Caldecott Honor Artist Juana Martinez-Neal

Click here to watch the 2019 ALA Youth Media Awards press conference. 

I asked Sophie Blackall, Juana Martinez-Neal, Grace Lin, Brian Lies, and Oge Mora to answer two questions and finish two sentence starters.

Hello, Juana Martinez-Neal! Congratulations on receiving a 2019 Caldecott Honor for Alma and How She Got Her Name

Juana: Hi John! Thanks so much for taking the time to send these questions. It’s hard to believe that I’m here answering them for you. 

Thank you for being here! I love hearing about THE CALL. What ran through your head when the phone rang? 

Juana: Oh, John! The story of the night before the call is SO much better. I spent 3 weeks in January traveling through different areas of the Peruvian Amazon… which is amazing, wild, loud and so very alive! I traveled with my best friend from Peru, Rocío. The night before the call I was staying in Masisea, a small town 3.5 hours by boat from Pucallpa. I had the longest, sleepless night ever but not because of the awards being announced the next morning.

Being a small town, Masisea only receives electricity from 6pm to 10pm. That night, all lights went off at 10:15pm. Silence and darkness can be so powerful. I could hear everything and see nothing, but I forced myself to fall asleep since I needed to catch a boat back to Pucallpa in the morning. I was startled with the feeling of something walking on my arm. Armed with my regular and iPhone flashlights, I searched and found a huge bug who by now was running away from me. After contemplating my options, I opted to kill the bug. My flashlights stayed on for the rest of the night, staring at half the bug’s corpse on the floor. My mind couldn’t stop thinking what else was in the room with me and that I couldn’t see.

I dozed off holding my flashlight when a spider the size of my hand appeared on the wall way too close to me. Another contemplation of options started, and then I thought to check on the corpse. It was no longer there! I decided to get dressed, get my backpack on (after a very close inspection), and sit by the door with my flashlights to wait for everyone else to wake up.

First thing in the morning we took the boat back to Pucallpa, and went straight to a restaurant for breakfast. With chamomile teas in hand, my phone rang. The caller ID said “Seattle WA”. I picked up the call, but I honestly didn’t think it would be the Caldecott Committee. 

What were you thinking about when the Caldecott committee was clapping and cheering for you?

Juana: I was born in Peru and came to the United States when I was 24-years-old. Although I have lived in the US for more than 20 years now, when I heard the committee speaking and cheering all their words jumbled together and I couldn’t decipher a word. It felt just like when I had first moved to the US and was learning to speak English. So, what did I hear during the call? I heard lots of words, “Committee”, more words, “beautiful book” more words, “ Alma and How She Got Her Name”, more words, “Caldecott Honor." I started crying, held my friend Rocio’s hand, and then the only words that I could utter were “Thank you” twice and that I looked forward to meeting them all in June -- which I very much am. 

What does the Caldecott mean to you?

Juana: This award is recognition for all the years it took to get here, to develop the work, to find my voice -- including those years when I felt I didn’t know what I was doing.

It is a huge honor as a brown Latina born and raised in Peru to receive the award. It is especially meaningful considering that in Peru, I didn’t grow up with picture books. The first illustrated book I remember, and that made me fall in love with words and illustrations working together, was The Little Prince. Oh, how it changed how I looked at books!

After I moved to the US, it took a while to discover children’s books. Finding my voice took some time, too. As I tried to become an “American”, I lost the connection to my country and my roots. I lost who I was; and I stopped painting and writing. It took a while to realize that what I needed to do was paint the people who I know, the people who look like me, brown people.

I created Alma and How She Got Her Name and Alma y cómo obtuvo su nombre to celebrate the stories of who we are and what we can become; to empower the children to find out about their stories and that of their relatives; to give the parents, caregivers and teachers a chance to share their stories with the children. I want you to please see Alma as a book for everyone with a name, not only for Latinx children and families. It is important that we share our stories and don’t make them fit into subcategories but that we embrace them as simply good stories.

I want you to take a minute and consider, if this brown Latina from Peru who grew up without picture books can become a Caldecott Honor illustrator, you can do it, too! I can’t wait to see what you do! 

Please finish these sentence starters:

Picture books are for very young children and older children and adults -- we each discover our own amazing meaning in a picture book.

School libraries save lives. My library was my hiding place, my refuge. It was the door into all these worlds I didn’t know and I was so eager to learn about. A place where I could escape and feel safe.

Borrow Alma and How She Got Her Name from your school or public library. Whenever possible, please support independent bookshops. 


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