Yuyi Morales Biography

Yuyi Morales was born in Xalapa, Mexico on November 7, 1968. The first years of Yuyi’s life were marked by both scarcity and creativity. Yuyi and her two sisters did not have the same clothes or receive the same presents as their schoolmates. Instead, their mother sewed Yuyi and her sisters’ clothes, bedsheets, curtains, and lampshades. When the family couldn’t afford the gifts the girls wanted for their birthdays, Yuyi’s mother would make everything from the cakes to the invitations to their dresses to their shoes. In a sense, her mother’s resourcefulness was Yuyi’s first introduction to art.

When she was growing up, Yuyi did not conceive of becoming an artist. Simply put, this was not a career path that seemed viable to girls like Yuyi. But even so, Yuyi loved to create. When she was only five years old, she crocheted her own hat and vest. Soon after, her mother showed her to use the sewing machine so she could make clothes for her dolls. Although she did not think of herself as an artist, she was skilled enough that a teacher in middle school saw a painting Yuyi made for an assignment and said there was no way she had actually painted it and gave her a low grade as punishment. It was against this backdrop and an environment that told her that her art was suspicious and therefore not worthy, that Yuyi imagined herself as a grown up doing something else entirely—being a swimming teacher.

Yuyi and her sisters, whose exploits and antics would later influence her books, Niño Wrestles the World and Rudas, swam competitively in their youth. Yuyi loved swimming, so after high school, Yuyi moved to the port city of Veracruz, where she lived with an aunt while she studied physical education and psychology at La Universidad Veracruzana. Then, in the summer of 1993, Yuyi met her future husband, Tim, a tall American who hung around Veracruz’s cafes busking and playing regional folk music. In March of 1994, their son, Kelly, was born. Only days later, Tim got a phone call that set into motion the events that led to Yuyi’s migration to the U.S.

When Tim learned that his grandfather had had a stroke, he decided he wanted Yuyi and his son to meet his grandfather. So Tim’s mother set about finding a way to get Tim and his new family to the United States as soon as possible. Two months later, Yuyi, the recipient of a K1 Fiance Visa, crossed the bridge from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso, Texas, a moment memorialized in her book Dreamers. Yuyi did not know when she crossed that bridge, that she would end up staying in the U.S. for nearly 20 years and would leave life as she knew it behind.

What Yuyi did not understand when she got her visa was that she was now obligated to live as a resident in the United States, or she would lose her visa. She came to the U.S. with less than a week’s worth of clothes and expected she’d be back in Mexico soon and her parents and her sisters and her teenage brother would get to see Kelly grow. Instead, Yuyi now had no choice but to live in an unfamiliar country at the suburban home of her husband’s parents, who spoke no Spanish, while Tim worked during the day.

This was the most difficult year of Yuyi’s life. As she remembers it, she cried every night. In a town of mostly well-off white Americans, the only brown or Spanish-speaking people she knew were the Peruvian couple who came by Tim’s parent’s house every two weeks to clean. Tim’s parents tried their best to make Yuyi feel included and introduce her to some of the wonders of the United States—Yuyi was amazed, for example, by Indian food, which she declared “tasted like flowers smelled,”—but there is no easy cure for transnational loneliness. To pass the time, Yuyi would write long letters to her family, replete with drawings of her and Kelly’s life in this strange country.

Yuyi’s life was forever changed when her mother-in-law took her to the public library, where Yuyi found refuge. In the children’s book section, Yuyi found worlds that she could escape to. Although her English was rudimentary, she found that she understood the messages these books conveyed through visual language. Yuyi became an avid reader of children’s books and through them she began to improve her English. When Yuyi, Tim, and Kelly moved to San Francisco, Yuyi made her second home at the San Francisco Public Library’s Western Addition branch. On countless occasions, Yuyi and Kelly would stay at the library until closing time reading until a particularly attentive librarian took notice of Yuyi and offered to sign her and Kelly up for their own library cards.

At first Yuyi was certain there must be some kind of catch—surely it couldn’t be legal for her to simply take as many books as she wanted home with her. But the librarian, Nancy, assured her that she could do exactly that as long as the books made their way back to the library by their return date. With this incredible knowledge in mind, Yuyi began taking literal piles of books home with her, to the point that Kelly’s stroller once broke under the weight of so many books. As Yuyi devoured more and more children’s books, the letters she wrote to her family began to take on a form not unlike the books she so loved. Her and Kelly’s adventures in this unfamiliar country were woven into rich narratives illustrated with burgeoning confidence and detail.

As Yuyi became more comfortable in the U.S., she became more and more interested in telling stories. Yuyi realized that the fantastical tales her tios and tias and abuelas told her of apparitions and unbelievable adventure were rich in detail and wonder. Those stories and the Mexican folklore of Yuyi’s youth became the source material of a children’s segment for the radio show, Pájaro Latinoamericano, she hosted for three years on San Francisco’s KPOO. In this same period of time, Yuyi enrolled in an extension class on children’s book illustration at UC Berkeley where she met the future members of her critique group, the Revisionaries. It was in this class and in her meetings with the Revisionaries that Yuyi made her first attempts at writing a children’s book.

Yuyi found that the stories she wanted to tell were inspired by the tales her family had told her growing up. One of these stories, which later became her book, Just a Minute, was not a typical children’s book story; its plot revolved around death and trickery. In this story, a skeleton named Señor Calavera—death—arrives at the home of Grandma Beetle to take her away. But Grandma Beetle finds creative ways to stall Señor Calavera until finally, her grandchildren arrive for her birthday party, which Señor Calavera enjoys so much that he decides to leave her be and promises to return for the next party. When Yuyi showed this story to her critique group, they encouraged her to use the story to apply for the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators’ Don Freeman Grant.

Yuyi didn’t expect anything to come out of applying for this grant, but when she received it, she got the validation she needed to start thinking seriously about being a full-time illustrator and so she presented her portfolio at SCBWI’s 2000 conference, where her work caught the attention of an editor at Harcourt Children’s Books, Jeanette Larson. When Harcourt offered her a contract to illustrate Kathleen Krull’s Harvesting Hope, a children’s book about Mexican-American civil rights and labor activist Cesar Chavez, Yuyi realized she needed a literary agent. Yuyi didn’t know any literary agents or any way to connect with them, so she did what she often did when she felt lost—she went to the library.

That day, Yuyi happened to find an article in Publishers Weekly on powerful and influential literary agents and decided to cold call two of them. The one who seemed to take her seriously, Charlotte Sheedy, told her that she didn’t always represent children’s book authors and illustrators, so she’d have to see Yuyi’s work before making a decision. When Yuyi sent her portfolio to Charlotte in that fateful e-mail, she quickly received a reply that appeared to be sent to the wrong person. It read, “Miranda, I just signed a new illustrator and I think she’s going to be a success.” With Charlotte now in her corner, Yuyi received the contract to illustrate Harvesting Hope as well as a contract to write and illustrate Just a Minute, which had scared off several publishers who rejected the manuscript, fearing it was not appropriate for the children’s book market.

Before making her illustrations for Harvesting Hope, Yuyi went to California’s Central Valley to see the farms and crops whose workers Chavez fought for and met with labor leaders and activists who had known him. Yuyi’s illustrations for Harvesting Hope, done in acrylic, were lauded for their vivid colors and soaring perspectives; Kirkus Reviews favorably compared her work to the muralistic style of Diego Rivera. Harvesting Hope received the Jane Addams Book Award, the Christopher Award, and the Pura Belpré Honor for illustration. That same year, 2004, Just a Minute won the Tomas Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award and the Pura Belpré Medal award for illustration.

The success of Harvesting Hope and Just a Minute changed Yuyi’s life. She was now an award-winning illustrator of two books and she and her family had moved to the Bay Area’s East Bay suburbs where she now had her own studio, a big upgrade from the railroad apartment hallway where she drew and painted previously. And now, Yuyi had even more books to write and illustrate. In Amanda White’s Sand Sister, published in 2004, Yuyi illustrated a tender story of sisterhood and family. Yuyi’s second book that she wrote and illustrated, Little Night, was praised by Publishers Weekly for its “intimacy and grandeur” after its release in 2006. That same year, Marisa Monte’s Los Gatos Black on Halloween was released, winning the Pura Belpré Medal for illustration in 2007. The following year, she won another Pura Belpré Medal for Illustration a for Just in Case, the sequel to Just a Minute, along with a Pura Belpré Honor as its author.

Yuyi’s illustrations for Tony Johnnston’s My Abuelita won her a Pura Belpré Honor for Illustration in 2010. Over the following three year period, she illustrated Laura Lacamara’s Floating on Mama’s Song, Maya Soetero-Ng’s Ladder to the Moon, and Amy Novesky’s Georgia in Hawaii. Her work in Georgia in Hawaii represented something of a shift in her stylings as Yuyi dabbled for the first time in mixed media illustrations. Although she had received effusive praise for her lush, muralistic illustrations, Yuyi was interested in the idea of doing something entirely different for her next books.

For years, Yuyi had wanted to write and illustrate a children’s book about Frida Kahlo and so she did extensive research on the famed painter and visited Kahlo’s home in Mexico City as she imagined a book unlike any she’d made before. Rather than paint this book, Yuyi decided she would create puppets of Frida, her pets, and Diego Rivera, as well as a set of Frida’s Casa Azul. Yuyi knit clothes for her Frida puppet and worked with artisans in her hometown of Xalapa, Veracruz, to make puppet-sized jewelry for her titular character. Over the course of three years, Yuyi worked with her husband, Tim, who lit and photographed Yuyi’s puppets and sets in a warehouse in California, to create the multimedia achievement that was Viva Frida. After long days in the warehouse, Yuyi would come home and stitch together digital panoramas of Tim’s photos and Photoshop eyes and lashes and expressions onto her puppets.

Viva Frida was released in 2014, more than five years after work on the book began, and was met with wide acclaim. That same year, Yuyi won her fourth Pura Belpré Medal for Illustration, this time for her book, Nino Wrestles the World, a child’s lucha libre tale inspired by her childhood fears and tussles with her younger sisters. Viva Frida received the Pura Belpré Medal for Illustration the following year, making her a five-time winner of the prestigious award. It also received a 2015 Caldecott Honor, making Yuyi the first Latina artist to receive the illustrious award. The next year, 2016, Rudas: Niño’s Horrendous Hermanitas, was published as a followup to Niño Wrestles the World. This year should have been one to celebrate—Yuyi had now illustrated 15 books in a little more than a decade—but she found herself unable to create and totally dejected when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.

By this point in time, Yuyi had returned to her hometown of Xalapa, where she’s lived since 2013. She was now a U.S. citizen who’d proudly voted in 2012 and 2016. The election of Trump did not necessarily shock Yuyi, but it disgusted her. How was it that the country that gave Yuyi opportunities and life beyond her wildest dreams had fallen under the thrall of a xenophobic and misogynstic politician whose campaign insulted and dehumanized people who looked and talked like her? Yuyi could not answer that question in a satisfying way. But what she could do was tell her own story and encourage other immigrants to tell their stories and so with the encouragement of her agent, Charlotte, and her editor, Neal Porter, Yuyi began to tell her own immigration story.

Nearly 25 years later after Yuyi immigrated to the U.S., the story was retold in her most successful book to date, Dreamers. In Yuyi’s darkest days in this unfamiliar country, she never imagined that the loneliness, suffering, and confusion she felt could inspire others. But now, the letters that she wrote to her family, the drawings her son, Kelly, made, and the books they fell in love with at the library, became central to Dreamers. Yuyi poured her heart and soul into Dreamers and wrote not just an immigration story, but a love letter to the libraries and librarians that made her feel welcome in an unfamiliar country. Dreamers became a New York Times Bestseller in 2018 and won the Pura Belpré Medal award for Illustration, her sixth, the following year.

In her acceptance speech for the Pura Belpré Medal, Yuyi hinted at the themes that would inform her next book, “Last year I toured bringing Dreamers to readers, and while I was freely crossing from México to the USA and back, I learned, along with our nation, of the caging of children at the border and the separation of families asking for asylum. My stomach churned. Here I was, celebrating in a book the opportunity and the hands that had extended towards me and my son when we came to the USA, while at the border many families were and are being tortured in punishment for aspiring entry to a more luminous future for themselves and their families.” 

As Yuyi wondered how she could write a story about these migrantes, she began researching the flora and fauna that lived in the lands whose habitats were being ripped apart by Trump’s border wall. In 2019, Yuyi went to Tucson, Arizona and met with activist and environmentalist, Sergio Avila, who showed her the brilliant creatures and plants who lived in these borderlands. When she came home, she began to work on Bright Star—a book illustrated in mixed media that follows a fawn’s arduous journey through these borderlands. Yuyi hopes that Bright Star will give readers a sense of wonder and appreciation for these borderlands and that they will see how U.S. immigration policy has destroyed the paths and environments that sustain this diverse ecosystem and the harm this destruction brings to the humans that cross these lands. Bright Star will be published by Neal Porter Books / Holiday House on September 7, 2021.