I first met Robert on 17th street in downtown Oakland (CA) as I was walking to lunch with my coworkers. He was working on a giant mural with a bunch of young people hanging on various levels of scaffolding. His son, who was quite young at the time, was sitting on some newspaper on the sidewalk, helping paint. My colleagues introduced him to me as “the Artist” Rob.
Fast forward a few years, and I’ve gotten to know Rob quite well as a fellow children’s book author and illustrator. We find ourselves on many of the same panels, gatherings, and conferences. And every one of his books is an instant favorite in our household. So I couldn’t be more excited when he agreed to do this interview with me, as he is one who has travelled the path ahead. He says he doesn’t see himself as an organizer, but as one who has been organized by him, I’ll have to beg to differ. Enjoy the insights!
IN: You wear a lot of hats: Children’s book illustrator, children’s book author, muralist, fine artist, parent… amongst others. Can you talk a bit about your journey?
RT: I can give you the short abridged version! I’m a lifelong artist who began as a kid obsessed with writers (graffiti). I fell in love with that art form and learned a lot about doing things yourself, work ethic, and breaking rules. I then studied graphic design, and various other visual art forms. I grew up with two parents who were activists and that influenced me a lot. It wasn’t until college that I began to find a way to bridge the art with the activism or politics. So I co-founded a collective called Trust Your Struggle that did that. And then I became a parent. Suddenly, the world was different and things I couldn’t see before became crystal clear. And that’s how I got into kids books because I began reading to my son and was furious that there were not more books about him, me, my family, etc.
IN: The children’s books you’ve illustrated, A Bean and Cheese Taco Birthday, I am Sausal Creek, One of a Kind Like Me, and the one you also wrote, Furqan’s First Flat Top, are all bilingual and seem to have a common thread in relation to who and what is represented. Can you share how you see the projects that you choose to take on?
RT: Well, simply put I want all or the majority of the books I work on to be bilingual because I feel like we could all learn to speak another language. And with language comes an understanding of the “other” or details about another persons culture. I try to make sure that I draw children of color too because they need to see themselves reflected in everyday life, not just historical books.
IN: You do artwork for a wide range of media and audiences. Is your artistic process any different for children’s books?
RT: Yes, most definitely. When I first started I thought it would be easy to draw some cool looking pictures. But I quickly learned there is a whole other skill to drawing a sequential story and keeping the likeness of the characters in it consistent. So for a book, I try to practice drawing the main character and the elements that support them.
IN: I’ve heard you mention graffiti and hip-hop as one of your launching-pads. But from the outside at least, your illustration style is not a stereotypical of those movements. How do you see your children’s books in relation to those aesthetics? Or am I just buying into a narrow definition of those movements?
RT: Well, for Graf at least there is a lot of rigorous training. You work on your tags, your throw-ups, your pieces, characters, backgrounds etc. For me at least, there was a lot of discipline and practice involved. You wanted to be unique. Copying another’s style was not good. Also, Graf is definitely more about you as a writer getting up, getting fame, or praise so in that sense my art is different now. But I think the culture of writing taught me a lot about working on my style and being fresh. For hip hop, I’m a life long lover of music and that culture so it will always be in there. There are several hip-hop details that I slipped into Furqan’s First Flat Top for example. Some are obvious, and some you only notice if you remember that person or style.
IN: You’ve done a number of collaborations with Joy Liu-Trujillo, who you are married to. Did you know you were creative partners as well as life partners before you got together or is that something that evolved?
RT: We met in an artistic way. The first time we really hung out was for an art night where my friend Jidan and her came together to hang out and create. Then when I lived in Brooklyn we collaborated on a project called “Come Bien” which would later be the name of my self-publishing company. We sought out creatives of color to write and illustrate about travel, politics, people who inspired them, and short stories. I would partner people up and Joy would do the design or layout of many of the pieces. We worked really naturally together. And then when I moved back to the Bay Area we were both competing for a design gig for La Clinica. So we told them we knew each other, and we agreed she would do they design layout and I would do the illustrations. She told me I charged too little, haha. We clicked really well because before I even thought of asking her out, I respected her as an artist (she paints, draws, etc too) and as a person. I always tell her, “I love you” of course. But I also really “like her” and I think that is because we were friends first. But I knew we would work well together. We got plans man!
IN: Do you consider yourself a “political artist”? Or perhaps there is another way you’d put it?
RT: At times, I do. I think making a commitment to illustrate children or people of color is a political choice. When we started Trust Your Struggle I definitely wanted to make work that didn’t hold back when talking about police terrorism, the effects of imperialism on US and worldwide citizens, smashing capitalism, and so many other topics. But, I definitely don’t try to say I am an activist or political artist. There have been other artists who have said “tone this or that down” if you want to get a job or impress this or that person. But I do not care, if they ask me I’m going to tell them what I think. Sometimes that makes art less cuddly, but so be it. I have definitely missed the occasion to speak on an issue before, or be oblivious to an issue. But I’m trying.
IN: Despite the “We Need Diverse Books” movement, the mainstream children’s books publishing world is still very homogeneous on all fronts, including who gets to create these “diverse” books. How do you see your work in that context?
RT: I see it as organizing. I’m not an organizer per se. But the “industry” is built on blood money, old money, imperialism, capitalism, all of that. The companies at the top come from centuries of pillage. They are only interested in keeping a status quo and control. I am not unwilling to work with them, but I do not think new artists and writers of color need to pander to them, seek their validation, or get their approval. F**k their approval. Their model places gate keepers at every door who enforce white supremacist and hetero-normative stories from those who review and purchase books to those who have financial means to hire several writers and artists at a time. I think there are some good people working within the machine for sure; from agents to editors. But, we as regular everyday people who are interested in telling new stories just need to organize ourselves, help one another, critique each other’s work, raise the quality of our work, and make plans to get it into families hands. Families and kids will then say, “I’m not feeling this story” or “we love it”. Sure, we won’t have a NY Times bestseller notoriety, but we will impact the culture of the next generation. And the industry knows that. We all need to understand that we reach more children if we work together. Movements for social justice, hip hop, punk, etc all started by a bunch of people organizing their own scene or culture. We just need to be wary of “biters” as Graf writers used to say.
IN: For those who are going the self-publishing route, there is always the danger of getting too insular. Do you have any tips or tricks on how to get input and feedback before a book goes out in the world?
RT: Yes, this is a good point. I think we as creatives need to build community, family, whatever you want to call it around our stories. That way we can depend on each other for help, assistance, critique, or feedback. I for example am a horrible speller and if I didn’t have my wife or friends to correct me I’d spell everything wrong. Sometimes, I still do. When it comes to the writing and illustration I think we need to practice, study, and work on it-together. Just because we’re self publishing don’t mean you should just throw an idea out there without editing it, getting someone who actually understands design, illustration, or marketing to make the book look dope. We are competing with folks who have more money and resources than us so we need to make our stuff look and read flawlessly. I think we are doing good, and I think we can do better. I know some people don’t have the funds to dot all the I’s and cross the T’s, but if we organize regionally we can help each other create guidelines and best practices that we can use to test our ideas against. Making a book is a team effort. That is what I’d start with. Craft a team, ask dumb and smart questions, and do your homework is what I would give as a tip.
IN: Your child is in eighth grade now. What does he think about your books?
RT: The books and book culture around him are normalized. It does not feel weird or out of place. He is used to them. He’s not necessarily excited about picture books and that’s fine. I’m just glad he likes to read, whether that be graphic novels, comics, magazines, or middle grade and young adult novels. What I worry about is kids who are being handed a screen every day without knowing that there are so many great books out there.
IN: Who else is doing social justice-themed children’s book illustration that you think I should interview?
RT: Daddy, there’s a noise outside by Kenneth Braswell because this touches on protests and demonstrations for ages 4-8.
Brotherman Revelations by Dawud Anyabwile, Brian Mcgee, and Guy Sims because the story focuses on the life of a kid who grew up around activism, crime, corruption, etc. This is for ages 8-14
Artists against Police Brutality by Rosarium Press. This is more for teens and young adults and it features artwork and stories about Police terrorism that is palatable.
Robert Liu-Trujillo is the Oakland-based author and illustrator of “Furqan’s First Flat Top” and the illustrator of a number of other children’s books. He is a lifelong artist and a co-founder of The Trust Your Struggle Collective, a contributor to Rad Dad, and the founder of Come Bien Books. He is also the newest member of the editorial team at M is for Movement! For more of his work, visit http://work.robdontstop.com/