Verne in Bogotá by Juana Medina
As a child I devoured books. My hunger for reading drew me to the newspaper, where there would be fresh material to read every single day. My mother, however, was not a fan of my newspaper reading.
I grew up in Colombia. The day to day events in my country in the 1980s were terrifying. The news coverage, barely comprehensible to many adults, was clearly not intended for children.
My mother tried to protect me, but even as sheltered as I was as a 7 year-old, war was everywhere. It could not be erased from life. White sheets covering bodies in the streets, bombs making my quiet bedroom shake. Riding in cabs hearing the radio blare gruesome coverage of the latest massacres. My mother acted stoically and courageously, hoping for me to think more about art and sports and books, than the world we lived in.
Books offered a different reality. I read Jules Verne voraciously, learning about expeditions and adventures that inspired my own imagination. Afterwards, with my cousins’ help, we’d turn my grandparents’ garden into under water-worlds, caves, and outer space. The huge magnolia tree planted in the center of the yard, was our rocket, our submarine, our hot air balloon, our shelter. We used our little hands to push the jasmine nightshade out, away from the high wall, to make a narrow space where we could hide our bodies and rest behind the shade. My grandparents were patient with us, letting us pluck leaves and flowers to make potions; shaking around bushes to create our fantasy-world huts. Between books and their garden, my childhood was turned into a haven during the bristling decades-long war.
Eventually my mother did let me read the paper, though it was carefully inspected beforehand. Sports and comics sections got passed down. I learned about mighty Colombians wearing polka dotted jerseys, leading some of the most dire stages in the Tour de France. While they conquered the French Alps, my biggest challenge was folding the blanket-sized newsprint pages. I fell in love with Quino’s Mafalda and my dad’s beloved Peanuts. I studied, in awe, the intricate drawings for Tarzan and Lee Falk’s The Phantom, trying to emulate their traces, to the best of my abilities.
While my grandparents’ garden offered a seemingly endless Eden, anchored in Colombia, the paper offered me snippets of excitement from a world that appeared to be more remote from Bogotá than Verne’s center of the earth.
My grandparents are gone and so is their magical house. I’m lucky to still have my mother, who I’ve contacted a number of times while writing this post, to ask her about the plants at my grandparents’ house and to reminisce about a paradise she helped build for me, while the war happened at our doorstep.
With time, life landed me in Washington, D.C., where I’ve been given the possibility to revisit my childhood, through drawing and writing stories for children. My spirit is at ease, as I read in the paper (which my Mother still says I shouldn’t read), how the war in Colombia seems to be close to an end. This inspiring sense of progress, makes me eager to share some of my adventures -as well as the enjoyment of reading!- with new 7 year-olds, because now I can truly tell them, how with love, dedication, and much imagination, we can make things better for all.
Juana Medina was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia. She is the illustrator of Smick! by Doreen Cronin and the author-illustrator of One Big Salad. Juana Medina has studied and taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and now teaches at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at George Washington University. She lives in Washington, D.C.