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It's the book birthday of Anita and the Dragons! This beautiful story about "the love for one's homeland and the courage it takes to emigrate" (Kirkus Starred Review) was inspired by the journey of author Hannah Carmona's mother when she was a young girl. To celebrate, we invited Hannah and illustrator Anna Cunha to have a chat about their new book and the inspirations behind their work. Enjoy this fascinating and insightful look into their creative lives!
Hannah: Hey Anna, I hope this finds you well! The illustrations for Anita and the Dragons were absolutely breathtaking! The colours you used and the style they were drawn brings more life to the words than I could have imagined. How did you draw inspiration for the pictures in the book?
Anna: Hi, Hannah! My inspirations for the book came from my own memories as a child, scenes that have been and still are with me, the small and simple pleasures, modest sceneries, which are rich in nature, beauty, contemplation, tenderness. We can still find places in Brazil that seem frozen in time, which probably resembles Anita's island. On the visual side, I find inspiration from naif and popular artists from Brazil and elsewhere. The simplicity of the shapes and colours, and the way they capture my everyday life really touches me.
My first question for you would be: Do your family (and yourself) still have roots in the Dominican Republic? Do you ever visit or still have bonds with the island?
Hannah: I have two uncles that have homes in DR and live back and forth between there and the US. I have a few Aunts, as well, in my extended family that still reside there. My mom has gone back a couple times to visit when I was younger and I hope one day to make a trip there with her and see where she grew up.
Anna: How did your mother pass to you her Latin heritage? Did you grow up in touch with any Latin culture (food, music, stories, manners...)?
Hannah: Both my parents are Hispanic (my Dad Puerto Rican and my Mom Dominican) and growing up in my household food is where my culture was most reflected. Don't get me wrong, there were many stories of their lives and family. But food is where it is at! As a child, and even now, my favorite spot to sit is at the kitchen island while my parents cook a delicious meal and while (if my dad is cooking) reggaeton or bachata music plays in the background.
Anna: Do you see or feel this heritage in yourself today?
Hannah: To be honest, I've struggled with being "hispanic enough" in the past– an issue that I've surprisingly found a lot of first generation, Latinx-American raised friends of mine also struggled with. I don't speak Spanish and have never visited the island my family is from. This used to make me feel inadequate, but I've come to realize that I don't need those things to be "hispanic enough". I was always enough (ethnicity wise and otherwise). I feel my heritage by celebrating who I am everyday– by listening to stories of my abuela and my mom and in turn sharing those stories and passing on traditions to my daughters.
I would love to know more about how you illustrate. Do you have a favorite spot where you love to illustrate/feel most inspired?
Anna: I have only one single spot to illustrate at this very moment...
I have turned my living room into my studio, because the room I used as a studio in my apartment, became too small and claustrophobic for me during this confined life... I just keep the books there, and live, work, eat, read, spend my entire day in the living room... It's not really inspiring to be locked in a small apartment, in a huge city, day after day, but I really feel privileged. I have everything I need, it is safe, nice, comfortable, gets a lot of light, I can see some sky through the window, colourful sunsets, a glimpse of the mountains, bits of green inside and outside. What really inspires me is to travel, to be near nature, to escape to the mountains, to the seaside, to discover lost places in Brazil and around the world. I used to travel quite a lot. Hopefully, I will be able do this again, sometime in the future...
Hannah: You mentioned some of your illustrations come from childhood memories. Which do you feel had the greatest influence on your art?
Anna: I was born, and grew up in Belo Horizonte, a very big city, where I still live. But I have spent a great part of my childhood at the tops of trees, on clay backyards, in the countryside where my grandma and aunts lived and where I would spend every vacation. A place of very rich traditions, syncretic religion, refined craftwork. My father also had a small cottage outside the city, in a very small village, where I used to wander freely through the woods, waterfalls, in search for insects and birds, taking care to avoid snakes and leeches. Nature and the simple life around it, the popular culture and art so rich in Brazil, a potent mix of the Indigenous, African and European imaginary, really shaped my personality, my interests, my values. I have studied Biology and Fine Arts before becoming an illustrator– a curious combination that still makes a lot of sense for me.
Hannah: What hobbies do you enjoy outside of work?
Anna: I love reading, I love poetry, I love travelling, I love collecting plants, flowers, stones... gifts from nature :)
Hannah, how (and why) did you become a writer? What inspires you in literature and in life?
Hannah: I've loved writing since the second grade. Going into middle school, instead of passing notes to my friends, I would pass drafts of my books to them so that they could proofread them for me. As an adult what really drew me to venture into the publishing world was when I was looking for a book on a specific topic for my then newborn daughter. When I couldn't find it I wrote it, and after many revisions and rounds of querying it eventually found a home. Since then I've found a deep love in writing stories that I want my kids to find on the bookshelves and in which I hope other children will see themselves in the pages of.
I feel inspired by many things in life, and much like you, draw from the world and nature around me. I try to surround myself with things that spark joy from something as simple as a plant to fuzzy socks and my favorite flavour tea (nettles with honey and cinnamon at the moment). I think sometimes creative people can get really caught up in "finding inspiration" and for a long time that was me. But it's really as simple as looking at the sky, questioning, "What if this happened," and not limiting your imagination.
Anna: Do you have other book projects for the future?
Hannah: I'm always working on a new book project :) While I don't officially have a new project being published there is currently one in the works sitting in my desk drawer as I type this.
What illustration projects do you have coming up in the future? Do you have a 'dream project' you'd love to illustrate one day?
Hannah with her mother, whose immigration story inspired Anita and the Dragons
Anna: I'm working on the illustrations of a new book right now for Harper Collins. It will be finished next month! And probably this year I'll see the release of two books written and illustrated by me, my first ones! They have been waiting a long time to find a home, and finally last year I signed with a Brazilian publisher, Maralto. I really can't wait!!
I don't have a dream project anymore... When I was younger I used to dream of illustrating famous stories and poems I love. Nowadays, I'm just happy they exist. I feel they don't really need my illustrations. When I read something beautiful, I think it is already complete. And I'm also already complete illustrating the beautiful stories that happen to come to me. I just hope to do a good job, in every project. All of them are special for me.
Hannah: Anna, that was so beautiful what you said about your dream projects and illustrations. Also CONGRATULATIONS on your first books!! I'm so excited for you and can't wait to see the mark they leave on the world!
I love reading, plants, and poetry too :) Any book or specific poem that you have found adds joy to your everyday life during the pandemic?
Anna: I've been reading again and again The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, one of the greatest Brazilian writers. Many of her works are currently being translated into English, and it is an enormous project. This very book, a treasure, a masterpiece, and many others can already be found in English, in the nearest library, I hope!
I also recommend two immigrant poets I've been reading recently. One is the young Vietnamese-American Ocean Vuong, so gifted and already very celebrated. The other one is Edmond Jabes, an Egyptian Jew exiled in France in the 50s. They both fled the war, different ones, lost their belongings, and in their own way, write to somehow create a home.
I would love to have a recommendation from you too!
Hannah: I added your recommendations to my Goodreads list and I hope to be able to dive into reading them soon. I have found great peace in reading The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and hearing the words of past philosophers applied to modern day. Additionally, I just read Oprah's book The Path Made Clear and was filled with so much hope for the world. Some of the other books I have found joy and beauty in are The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo and anything written by Ekhart Tolle.
On a final note, thank you Anna for this conversation! I really enjoyed getting to know you more :)
Thank you, Hannah and Anna, for sharing such wonderful stories with us.
Want to hear the story? Visit Moon Lane TV's YouTube channel for storytime and draw-along videos with Hannah and Anna! Find the playlist HERE.
Click HERE to buy the book!
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Hannah Carmona is a Latinx writer, actor, and director who currently resides in Tennessee. She is the mother of two girls, co-founder of Collective Art School of Tennessee, and a YouTuber. Learn more about her work on hannahcarmona.org or follow her on Twitter.
Anna Cunha is an award-winning Brazilian artist who has illustrated more than 20 books for Brazilian and international publishers. Her work has been shortlisted for the Jabuti Prize and received a João-de-Barro Prize honourable mention. Visit annacunha.com to see more of her stunning work or follow her on Instagram.