Black Children’s Literature is a Must: an interview with illustrator and children’s book writer Robert Trujillo

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By JR Valrey, The People’s Minister of Information

The Covid 19 shelter in place mandate has given a rare opportunity for parents in the Black community to present Black children’s literature to our children, while outside businesses and distractions have been mostly closed down. Black literature is of the utmost importance because it allows our children to see themselves in the universe of photos, illustrations, and words beyond our history of suffering enslavement in the Americas. Literature is about the future, just as much as it is about the past, because we have to believe before we can achieve anything. 

Robert Trujillo, a children’s book illustrator and writer, has been actively a part of local Black people and people of color literary movements to create more children’s literature around our stories, creativity, and fantasies in Oakland and the Bay Area. 

Relative to my life, Robert Trujillo’s book “Furqan’s First Flat Top”, was a favorite bedtime story for my youngest daughter, a few years back, because it was one of few books that I read to her that concentrated on a Black father dealing with their child, although in this case it was a son. I’m urging Black people to use this opportunity to introduce your children as well as yourself to new ideas, beyond television. In this environment where shelter in place schooling has been disastrous for local Black children to say the least, the Black community has to pull our resources, to stop the mass flunking of a generation of youth, who found themselves in a society unprepared to fight a pandemic. Buy the community’s children more Black books, so we can create more children who have a love affair with literature, and not just video games and social media. Check out our local children’s lit visionary as he discusses the genre, during Covid.

JR Valrey: Who or what inspired you to want to become a writer of children’s books?

Robert Trujillo: Peace JR, thanks for having me. It’s an honor homie. My son inspired me when he was just a baby. I hated reading growing up and found no enjoyment in it until I was grown. Part of my dislike of it was because I didn’t see any books that looked fresh to me. And they definitely didn’t reflect my life. When I became a father and started looking for my boy, I was infuriated by the fact not much had changed. There were hardly any books featuring mixed kids; none featuring Black fathers, and the majority about Black books were about slavery, civil rights, or the past. There’s nothing wrong with those topics, but there must also be fun everyday stuff to read too. I decided to go into the field, at that point. 

JR Valrey: How many children’s books have you written up to date? Did you do all of the illustrations? 

Robert Trujillo: So far I’ve written two picture books, and two middle grade books. I’ve illustrated eight picture books. I try to do both whenever I can, but I definitely enjoy collaborating with people who’re invested in kid lit.

JR Valrey: What inspired the different particular works?

Robert Trujillo: Well I have written two stories about fathers and sons, because I wanted to see more Black men and their sons portrayed in picture books. I learned Spanish as a second language, so working on bilingual books is also really important. A lot of the other books are inspired by an author’s story first, then I add a layer of storytelling with images.

JR Valrey: Do you work as an independent author or do you work for corporate publishers? Please explain why you work the way you do?

Robert Trujillo: I started out trying to go the typical publishing route, which is similar to trying to get a record deal with a music label. I got tons of rejections, because I needed to work on my craft and people didn’t understand where I was coming from. When I decided to start self publishing, is when the industry and independent book projects started to come in. I work in both though. I believe it is really important to do that to learn how to work with a team, and how to assemble a team and do it on your own. Both sides require a lot of time and investment.

JR Valrey: How has COVID affected you creatively? 

Robert Trujillo:  Well I have a toddler now, and when day-cares shut down, it meant that me and my wife would be taking turns watching her, so each of us could work. That pretty much cut my personal and client work time in half. I have been working from home for quite awhile, so that isn’t hard. But having kids at home with me while I do it, presents some unique challenges. At the end of the day I’m trying to stay flexible and keep it pushing. Amazingly, the ideas are still coming. They just take longer to execute.

JR Valrey: What do you feel children’s books for Black children are missing in terms of content?

Robert Trujillo: Oh my god, good question. There are tons of topics I wish I could see relating specifically to Black children and families. I mean, a book about father and son’s who build old school cars together, more fantasy and science fiction, Black muslim families, queer Black family stories, Black skaters, kids who grew up in political movements. Also, books about everyday things like cookouts, getting your hair braided, learning to clean. Overall what I believe what is missing is stories that are not just about our pain or the past, but about today and the future we’d like to see. 

JR Valrey: How do you feel about the explosion of graphic novels, creatively and business-wise?

Robert Trujillo: I love it. I definitely had lots of fun reading them with my son as he was growing up, and I feel they are a great way to build a love of reading for fun into a child’s life. Especially if they have the opportunity to visit their local library or a Black comics convention, and pick what they want to read. I feel like the huge growth of books is great too, because it is a unique medium for storytelling and we’re just beginning to see what can be done. Business wise, I think it is an untapped market. Currently, in the Black children’s book and comics world, I see a lot for babies and teens or older kids. Not that much for children ages 8-14, and that is such a pivotal moment of development. But no matter what the stories and the craft must be good or children won’t read and share them. Shout out to Dawud Anyabwile, Nilah Magruder, and Jerry Craft.

JR Valrey: Being Black and Asian what do you think about the recent explosion of interest in anime among Black youth of today?

Robert Trujillo: Oh, I think it’s great. Japan and Korea have a very old tradition of Manga and since the early 2000’s I’ve seen a whole bunch of different types of kids (including Black children) gravitate to it. I mean overseas, the comics are for every single age group. It is a respectable profession and medium.There are comics about life stories, romance, action, death, science fiction, fantasy, relationships, mental health, so many subjects. And I’m excited to see where Black children of today take what they learn from manga’s different storytelling techniques. 

JR Valrey: How do people keep up with you online?

Robert Trujillo: The best way to find and support me is through my website: www.robdontstop.com. There you can find all my social media, my store, blog, etc. Lastly, I’d just like to encourage your readers to support their local Black owned bookstore. “We Need Diverse Books” and the “African American Literary Book Club” both have great lists of stores nationwide. Oh and when we can all convene in person again, please visit your local Black comics or book conventions!!

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