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The long distance collaboration to create All Around Us
The long distance collaboration to create <i>All Around Us</i> December 8, 2017
--Michelle Lange

S.A. friends team up to create new children’s book
In today’s children’s-book world, the writer and illustrator usually have a long-distance relationship. That is, it is almost always the case that the publisher pairs writers with illustrators for picture books. It has to do with artistic autonomy and other factors, but the fact remains that it’s sort of weird that about 99 percent of the time, the writer of a story doesn’t know the artist bringing it to life, except by email. And they rarely live in the same part of the country — or the world. Xelena González would have none of that when it came to her first children’s book “All Around Us,” mainly because it is a story set in San Antonio that is very close to her heart — like, grandfather close. “The first rule I eschewed was to submit my manuscript to a big publishing house that would pair me with an illustrator they trusted, but whom I might never meet,” González, a 38-year-old graduate of Northwestern University, wrote in an email from China, where she is head librarian of the International School of Guangzhou (but maintains her permanent address on Leal Street in San Antonio). “These rules are in place for a reason, but I happened to know and trust an amazing artist with whom I had collaborated on many community-based projects.” That is Adriana M. Garcia, a San Antonio artist whose resumé includes entries as graphic design teacher, muralist and set designer. “Xelena and I are longtime friends,” Garcia, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University who’s also in her late 30s, said during an interview at her South Side home. “I’ve used her as a model in my paintings, and our parents knew each other back in their activist days. She approached me and said she’d written this story and would like me to illustrate it. “It was a very quiet, very beautiful story,” she added. “In many ways, it reminded me my own family, and how my father would show me how to do things in a gentle way. I remember sitting under trees with him or taking walks.” Using photographs of González’s daughter and father, representing the author and her grandfather, Garcia began to sketch scenes and mock up pages of digital drawings. González, a member of the Auteca Paguame (“water bird people”) family of the the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, had written a simple story rich in American Indian culture and philosophy. A grandfather and granddaughter take a walk around their South Side San Antonio neighborhood and notice the circle imagery in everyday life, from the physical, such as a rainbow or the granddaughter’s face, to the natural and metaphysical. “The concept of circles is playfully connected to specific objects like clocks, eyes and bicycle wheels,” González said, “and also to abstract cycles like the mulching process, the digestive system … even the larger circle of life and death.” The book’s overriding lesson is respect: for elders and for the earth. Garcia’s colorful, kinetic illustrations offer neighborhood scenes such as backyard gardens that pulse in the artist’s signature style, which seems to make rays of energy radiate visibly. Now, how to get published? The creative team applied for a $5,000 grant from the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture, or NALAC, in 2015 and got it last year. “They were the first organization to take a chance on us,” González said. She explained that grant stipulations required that the project — in this case, an illustrated children’s book — be presented to the community “in a meaningful way.” “We considered hosting a regular reading, of course, but ever since my days in library school, I had been longing to display a story walk,” González said. “To me, the concept is simple, appealing and effective, especially in a city like our hometown, where family literacy and physical fitness are areas that could use a caring nudge.” So, they set up a public event at the Mission Library branch last year, placing enlarged 3-by-5-foot page spreads from the book throughout the library’s community gardens. Patrons could read the book as they walked through. The event also featured performing artists responding to the story in song, poetry, spoken word and dance. “More than a reading, it was a dynamic art exhibition,” González said. Excited by the response to the book, González and Garcia sent a mock-up to the small, independent El Paso press Cinco Puntos. “It’s kind of a publisher’s dream, for a manuscript to come in the mail and — lo and behold — it’s a perfect fit,” said Cinco Puntos publisher John Byrd. “We took one look at the bright images, electric with circles and light, read through the rich story line and knew immediately that it would be a Cinco Puntos book. ‘All Around Us’ offers a window into the world of a modern-day mestizo family. Rather than explain an entire culture, the book invites young readers to question and draw their own connections. It’s just a beautiful book.”

By Steve Bennett STAFF WRITER

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