July 27

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Of Reading, Books and Zonia by Juana Martinez-Neal

I am Juana and was born in Lima, the capital of Peru. You may know me from a book I made about a little girl with a big name and the bigger story behind it. I grew up surrounded by my dad’s art and my mom’s profound, endless love. At our family home, each room held books and paintings. The paintings talked about Peru and their people. The books were a constant reminder of what was left to read. You could smell the sea outside while the fog took over the streets every morning.

It is probably no surprise that both my parents were avid readers, and they passed their love of books to me. When I was young, I got lost in stories. Short stories from our cloth-cover, golden-letters collection; stories in novels that I’m sure were above my age group; and stories in anything that resembled children’s literature. It was then that I was given a copy of El Principito (The Little Prince), and I hugged a book for the first time. As I got older, I was able to start buying my own titles. I picked mine every year from the discounted bins at the book fair blocks away from my home. I opted to devour stories written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alfredo Bryce Echenique and Isabell Allende. I read books by Kafka, Sabato, and other authors whose writings were, once again, above my age group. Poetry always unexplainably captivated me, so I read lots of it.

In between all of this reading, I finished high school and started art school. Three years later, I made the trip north to the United States for what I thought was one year abroad. Now that I have lived in the United States for twenty-six years and am blessed to have a career as a bookmaker, my mission is to share the Peru I know with readers. The Peru without any stereotypes; the one that has seldom been accurately represented in books, films, and TV. 

For my second author-illustrator book, Zonia’s Rain Forest and La selva de Zonia, I wanted to show a side of Peru that is not as known in this country: the Peruvian Amazon and their people. As personal research, I traveled there while I was working on the book. In the Amazon, I was surrounded by life and welcomed into villages of several communities including those of the Asháninka people. At home and while still working on the book, I read and researched articles about the conditions of the communities in the area due to poisoning of the water, destruction caused by oil spills, illegal mining and logging, and all the ramifications of these. The stories of resistance and action from the Asháninka also came up. I learned about Ruth Buendía and how she managed to organize the Asháninka people and protect their communities. Zonia’s Rain Forest and La selva de Zonia try to include all those elements, the beauty and the difficulty of our world.

The process of creating the book was challenging yet satisfying. I covered several important subjects in a picture book format: the Indigenous way of life, the environmental threat Indigenous people face, and the rights they have over their own lands. The backmatter was essential to understanding the book. It picked up where the story left off. With the help of my editor, agent, and many people, some of whom are Asháninka themselves, we made this book what it is now, and I could not be prouder of it. This picture book not only represents people mistreated for centuries in their own country but reaffirms them as the true owners of the lands they occupy. It values their way of life and invites others to understand and exercise a life where humans are more attuned with nature. It brings one of the many Indigenous people underrepresented in children’s books to the US.


Last week, I received an email. It solidified my pride in Zonia’s Rain Forest and La selva de Zonia. It came from people who work in the Ecuadorian Amazon bringing books, science, and arts to children of coffee farmers. They use books to instill a love for reading, conservancy, and imagination. She wrote to let me know that she found La selva de Zonia at a bookstore in Brooklyn on a short trip to the US. We have scheduled a meeting, and I could not be more excited to meet her. I want to hear about their work, the children who participate in their programs, and the communities they visit. But I am even more excited to hear how the children will receive the book. Because at the end, this book and the work I do is for them and them alone.

Juana Martinez-Neal is the Peruvian-born daughter and granddaughter of painters. Her debut as an author-illustrator, Alma and How She Got Her Name, was awarded a Caldecott Honor and was published in Spanish as Alma y cómo obtuvo su nombre. She also illustrated La Princesa and the Pea by Susan Middleton Elya, for which she won a Pura Belpré Illustrator Award, Babymoon by Hayley Barrett, Swashby and the Sea by Beth Ferry, and Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard, which won a Robert F. Sibert Medal. Juana Martinez-Neal lives in Connecticut with her family. For more information and resources, including educator guides, visit her online at www.juanamartinezneal.com.