world.

This year I had a great experience working with the talented Architect Paola Camarena. We created tiles and textiles for a development in Mexico while working closely with amazing Mexican artisans. I would love to have more of this in my life; projects close to my roots, art, and friendship.


Additionally, I’m always trying to find time to paint for myself.

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

MA: Mainly, I am an artist and last November I had the chance to participate in a collaboration at Artbath, a salon series in NYC, where I painted a 25 foot dress. Yes, you heard that right. I painted a 25’x 10’ muslin dress designed by Mondo Morales, live, with tempera paint at The Blue Building Gallery. Devon Teucher, Principal Dancer with The American Ballet Theatre, wore it and performed a piece choreographed by the fantastic Jodi Melnick while Adam Tendler played the piano. Thanks to Liz Yilmaz & Mara Driscoll who are the founders and Creative Producers of this event. Artbathnyc.com.



I am working on an installation, Kiss Me Goodnight. It walks you through the journey of depression. Even though it is so intimate and hard to share, it is also very relevant. My intention with this show is to give a little glimpse to the ones who don’t know how depression feels and hope to the ones who live with it. The installation includes poetry, watercolor, activations, and original music by a good friend, Pete Remm. I cannot show you this one yet but I hope to make it happen soon enough.

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

MA: The first person that came to my mind was Dalí, but then I thought twice. He would make the book about himself. Then I thought about the one and only painter I love, Da Vinci, but let’s be honest, he would never finish it. Then the Mexican in me wanted to pick someone Mexican but that is not a good-enough-reason, is it? So, I am going with Klimt. I love his style, colors, and eroticism. Can we call his agent?

A million thanks to Marcela for taking time to answer some questions about this beautiful book! Somebody to Love: The Story of Valerie June's Sweet Little Baby Banjolele published earlier this season from Third Man Books!

Special thanks to Marcela, Third Man, and Wunderkind PR for use of these images!



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