July 23, 2019

Let's Talk Illustrators #115: Ricardo Cortés

In 1980, "Party" first appeared as a short story in The New Yorker. It told tale of three girls attending a gala celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Nancy Drew book. Ricardo Cortés adapted Kincaid's story in Party: A Mystery, but like the original tale, it's still up to readers to decide what happens. Take a closer look at Ricardo's process below.

About the book:
Three girls -- Pam, Beth, and Sue -- attend a party to celebrate the publication of the first of the Nancy Drew mystery books. There are many distractions at the fancy affair: flower arrangements, partygoers, refreshments, and lots and lots of marble. Suddenly, the oldest girl, Pam, sees what can only be described as something truly...bilious...not good. Beth sees it too. The youngest, Sue, does not, and as usual she has a hard time getting anyone to tell her anything. Party: A Mystery promises questions that will grab children, but does not guarantee an answer.

Let's talk Ricardo Cortés!

LTPB: When you read Jamaica Kincaid’s "Party" what drew you in? Why did you decide to turn the story into a picture book?

RC: I discovered “Party” as a short story in a book of essays that Jamaica wrote for The New Yorker. I loved the book, but "Party" arrested me. It's about three girls who attend a fancy book party celebrating Nancy Drew. Quite suddenly, the girls see something at the party. Something? Someone? Whatever it is, it seems shocking and horrible. The mystery builds as to what the girls see (actually, only two of the three see it), and then... well, the book ends with perhaps more questions than one might expect. I read it and frankly, I was confused. I read it again, and I was still confused, and that excited me. I really enjoyed the frustration it elicited, it amused me. I thought, "what a wonderful, ridiculous story!" Right then, I imagined sharing this bewilderment with kids, an entirely different audience than the story seemed originally intended to reach. There was something about the strangeness of the tale that I thought would be perfect for a children's book. I was inspired how the story broke children's book formula, upending any resolution one usually finds at the end of a story. I thought it would be interesting to play with in adapting it, and I thought the result would be fun for people to read.

LTPB: Since the mystery is never shown to readers, what kind of effort did you put into the illustrations to enhance the sense of tension and help readers connect with the younger sister (who is in the same boat readers are)?

RC: Exactly! Yes, the youngest sister doesn't see the mystery, and I knew she would be the reader's proxy in the book. I also knew that, since I didn't want to reveal the mystery in the images (or at least, not obviously), that it would be the expressions of the girls that would really carry the tension of the narrative. So I worked to keep the reader interested in our three characters and the experience they were having at the party, and especially in straining like the youngest girl to glean exactly what was the big fuss.

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

RC: I drew Party: A Mystery entirely in color pencil. I love pencil, I'm quite comfortable with it, but I'm also happy exploring in other mediums like watercolor, acrylic, even digital. My last book Sea Creatures from the Sky was mostly gouache; that book is about the ocean and deep space, and it felt appropriate to play in gouache's expressive potential while illustrating sea water and nebulous expanses of our galaxy. But Party has a lot of marble, a lot of children's expressions, and not much else. I thought I could render the feel of all that stone, and capture the details of the face and its emotions, best in pencil. Because there was so much grey from the setting environment, I spiced up the palette adding color splashes by including flowers and cakes, which also may be clues (or distractions?) to the great mystery at hand.

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

RC: Sure. I'm working on two projects. First, a re-issue of my very first book, a children's book about marijuana called It's Just a Plant. I first published this story in 2005, to some great and understandable controversy.

But the book isn't a primer for kids on how to smoke cannabis, it's rather an earnest approach to talking with children about why adults use the plant for recreational or medical purposes. Of course the legal and cultural landscape of marijuana has shifted significantly since 2005, so I'm working on a beautiful updated edition with Akashic Books that will be released in April 2020.

Besides that, I'm also amidst production of a book on tomatoes. It's a children's book, a tongue-in-cheek diatribe against the evils of that deadly nightshade. It's my first book entirely in watercolor, and I'm really enjoying a very different style of illustration than I've done with my last few books.

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

RC: Hmnmm.. that's tough. I was really inspired as a kid by the work of ol' Norm Rockwell and Chris Van Allsburg. I wouldn't mind having them illustrating my story haha. But I might also might like to jazz it up a bit, get a little looser, and would love to see Molly Crabapple or Ralph Steadman give it a go. I love both of their energies and their gonzo approach. So perhaps I could serialize my story and have them all do a chapter? And then I could add Tomi Ungerer to the mix, simply because he's also been an inspiration on the breadth of subjects he's applied his focus to.!

A big thanks to Ricardo for stopping by to talk to me about his books! Party: A Mystery published last month from Black Sheep.

Special thanks to Ricardo and Black Sheep for use of these images!

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