A Bright Star Interview with Yuyi Morales Herself
Oh, what a treat. What a treat and what a thrill. Folks, from the minute I set my eyes upon the book, Bright Star, I was enthralled. For years and years and years I’ve been a fan of the work of Yuyi Morales. When everyone else became a fan too I very much felt like the nerd that’s into a cool band and who then gets pouty when it’s not an underground sensation anymore. But how can I blame you? Inventive? Original? Unique? Horrendously accomplished? That’s basically her CV. And now, today, I get to ask her questions about her latest book. Could anything be better?
Betsy Bird: Yuyi, thank you so much for joining me here today! One cannot read BRIGHT STAR without feeling the full weight of its meaning fall on you, the reader. It starts out so simply and then builds and builds. Could you tell us how this book came to be?
Yuyi Morales: Hola, Betsy. I’d like to think that Bright Star is about the simplicity and complex exuberance of life. This book really was written by questions I had — one, in particular, I asked again and again as I met with people who came to my book readings or people who would sit with me and talk, was the following: How do you heal a hurt done to you that feels irreparable?
At the time I was seeing, along with our whole nation, how people, families, and unaccompanied minors trying to cross the border into the USA were rejected and stopped — often with force. Families were separated from one another, children in detention centers were kept inside cages, and parents and caretakers were being deported without their children.
Truly, I could not fathom how I could keep making books for children without an answer about our responsibility to children and their well-being. And so, I began making Bright Star as a way of finding answers to my questions. As this process unfolded, I realized that I needed the help, the experience, and the wisdom of others to learn how to tell this story — one that became about on the borderlands.
BB: There is a rage that many people feel when they think of what children at the border endure. One of the things that struck me about your book was how clearly it highlights injustice but the tone is not anguished. There’s hope to be had here. Did you settle on the book’s tone right from the start or did it change as the book came into its final form?
YM: When I began making Bright Star I felt pretty lost as to how I was going to tell this story that, yes, was born of rage and indignation at the cruel, racist, and dehumanizing treatment that some families and children were experiencing at the border.
However, there were two things I knew: I wanted to make a book that could be like a song that accompanied children when they most needed it — a book that felt like a lullaby, a lullaby that told children that they are not alone. The second thing I knew was that I wanted to make this book look like a blanket.
I will explain this. You probably saw it too, Betsy, those images of children inside detention centers, inside perreras, as the wire cages were called, where children lay down covered by silver, aluminum foil-like blankets. Those blankets might be very warm and functional — go figure — but I believe there is great insensitivity and mistreatment in giving a child a blanket like that after going through such traumatic things like being separated from their family.
So, I wanted my book to be a warm, soft, handmade blanket for children to be embraced by — a handmade blanket made from soft wool, embroidered with yarn colored with natural plants, made with care and love, especially for them. This blanket I actually weaved and embroidered, and is the piece that you see in the endpapers, one on each end of the book, like blanketed arms that embrace a child in need of reassurance.
Both the idea of this book as a song and a blanket carried me through the making of Bright Star — you could say they were my north star as I journeyed, exploring the many directions that this book could go.
BB: While many of the reviews and praise for the book discuss its humanitarian aspects, one of the librarians that I work with pointed out to me its ecological message as well. She wrote, “I so appreciate a book that is very clear about its ecosystem! … the book is at least as much about the damage to the ecosystem as it is about the damage to the humans that live in it. Seems a slight thing until you read it a 3rd time and then it grows in power with each read. Roads and walls are some of the worst offenders when it comes to driving biodiversity loss.” Was this focus on the walls we force on nature, intentionally and unintentionally, something that was in your mind when you created BRIGHT STAR?
YM: The first research I did for this book was about healing and I made time to explore how we could heal. But when I started researching the borderlands, I wasn’t prepared for what experts, people of the community, and activists would later show me: the borderlands were being systematically destroyed by the United States federal government, dating back several generations, all to stop people from crossing into the USA.
I spoke to Alfonso Valiente, professor and desert expert at Universidad Autonoma de Mexico and he began painting with words a landscape of pollinators and seed spreaders, bees, peccaries, birds, butterflies, and many other animals whose presence preserves the cycles of life at the borderlands.
With my mind exploding with images of bats pollinating giant saguaro cactuses, I began following the work of photographer and activist, Krista Schlyer. If you read nothing else today, go and find her website, Embattled Borderlands, where you can read her stories, see her images, and hear the sounds of the endangered species, human communities, and wildlife, who suffer the destructive consequences of immigration policies enacted by those who insist on building physical barriers in failed, and cruel attempts to stop people from crossing to the other side.
Then, I know that you will realize, as I did too, that the story of what cruel things can happen to people in the borderlands cannot be told without acknowledging the destruction of wildlife in these lands. Our healing can only happen for us, people, if it happens for our land and the life of these places.
BB: I love how you came up with the skin of the kids in the book. Could you talk about how you came to that tone and its importance?
YM: For my first books, I painted my illustrations with acrylics on paper, and even then I was already trying to embed on the textures and colors things I felt about every scene; even the direction of my brushstrokes represented a way to advance the narrative of each book.
For Bright Star, I painted pieces of paper with acrylics and then I scanned those colors to create a digital palette of colors for painting the animals, plants, and landscape. I also used photographs of objects that were meaningful to the story. Two sets of photographs were especially important for me: the first set were two photographs that I took of a border fence, one made of concrete, and the other one made with metal. These photographs I put into my computer, and with them, I created the color and the textures to paint the border wall that appears in Bright Star.
The other photograph, and the most important to me, was one I took at a migrant shelter in Agua Prieta, Sonora in Mexico. There, among the people waiting to be considered for permission to enter the USA, I met a mother who allowed me to take a photograph of her baby girl. I also put this picture in my computer and from it, I created the color and texture to paint the children in my book.
The other materials I used were the embroidery and weaving that I mentioned to you before. For me, it was of great importance to create a story made by hand, delivered with care and love that we can summon for children, especially those who are in situations of vulnerability, particularly for those who might be hurting right now.
BB: Finally, what can we look forward to from you next?
YM: Well, my next book will also come from the process of exploring and learning. This time, my theme is happiness. The quote that drives me most is something I heard attributed to the feminist, Coral Herrrera: “My most ferocious rebellion is to be happy.”
A thousand thanks to Yuyi for this interview and to Sara DiSalvo and the folks at Holiday House for setting it up.
Get a behind-the-scenes look at Yuyi’s creative process in the PW piece Yuyi Morales on the Making of ‘Bright Star’.
And if you’d like to hear more, please be sure to check this video about Yuyi and her process on the book here:
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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