When I first entered the children’s book world, I felt like a strange being on a new planet. Aside from the few stories I remember as a child, I really didn’t know much. I knew which books I liked to read to my son, so that’s where I started my research. I went to libraries, stores, and talked to people. I want to take the time to give a shout out to some of the mentors I befriended in the field who took the time to answer my many questions:
Mike Perry self-published Daniel’s Ride, a great story about a little boy, his brother, relationships, and a lowrider. His second book was called Turntable Timmy. In 2005, Mike spoke to me about children’s books. He was passionate and engaging, and broke down his view of the business without anything to hide. His “do it yourself” attitude influenced me profoundly.
Later Mike referred me to one of his partners, a Bay Area graffiti legend named Doug Cunningham. I met Doug and his partner Jason Noto at their design studio, Morning Breath, as an intern. These brothers were extremely down-to-earth, they had uncanny knowledge of music, art, and iconography. They used their experiences in graffiti, punk and low brow cultures to create a portfolio of work that would take most people a lifetime to achieve. I picked up a lot by listening and watching them work. More than just giving me game on how they produced artwork, they taught me about business management, client relationships, and maintaining a balance between art for one’s self and for clients.
Another brother I met while finishing my BFA in New York is the amazing illustrator and writer Ricardo Cortés. My homie Bounce told me about him and when I went for a visit at his office in Manhattan, I got the opportunity to ask him questions. Lots of questions about technical skills, the publishing world, relationships between illustrators and writers, and how to send my work out to the right people. This brother was crazy busy — doing album artwork for groups like Antibalas, self-publishing stories, and creating fine art. You probably know his work from the infamous Go the F#$% To Sleep, but he’s also done awesome books like It’s Just a Plant and A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola.
After seeing my frustration at the lack of representation from people of color in children’s books, a professor of mine suggested a children’s book artist named Gregory Christie. I almost met Greg in person. Almost. At an open studio with Javaka Steptoe, I missed him by a few minutes. After marveling at Greg’s huge body of work and styles I emailed him my work and we talked about how he started out. He was kind enough to give me tons of useful advice and lots of ideas. His advice to tell stories close to my heart, and how to be versatile and relevant were priceless. You may recognize his work in books like It Jes’ Happened, Standing Against the Wind and Bad News for Outlaws: Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves.
Maya Gonzalez was very open, warm, and to the point with her advice to me. She later hosted a workshop with several talented Bay Area artists, activists, and writers about the creative and business side of making children’s books. She has been tireless in sticking to her guns and sharing what she knows with those who want to learn. For me, she and her partner Matt brought new levels of understanding to the process of how a book goes from start to finish. They have broken new ground in sharing their experiences and I’m proud to recommend their lessons to anyone who is serious about learning this craft. Some of the books she’s illustrated are Mis Colores, Mi Mundo, Fiesta Feminina, and I Know the River Loves Me.
After finishing my degree I contacted one of my favorite illustrators, Simon Silva. I got to talk on the phone with Simon more than once. He graciously listened while I rattled off my questions and vented a little about how difficult it was to break into the industry. He gave me insight into the ways that an illustrator can make it in the business. He gave me encouragement as an artist to see the longer road ahead and lit a fire under me to keep going. We talked about illustrating stories, how to license and sell artwork as well. I learned so much from him about professionalism, respect, and showing up. You probably know him from his earth-shattering classic, Gathering the Sun.
If it were not for these very talented, generous, and special people, Furqan’s First Flat Top would not be manifesting. When I felt frustrated, shut out, ignored, and completely unskilled, these folks opened doors for me by reminding me to work my ass off and to visualize the goals I want to achieve. They took the time when many people closed their doors. I have a long way to go, but their words have propelled me forward. I have hella love for you all. Thank you. I will give back just like you do.
I also want to thank the growing independent children’s book publishing movement here in the Bay Area. Creators like Aliona Gibson, Janine Macbeth, Innosanto Nagara, Malia Connor, Blood Orange, and Reflection Press are upsetting the power dynamic, opening new doors, and changing the way children’s books are made.
PS: Shout out to Duncan Tonatiuh, Patt Cummings, Zetta Elliott, and Shadra Strickland as well. Thank you for the encouragement, shining example, and support! To support my first children’s book called Furqan’s First Flat Top please visit the Kickstarter page.