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Interview with Creators Jairo Buitrago and Rafael Yockteng

Interview with Creators Jairo Buitrago and Rafael Yockteng

In honour of the release of their latest picture book collaboration, The Pet Store Window, we sat down (well — via email!) with creators Jairo Buitrago and Rafael Yockteng. 
Groundwood: You have published eight books now with us. Which one has been your favourite to work on and why?


Jairo Buitrago: It is a difficult question for any author, but I will let myself be guided by my heart: Walk with Me because of what it represents in so many Latin American countries (it is my best-known book in Latin America) and On the Other Side of the Garden because it is a beautifully edited and illustrated book.


Rafael Yockteng: On the Other Side of the Garden is one of my favourite books. The atmosphere created with the single-tone digital engraving technique I used and the pops of colour help highlight the characters and Isabel’s emotions. They create a kind of graphic narrative, which I had never achieved before. And I love the character of Isabel, her grandmother and her three friends.


GW: Do you relate to any of the characters in your books?


JB: I think I’m half Gabriel and half Santiago from Wounded Falcons


RY: There is a part of me in every character that I illustrate. When I create characters, I try to put myself in their shoes. I put them together with what I know, with what I have lived and with the people in my life. Often, I draw people who are very close to me, and they become my protagonists.


GW: Tell us about your collaboration process. Do you communicate with each other or is it all done through your publisher/editor?


JB: No, we have never stopped communicating directly. Despite living in different countries, we always looked for spaces to meet in person. Now I can see Rafael more often. I also think that we have a special connection that makes it so that we can work independently. He perfectly understands my plot proposals and my sense of humour.


RY: My relationship with Jairo is first and foremost a friendship. From there come conversations that lead us to think up books and brainstorm ideas that we both like. Of course, Jairo is a master storyteller, and I love listening to him. I believe he is someone who sees the world in a very special way and knows how to share his perspective with others. Our collaborations depend on trust in one another, and the ability to say what we are thinking; for example, if there is something that we do not like, we say it, and together we build a better idea if necessary. Jairo lived in Mexico for many years, but whenever he travelled to Colombia we would sit down together to work on a project, so the distance was never a problem.


GW: Your books are translated into English. Is there a noticeable difference in how they read in English compared to the original Spanish?


JB: Although I am not an expert in the English language, I think we have been fortunate that our books are understood on many levels by readers of both languages. The translator Elisa Amado has a lot to do with it of course, but also that they are universal stories.


RY: The truth is that I do not have a clear sense. I speak and read some English, but when reading and listening it is possible that I am missing many things that an English speaker understands differently.


GW: Many of your books reflect the lives of people dealing with hardship. Is there a personal connection to those stories?


JB: Of course, living in Latin America means experiencing many stories of difficulties every day, but also stories of solidarity and resilience. With Two White Rabbits there is a real connection to the stories of migrants I have met and who have told me as readers that they see themselves reflected in the book. I like those stories, which go beyond the “Hispanic” stereotypes of so many children's books.


RY: The stories that we tell generally talk about everyday life, and in each of our daily lives, difficult things happen. That is the connection that I have with the characters, even though I have not lived their lives nor the events that take place on the pages.


GW: How have you seen kids react to your books when they read them? Are you ever surprised by their reactions?


JB: Many times! It is very beautiful to see them undergo the patient (but also passionate) exercise of contemplation. They laugh a lot with Lion and Mouse, they easily understand the feelings of the little girl in Walk with Me and they are amused by the dialogues of the owl, the toad and the mouse in On the Other Side of the Garden. I read this last book aloud with the children and I like it a lot. I try to read them clearly and with a lot of action on my part.


RY: Yes, I have seen them! I love seeing them, I love knowing that they like the books and that the books make them wonder about each other’s lives. What surprises and moves me the most is when a child who has experienced similar situations sees themself in the book and can talk about it.


GW: Your books vary so much in subject matter and setting. Are there any stories or places you would still like to depict?


JB: There are still many stories to tell and many places to visit. We want to make books about the tropical jungle and the jaguar, which is very close to us, about dragons and more intimate or everyday stories about girls and boys from urban environments. Rafael and I joke a lot about this topic and we say that we need to make a western, a book in the Roman Empire, or in ancient Tenochtitlan, every day we come up with new ideas and stories and many of them go to a drawer of “illustrated books to be made... someday”.


RY: Many! I hope to continue telling stories. Stories of pirates and Martians, of parents and ghosts, of famous cities and unknown countries. Stories of the future, of the past, of the beginning. Stories of love, of friendship. Stories of life and farewells. Stories are infinite, and I hope to tell many more.


GW: Is there anything else you would like readers to know about you or your books?


JB: I think that when it comes to illustrated books, the best is yet to come. I really like to investigate and theorize about illustrated books for children, about the particularities of their language, and I have often argued with my colleagues because we are still not used to serious criticism being made on the subject. My books have wanted to break cultural barriers and for readers around the world to understand that Latin or Hispanic labels do not always tell the reality of our people, because we are something more than parties and exoticism. “I can't think of any job that would be more enjoyable and fun than making children's books,” said the great Arnold Lobel and I totally subscribe to that thought.


RY: That I love telling stories, but I am very, very slow to do so, maybe because a good story takes time to tell.


Jairo Buitrago and Rafael Yockteng have collaborated on several picture books, including Jimmy the Greatest! (six starred reviews), Two White Rabbits (three starred reviews), Walk with Me (three starred reviews), Lion and Mouse (two starred reviews) and Wounded Falcons (two starred reviews and named a USBBY Outstanding International Book). Their most recent book together is The Pet Store Window. They both live in Bogotá, Colombia.

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