obert Liu-Trujillo is an Oakland-based author and illustrator. His first book, Furqan’s First Flat Top, is a beautiful book about a father and son—and a fresh haircut! It came out of his desire to see his family’s experience represented in children’s books. Not finding it, he took matters into his own hands and self-published it in 2014. His latest book, Fresh Juice, is due out in 2021 and is his first book published by Lee and Low, the largest multicultural publisher in the U.S. I spoke to Robert about how he began his career, traditional versus self-publishing, and more.
For those who aren’t familiar with you, introduce yourself and your work.
Peace, my name is Rob and I’m an artist from California, the Bay Area specifically. I work in children’s books, illustration, and murals.
You were born in Oakland, but went to Parsons at The New School in New York City. Did you ever think about staying in New York, or was returning home always an obvious thing for you?
Well, I lived in three different neighborhoods in Brooklyn and as MC Lyte said, it was definitely “the planet.” A whole other world for me. I moved to NYC with my son’s mother as a very young family man and left it as a single co-parent/father. I don’t think I had anything planned past finishing school and just being open. I definitely thought about staying in NYC. Many of my homies from the Trust Your Struggle Collective had also moved there from Cali, so I had a network once I got there that expanded quickly. I met so many cool New Yorkers from Brooklyn and all over the five boroughs, Jersey, upstate, and occasionally someone from Philly, Connecticut, or Detroit. I moved back because my son’s mom wanted to get back to our community in the Bay and I vowed to always be there for my son. I love New York, though!
How did you come to write and illustrate Furqan’s First Flat Top and what was the response from your community?
I actually started my journey in children’s books before I left Oakland, just researching books and the people who made them. It was children’s books that made me actually want to go back to school. While in New York I started sending my work out, got lots of rejections and decided to fall back. I decided to work on my craft a bit by doing short stories and Furqan is one of the shorts I wrote and illustrated. People really responded to it, so I decided to make it into a book.
What does your process look like for a book that you’re both writing and illustrating? Do you write the text first and illustrate that, or are you first working with imagery?
In the beginning it was a bit of both. Most recently I have been trying to get better at writing the story out in manuscript form and rewriting, and rewriting. But in the beginning I’d start with both. This is for picture books, though. It might be different for a middle grade book.
The main theme you seem to explore is family, in your own books as well as ones that you illustrate for other authors. What makes you most excited to do a project?
Huh—yeah, I think family is super important whether it’s by blood or by choice. In Furqan, for example, the family is just father and son because I don’t see enough children’s books featuring fathers and sons of color. I wrote the original story in 2012 and I think that is still true in the industry. As far as getting excited goes, it varies. It could be another story, song, or film. But generally I like to do stories about parents and children, especially people of color. I really dig slice-of-life stories that are about normal, everyday things. I love stories about struggle and identity too, but for picture books I want to convey a kid or a family just existing.
“I don’t see enough children’s books featuring fathers and sons of color. I wrote [Furqan’s First Flat Top] in 2012 and I think that is still true in the industry.”
Furqan was self-published, but your new book, Fresh Juice, is being published by Lee & Low Books, the largest multicultural publisher in the country. What’s it been like to navigate the traditional publishing landscape versus self-publishing?
I’d say it has been a huge learning process. Figuring out what is what, who is who, etc. In general the traditional publishing industry is slow, a bit pretentious, and guarded by several layers of gatekeepers. There are people within the business from agents to editors who are trying to change that. But it is still a very white, older, female, heterosexual crowd of people deciding what is approved, commissioned, bought, distributed, praised, etc. and that is reflected in what gets published.
Because I learned a huge amount of information about how the industry works by self-publishing and building community with other like-minded folks (authors, illustrators, librarians, and teachers) I have found that I’m not as intimidated by the gatekeepers anymore. I know some of the inner workings and how to make my own story without them, so I feel very empowered. But I still have a lot to learn! Not only about the industry but about the art of making good stories. I will continue to self-publish, but I’m also open to working with publishers who are receptive.
Do you have any advice for younger author-illustrators who are looking to break into the picture book world?
Yes: do it yourself. Do not wait for the industry to give you permission to create. Go make your book. Then make another one. Learn as much as you can about all the people who make a book successful. There are many jobs outside of writing and drawing that make or break a book. Once you do that, find other like-minded people and share what you know. Be kind, honest, and be yourself. You do not need to break into the industry’s world, the technology and resources exist for you to make your own world.
What’s next for you, after Fresh Juice? Will you stay with picture books, or do you have plans to explore other markets?
There are other projects in the works that I can’t talk about yet, but I will definitely post about them when I can. I plan to keep writing and illustrating picture books. I’m interested in doing artwork for early readers, all ages comics, and middle grade. Beyond that, I plan to keep illustrating and making art about things like ethnic studies, social justice, history, music, film, etc. And beyond that I plan to keep painting murals with my crew. I will continue to write for M is For Movement, and helping to organize different events celebrating culture here in the Bay.
How can people follow your work?
Thank you so much for the invitation to be on your site. It is an honor. Worker-owned is BIG!
To learn more about Robert Liu-Trujillo and his work, check out his website.
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