We had the opportunity to interview the talented illustrator Sara Palacios. She has collaborated in many different books including, Between Us and Abuela (FSG), ‘Twas Nochebuena (Viking), One Big Family (Eerdmans), and many other books for children. In 2012, she received the Pura Belpré Illustrator Honor for Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match (Children’s Book Press). Sara was born in Mexico City and earned BFA and MFA degrees in Illustration from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
What made you decide to become an illustrator?
SP: I always liked to draw; however, I didn’t know that I could become an illustrator until I was in college. I ended an illustrator’s exhibition, and I was in awe! That’s when I realized that it was possible to illustrate for a living. When I was 21 years old, I got a job working with an illustrator. I’m very grateful for that job, as that’s where I started learning what illustrating professionally was all about, and I knew that’s all I wanted to do.
What are you most passionate about in your work?
SP: I don’t know if there’s something in particular that I’m most passionate about. I like all the aspects of it. I draw for a living—it doesn’t get any better than that for me! I’m very grateful for that.
Where do the ideas for your books come from?
SP: It all depends on the story really. Once I read the manuscript, I start to do some research, and it all goes from there. Each book is diﬀerent. Some stories are placed in speciﬁc places or time periods, so the ideas come from reading the manuscript and doing lots of visual research—that could be looking at diﬀerent books, watching a speciﬁc movie, or taking my own pictures if possible.
Do you have a favorite medium or style?
SP: When I started illustrating all I used was watercolor: that was the ﬁrst technique I ever learned. Then I attended the Academy of Art, where I was exposed to diﬀerent techniques. With time, I’ve realized that what works best for me is mixing media. I like to paint backgrounds with gouache and acrylic, I like to include cut paper, and then mix digitally.
Who has been a major inﬂuence on your illustration style?
SP: That is a diﬃcult question. There are several illustrators whose work I like; however, that changes with time. I try to learn from other artists’ styles and techniques, but I’m always searching for my own voice. I like to think that my work has evolved, but I would say that’s a natural process for all illustrators. So I wouldn’t be able to name a major inﬂuence. I’m constantly observing and trying to learn and improve.
How much research do you do before you begin a book?
SP: A LOT!! Once I read a manuscript, the ﬁrst step for me is to gather references. As I mentioned before, some stories call for very speciﬁc places or time periods, some are about traditions I’m not familiar with, etc., so looking for reference and sometimes reading more about certain places or things mentioned in the story is very important for me as I start doodling.
Where do you ﬁnd your inspiration for new stories and characters?
SP: It depends on each story. Looking for references is the ﬁrst step, always. I love creating new characters. I search and look at pictures of people, then I start sketching and I do several loose studies before ﬁnding my characters. Once the characters have a face, it becomes easier for me to envision the rest of the story, so I do a more speciﬁc research. It is a constant process of doodling at ﬁrst, gathering more references and reﬁning as I go, even before I draw the ﬁrst thumbnails for the book.
What characteristics do you think illustrators need most?
SP: Being able to receive feedback with an open mind—never think that your ﬁrst drawing or sketch is the best. Always being willing to improve. Perseverance to draw everyday not just for work, but also for fun or just for practice. And if you are a freelancer like me, being able to work many hours on your own.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
SP: Every time I see a book I have illustrated in a bookstore is a highlight for me. Or when somebody lets me know they read the book and they like it. I’ve worked with many talented authors, and I’m always grateful and excited when editors and authors think of me to illustrate a book.
What do you wish you’d have known starting out as an illustrator?
SP: I wish I had spent more hours drawing from life. I don’t think I was aware of how important that is for illustrators regardless of style. Also, that there’s no such thing as a “perfect” drawing, ever.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
SP: I think the same advice I give to my young students now. Keep drawing and relax—it’ll be okay as long as you keep at it. Don’t get discouraged.
What is your favorite image from Facing Fear?
SP: I like the scenes inside the family and the aunt’s house. I like creating and seeing the family’s personality. Story-wise, it’d have to be when the coach and the soccer team show up at Enrique’s house to show their support.
What do you hope kids learn from Facing Fear?
SP: I hope we can all better understand that immigrants are not a threat. We are just regular people like everybody else, pursuing a better life and happiness. And I also hope to bring more visibility to the fear and struggles some families face in order to be able to give their families a better chance in life.
Can you tell us one thing people may not know about you?
SP: I attended dance classes in my late teens and early twenties. I was of course, too late for it, but I’d love to be a ballerina.
Enrique can’t believe his father won’t let him travel to his team’s big soccer tournament. Papi says going across the checkpoint is too risky. Even though Enrique is a U.S. citizen, the rest of the family isn’t—and if the border police stop them, the family might be split up. The next morning Enrique decides he’s going to his big game, no matter what. But the day ahead will change how he sees his dad and how he defines courage…
This book is a powerful depiction of the everyday struggles faced by undocumented immigrants and their families. Sensitively told with expressive illustrations, Facing Fear explores the meaning of bravery and the strength of a community.