David Díaz is an American illustrator of children’s books. In 1995, he won the Caldecott Medal for U.S. picture book illustration recognizing ‘Smoky Night’ by Eve Bunting. The Caldecott Medal recognizes the preceding year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children”. The Caldecott and Newbery Medals are the most prestigious American children’s book awards.
Ironically, David’s parents were concerned that his love for art would lead to struggle with the uncertainty of being an artist. Happily, that concern proved unfounded, as David’s talents as an artist are now known worldwide. He has also won the 2009 Parents’ Choice Award for ‘Ocean’s Child’, and has been a runner-up for the Pura Belpré Award three different times. The Pura Belpré Award is a recognition presented to a writer and illustrator whose work best portrays the Latino cultural experience in a work of literature for children or youth.
David is a board member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). SCBWI “is the only professional organization specifically for those individuals writing and illustrating for children and young adults in the fields of children’s literature, magazines, film, television, and multimedia. ”
For what audience do you illustrate?
I’m currently working on my 50th book, so I think I’ve illustrated for every genre and age category, from Easy Reader up through Young Adult. I don’t illustrate TO a particular genre. I respond to the content of the manuscript, rather than to the book genre.
What’s going on lately for you?
A few months ago, I received the Pura Belpré Award for illustrating ‘Martín de Porres: The Rose in the Desert’, illustrated by David Diaz, written by Gary D. Schmidt. Gary is an American children’s writer of nonfiction books and young adult novels, including two Newbery Honor books and one Printz Honor award.
Henry: Congratulations! Wow, Diaz AND Schmidt. That’s like literary peanut butter and chocolate! Wikipedia helpfully provides, “Saint Martin de Porres was a lay brother of the Dominican Order who was beatified in 1837 by Pope Gregory XVI and canonized in 1962 by Pope John XXIII. He is the patron saint of mixed-race people and all those seeking interracial harmony.”
What aspect of illustrating do you find most challenging?
For me, the most challenging aspect of illustrating a picture book is the process I go through between receiving the manuscript and handing in the first round of drawings for the entire book. So much about how the book will be illustrated is decided in that early phase.
In that regard, how much interaction do you typically have with the author for whom you are illustrating?
Typically, there is very little. The editor acts as a fulcrum between the two, although the illustrator may ask questions, and the writer may provide some initial art direction. The editor has the important role of having a vision for the author’s manuscript, and finding the illustrator who can best fulfill that vision of the book. More and more there is a trend toward using writer-illustrators, or books being presented to a publisher as a package by a collaborating writer and illustrator pair.
Henry: That’s interesting to hear. The handful of editors with whom I’ve spoken on that subject seem to prefer receiving only a manuscript if the author is not also the illustrator.
What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from your experience as an illustrator?
Be aware and sensitive and open to great writing (which doesn’t come along that often). Have your eyes open and your ears open. Be an avid reader of good work. We have limited time, so be selective of what you read and what you illuminate with illustration.
Henry: Forgive me, but that sounds like advice for a more well-established illustrator.
What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?
Think of art as a lifelong endeavor. It is a craft that takes a lifetime in which to become accomplished. Put everything you can into promoting your work. Take a farmer’s approach – your efforts will take time to bear fruit. Don’t be discouraged by the absence of immediate success. I illustrated for 15 years before receiving the Caldecott.
Henry: It should be noted that David received the Caldecott (the most prestigious award for picture book illustration) on the FIRST picture book he illustrated. That’s like hitting a grand slam at your first at bat in the World Series.
Do you have any favorite quotes?
“There’s no greater law than love.”
Henry: Love. It’s not just a good idea. It’s the law.
Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you write or illustrate?
Not really. Most illustrators have their methods to get themselves to a creative space. When I first receive a manuscript, I may have it for a week while I wait for life’s other stresses to subside and my mundane to-do list to subside before I’m completely open, lucid, and in a creative space where I’m ready to absorb the manuscript.
I’ll print the manuscript, and then read it with pen in hand, making thumbnail sketches. Those initial sketches uncannily inform what the final illustrations will be. It is important to give the manuscript the honor and respect it deserves. Gary took eight years to write ‘Martín de Porres: The Rose in the Desert’.
Henry: David often works outside, with which I can completely empathize.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Stopping time would be most enjoyable. Being an artist, it would be wonderful to be able to observe without being observed, and of course all that extra time to get things done.
Henry: Leave it to a creative artist to believe he can violate the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. 🙂
If you could have three artists over for dinner, who would it be?
Only three? George Ohr, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Egon Schiele. All three of these artisits share a common thread, they created in the moment, they had a clear vision of their voice and craft, and they all defied convention.
Henry: Wikipedia helpfully provides, “George Edgar Ohr was an American ceramic artist and the self-proclaimed ‘Mad Potter of Biloxi’. In recognition of his innovative experimentation with modern clay forms from 1880–1910, some consider him the father of the American Abstract-Expressionism movement. Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American artist. He began as an obscure graffiti artist in New York City in the late 1970s and evolved into an acclaimed Neo-expressionist and Primitivist painter by the 1980s. Egon Schiele was an Austrian painter. A protégé of Gustav Klimt, Schiele was a major figurative painter of the early 20th century. His work is noted for its intensity, and the many self-portraits the artist produced.”
What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
Pops. Because the most important thing to me is being a father to my children.
Henry: Very nice.
Where can readers find your work?
Readers can find my work in bookstores, on Amazon.com, and the websites of my publishers, such as Scholastic, Houghton Mifflin, and HarperCollins.
This interview is also posted on the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.