John Parra is an artist, illustrator, designer, and educator. He has worked with airlines, National Geographic, Virgin Records and other large companies. His work has been showcased in galleries. He has taught workshops and classes, and he has been illustrating children’s books since 2005.
John grew up in Santa Barbara, California, where he says he was surrounded by a diverse group of family and friends. This has clearly informed his illustrations, which include skin tones of all hues. His Hispanic background is also a clear focus of and inspiration for his art. His books include biographical stories of people of color, and bilingual books featuring Latino families and children in settings reflecting the traditions, daily life, folklore, folk art, and spirit of his Mexican heritage. In an interview on latinosinkidslit.com, Parra says that infusing his Hispanic background and culture into his art was the missing piece that ignited a true emotional connection with his work. (LINK)
Parra’s paintings are primarily acrylic on wood, which he then sands to give texture and a feeling of age. He uses rich, warm, colors that are both bright and muted. He employs lots of basic shapes and lines to create scenes that combine both the everyday and the whimsical to give an overall folkloric effect. These techniques are reminiscent of Mexican folk art – the bright colors, shapes, blending of real life with the fantastical, and the use of wood as canvas. Much traditional Mexican painting is done on wood, including retablos, which are traditional devotional paintings. Parra cites retablos and ex-votos (similar to retablos) as forms of art that he loves and takes inspiration from.
Parra has won many awards, including The Golden Kit Award, The Pura Belpre Honor’s Award, The Americas Book Award, The International Latino Book Award and more. He now lives in Queens, NY with his wife and works out of his home studio.
1. Green Is a Chile Pepper
Thong, R.G., & Parra, J. (2014). Green is a chile pepper: A book of colors. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Green Is a Chile Pepper is a bilingual (English/Spanish) book of colors. The objects and scenes in the book are primarily of Latino or Hispanic origin: piñatas, sugar skulls, churros, tortillas – and the book shows Latino children and families engaged in various traditional or daily activities that highlight this.
The colors used are bright and rich: lots of pinks and greens and blues. The illustrations are paint on board and are sanded to provide a lot of texture. There are lots of curved and straight lines that move through each page, taking us from one to the next: a ball of yarn, the ribbons of the baile folklorico, the path of the oxcart, the skyline, the rays of the sun. In general, there is a lot of activity in this book. The pages are full of, almost cluttered with, objects and details. It gives the reader a sense of liveliness, bustle, life, which seems to highlight these aspects of the Hispanic culture the book is focusing on. I like the busyness of the pages. The words are relatively few, but there is a lot to look at on the page, and the illustrations are beautiful.
2. Waiting for the Biblioburro
Brown, M., & Parra, J. (2011). Waiting for the biblioburro. Berkeley: Tricycle Press.
Waiting for the Biblioburro is a story inspired by the real-life efforts of Colombian librarian, Luis Soriano Bohorquez, who travels by burro to bring library books to children and people in rural areas. This story is about Ana, a little girl who loves to read but only has one book, until the biblioburro comes to town and brings books for her and everyone else in the village.
The illustrations, which are acrylic on board, show Ana, her family, and the other villagers going about their daily lives. The first pages show a picture of Ana asleep and dreaming in her bedroom in her little house on a hill. The border where the blue of the sky gives way to the off-white of the unillustrated page is soft enough to suggest a blurry line between Ana’s dreams and reality. The rest of the illustrations employ this fanciful blending of real life and imagination – a pink-hued backdrop for Ana’s discovery of the wonders of stories.
The palette is pastel and muted, but still bright and warm. Parra uses lots of pinks, browns, and greens, which feel earthy and grounded. The librarian, however, stands out in rich blue and orange and red; he is a vivid visual bright spot on each page he appears on, much the way he is a bright spot in Ana’s life each time he appears in the village.
3. Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the spirit of New Orleans
Bildner, P., & Parra, J. (2015). Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the spirit of New Orleans. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Marvelous Cornelius is a story about a real man named Cornelius Washington who was a sanitation worker in New Orleans during the time of Hurricane Katrina. He was legendary for the enthusiastic manner in which he performed his job – singing, dancing, and performing tricks. This story is an imagining of how Cornelius found and inspired hope as he and others from around the country helped clean up the decimated city after the hurricane struck.
The illustrations are warm and rich, with lots of blues and reds. The style is folk artsy, but while John Parra’s books usually highlight his Latino heritage and more Mexican folk style, the illustrations in this book have a more American folk art style. There are more straight lines than Parra usually uses: lots of squares for buildings and windows and bricks. However, he still gives us curves and movement, and the pink diagonal rays of the sun that appear in almost all of his books. He also does a good job of making sure there are people of all hues, to capture the diversity of New Orleans and emphasize the overall message of people coming together to help one another.
4. My name is / me llamo Gabriela: The life of / la vida de Gabriela Mistral
Brown, M., & Parra, J. (2005). My name is / me llamo Gabriela: The life of / la vida de Gabriela Mistral. Flagstaff, AZ: Luna Rising.
My Name is / Me llamo Gabriella is a lovely bilingual depiction of the life of famed Chilean poet, Gabriela Mistral. It begins with Gabriela introducing herself and her love of words and stories. It then goes on to chronicle her childhood, life, and career, ending in her reception of the Nobel Prize and a brief biography. It is told in first person and is poetic while still being prose.
The illustrations, which are acrylic on wood, are whimsical and warm. The characters are smiling and happily engaged in all manner of life activities: reading, playing soccer, singing, walking through the town square – but often reading. Again and again on the pages we see images of people with books in their laps. Parra uses a pastel palette with lots of pinks, blues, and greens. His illustrations nicely represent the words on each page, while incorporating flowers, trees, butterflies, and other wildlife to give the scenes a magical feeling. This blending of real and fanciful underlines the narrative of Gabriela, which is centered around her travels and love of stories.
This is John Parra’s first children’s book, and while the style and medium is that of each of his subsequent books, the style seems slightly less refined than in his later titles.
5. Gracias / Thanks
Mora, P., & Parra, J. (2009). Gracias / thanks. New York: Lee & Low Books Inc.
Gracias / Thanks is a story in which a little boy gives thanks for different things in his life, in Spanish and English. The things he is thankful for range from the sun that keeps him from sleeping until he is old and bearded to his friend Billy who shows him a book about a giant. The thing I like about this book is that he gives thanks for things that are generally relatable, like the sun and soft pajamas, to things that are specific and unique, like the narrator’s friend, Billy, who shows him a book about a giant who puts his parents on top of a tree. This contrast of common and unique is a good way to bring the reader into the story while also inspiring the imagination in the reader to think of specific things only they might be thankful for.
The art, as usual for John Parra, is rich and warm, though with a broader color palette than he sometimes uses. The little boy and his friends and family are the focal points of the pages, and are always happily engaged in some kind of activity. Parra uses lots of large curved lines – round objects like boats and flowers and imagination bubbles, which make the reader and the world of the book feel soft and comfortable. He also uses diagonal straight lines, which feel outwardly expansive, and occasionally he uses vertical straight lines for trees or structures, which provide a grounding quality. Overall, the illustrations are very good representations of the words.