Recently, author and illustrator Mike Curato visited Manila to discuss Little Elliott, his line of children’s books about the titular polka-dotted elephant. He read Little Elliott Big Family to us and I fell in love with the gorgeous illustration and the sweet yet minimal text about the power of family. I was given the chance to sit down with the illustrator, where we talked about his inspirations, his upcoming works, and his favorite children’s books.
Can you tell us more about your work?
Little Elliott represents my inner child and he’s inspired by two elephants from my childhood: a doll that my grandmother gave me and an elephant from a film.
It’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The elephant is a very minor character. It didn’t really have any speaking roles but I was always obsessed with him as a child. He’s part of these toys that are discarded because there’s something wrong with them. It was a little polka-dotted elephant and I thought he was really cool.
Why did you delve into children’s books?
What I love about children’s books is that even though they are created for children, they can speak to anyone because they deal with universal themes. Children’s books take large ideas and condense them into just a few pages, just a few words, a few images. I find that very powerful.
What themes do you explore in your books?
In Little Elliott, there are themes of friendship, compassion, empathy, and family. Those are values close to my heart.
You’re also working on something based in Cuba. Is All the Way to Havana also for kids or for a more mature market?
It’s definitely for kids. The author is Margarita Engle, a Young People’s Poet Laureate. She’s Cuban-American. Our hope for the book is that it becomes a window for children to see and experience Cuban culture in a non-political way. The book deals with day-to-day circumstances that Cuban people deal with. There are a lot of parts in the book that may feel very foreign to a non-Cuban child, but then there are other parts that will feel very familiar. For example, the way that the child interacts with his parents or the way the family has a big party. These are things you can find anywhere.
I think it will resonate well with Filipinos because we’re family-oriented. I saw the video for the book and if you take away the Cuban music and the cars, it will look exactly like the Philippines.
I drew inspiration from my experiences here when I was working on the book. I went to Cuba to do my research and when I was there, there were a lot of values that I experienced [in the Philippines] like family, loyalty, perseverance, and improvisation. They’re part of the Cuban and Filipino spirits.
You’re also working on a graphic novel.
[The graphic novel will be for] a young adult audience. It’s about a teenage boy in the summer before high school. He’s at a boy scout camp and he’s coming to terms with his sexual identity. There are themes of bullying, friendship, and suicide. It was a hard book to write in some ways like emotionally, but it was also an easy book to write because I drew on a lot of my own experiences. I wouldn’t call it an autobiography but it’s definitely influenced by a lot of my past.
You explore a lot of themes in your wide body of work. Is there a common thread that ties everything together?
Love is a consistent theme in a lot of my work.
What’s your favorite children’s book?
There’s no way I can pick one. I can share some of my favorites, like Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series. Those books are dear to my heart and have influenced me as a writer and artist. There’s Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, which has also been a strong influence. Also Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? There’s a long list and they’ve all given me different things, it’s hard to say which has given me the most.