Discover more from Can we read?
(How) Can we read? An interview with Minh Lê and Raissa Figueroa
+ Micro review of Real to Me (2023)
One of the benefits of writing a newsletter about children’s books is that the longer I do it, the more I learn. And not just all the things I didn’t know before — namely, how ideas go from conception to reality, how writers and illustrators work together, how the sausage gets made in all sorts of ways, historically and currently — but also, all the children’s book creators that are new to me. All the books that I don’t know about. Very few things thrill me more than discovering someone’s body of work, unbeknownst to me before this moment, and totally falling in love with it.
That’s not quite what happened with Minh Lê and Raissa Figueroa, but I’ll freely admit I’d never taken a properly appreciative look at the oeuvre of either, which was on me — I was absolutely missing out.
So I’m grateful that when I had the opportunity to take a look at their latest title — a super sweet collaboration I review at the end here — I got to dig deeper and find even more books to enjoy. (I mean, isn’t that one of the great pleasures of the reading life? Always finding even more books to enjoy?)
Here’s more about two superb artists deserving of your attention.
📚 Minh Lê
Minh Lê is the author of several children’s books, including Drawn Together, which won the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and Lift, which was an Eisner Award nominee. His other books include Let Me Finish!, The Perfect Seat, and The Blur. Minh has written for the New York Times, the Horn Book, and HuffPost. He lives in San Diego with his wife and kids. Visit him at minhlebooks.com.
📚 Raissa Figueroa
Raissa Figueroa is the illustrator of several picture books, including We Wait for the Sun, which received a Coretta Scott King Honor and four-starred reviews. She also illustrated Oona, Princess Unlimited, Sophie and the Little Star, and The More the Merrier. She loves taking in the early-morning light while out on walks with her dog, Ghost, and letting her mind meander off to fantastical new places. Visit her at rizzyfig.com.
Where did you get the idea for this story? What was your favorite part about writing it?
Lê: I love books that play with your expectations, so I wanted to see what kind of fresh twist I could bring to the imaginary friend story — while also maintaining some heart in this story about friendship.
My favorite part about writing it was actually after I handed it in. Once it left my hands, I got to watch Raissa take this very loose idea and create a gorgeous world for these characters to live in. I fell in love with Raissa’s artwork the first time I saw it, and I’m so glad she was available to lend her magic to this story.
What drew you (no pun intended — okay, maybe a little intended ) to illustrating this story? What was the hardest part about bringing it to life on the page?
Figueroa: I can still remember when I received the manuscript and read it over for the first time! The twist in the story literally made me exclaim out loud and had me more than thrilled to be able to work on bringing this lovely story to life.
The hardest (but most fun) part for me was coming up with the world the creature lived in, not to mention the creature itself! I went through a few rounds of designs with the editor before settling on the final look. Hopefully, I did my job in making the creature emote and go through their rollercoaster of a ride through all of the different emotions in the book.
Did either or both of you have an imaginary childhood friend?
Lê: I didn’t have a full-blown imaginary friend… but I like to say that my imagination was my friend. And sometimes that friend got the better of me. Once when I was a kid, on Easter morning, I woke up convinced that we were visited in the night by three giant Easter bunnies (one each for me and my sisters). I was so adamant, I think I convinced my sisters that it actually happened too. The funny thing is that my family is Buddhist, so we don’t even celebrate Easter!
Figueroa: So I’m not sure if this counts, but instead of an imaginary human friend, I had a golden retriever named Lucky. I’ve always been a big-time animal lover, but my parents always needed convincing. Lucky was how I made do until I got my first pet — not a dog, but a cat that I named Sticky (she clung to my shirt as a kitten when I brought her home).
What are a few children’s titles, recent or otherwise, that you think are excellent and would recommend to others?
Lê: How much time do you have?
I have so many favorites, but some are: Let’s Do Everything and Nothing by Julia Kuo, Bernice Gets Carried Away by Hannah E. Harrison, The Boy and the Sea by Camille Andros and Amy June Bates, Max and the Tag-along Moon by the late great Floyd Cooper, and a brand new favorite is Soon, Your Hands by Jonathan Stutzman and Elizabeth Lilly. But like I said, I could go on for days…
Figueroa: I’ll go a bit old school and name a few of Brian Wildsmith’s titles: Fishes, Animal Gallery, The Owl and the Woodpecker, The Hare and the Tortoise. Really anything by him is genius. The way he played with colors and textures (apparently, he used a toothbrush!) has always appealed to me and is definitely a source of inspiration as someone to look up to.
What’s next for each of you? Are you working on anything new you can tell us about?
Lê: I have a graphic novel called Enlighten Me coming out in fall 2023 about a boy who attends a silent meditation retreat, but instead of meditating, he gets lost in his own imagination. And I have another picture book coming out in summer 2024 with my long-time collaborator Dan Santat, called Built to Last. Much like Real to Me, this one dives into the enduring nature of friendship (though, sorry, there are no imaginary friends in that one).
Figueroa: I’ve got a handful of books that I'm working on (going to be working on) over this year, but I think I can only tell you about one that I’m pretty excited about because it hits close to home: Wash Day by Tanisia Moore dives into a black girl’s hair wash routine and it brings back all the memories for me. Sunday was my Wash Day and it was an all-day event to get ready for the coming week. Now that I wear my hair naturally, the routine has gotten a lot less intense, which my lazy side definitely appreciates!
Micro review: Real to Me by Minh Lê and Raissa Figueroa (2023)
I’m going to be totally honest: the most important — though not the only — reason I was interested in reviewing this book is that I still have very clear and precious memories of the two imaginary friends I had as a child.
They were two boys, both about a foot and a half feet tall — Jimmy, who came first, had dark brown hair and brown eyes; Kachi, who joined us later, was blonde with blue eyes. (A very strange, decades-early glimpse of what my own two children look like, albeit in miniature and male form.) I loved them deeply, and I have no idea when — or how — they disappeared, only that one day they did.
Lê touching story — complemented perfectly by Figueroa’s lush, warm digital illustrations — is about this exact experience: the joy of having a friend so great, “the rest of the world can disappear.” The exasperation of being told they’re only imaginary. The sense of confusion, loss, and eventual acceptance when it’s time for them to go.
I can’t think of another children’s title that addresses this unique moment of childhood — or, looked at in another light, of growing up — but that’s okay: this deeply lovely and loving book exists now, and the world — both the real and imaginary ones — are better for it.
Thank you to both Lê and Figueroa for taking the time to grant me this wonderful interview.
I strongly recommend ordering both Lê’s and Figueroa’s books online or, better yet, seeking them out at your local library or bookstore. Together and separately, they’ve created some gems worthy of taking up space on your shelves.
Thanks for reading today, and always,
P.S. Bookshop.org links in this post are affiliate ones — meaning I get a tiny commission if you use any of them to make a purchase. I appreciate your support!