Shelf Care Interview: Raúl the Third

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Ronny Khuri talks to author-illustrator Raúl the Third. Raúl is the Pura Belpré Honor–winning illustrator of Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market and Vamos! Let’s Go Eat. He is currently working on the expanded world of his Vamos! series. He grew up in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and now lives in Boston, Massachusetts, with colorist and collaborator Elaine Bay and their son, Raul the Fourth. Here, we discuss El Toro and Friends, Raúl’s new line of early readers, beginning with Tag Team and Training Day, both of which hit shelves on May 4.

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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RONNY KHURI: Raúl, do you mind kicking us off by introducing El Toro and Friends?

RAÚL THE THIRD: For those readers who are familiar with the Vamos! series, they might have noticed that there are wrestlers in the World of Vamos!, in particular one pretty famous dude, and his name is El Toro. In book two, Vamos! Let’s Go Eat, we meet the rest of the gang, and those characters have become so popular that we decided that they needed to have their own title. And so on May 4, we will be publishing El Toro and Friends in Training Day and El Toro and Friends in Tag Team. In these books, readers will be able to read the solo adventures of El Toro, La Oink Oink, Armor Dillo, and the rest of the amazing masked wrestlers.

When it comes to both the text and the art, can you talk about the difference in your approach between crafting early readers, as opposed to the previous picture books?

The picture books are slower reads than the early readers, and what I mean by that is the Vamos! books are jam-packed with all sorts of interesting details. That’s primarily because we are focusing on an entire community of people who are working at their various jobs. So whether it’s the booths at the Mercado or the food trucks in Vamos! Let’s Go Eat, I really want my readers to get to know that part of the world, those communities.

In the early readers, the El Toro and Friends books, things are much faster. These are fast-paced, action-packed books, and they’re filled with all sorts of exciting storytelling. I took my cues a lot from Saturday morning cartoons and action sequences in comic books, and so that’s how I approach the differences between the two: one’s slower paced, and one’s more action packed, like an action movie.

And it really works, given the Lucha Libre focus of the El Toro and Friends books. After reading these—and all of your books, really—I have to assume that you have a somewhat personal connection to Lucha Libre. Can you talk about how that became such a focal point of the Vamos! books, assuming you did have a personal connection there?

This entire series is kind of like a personal connection to me. I grew up in El Paso, Texas, and in Juarez, Mexico, so I was just surrounded by all of the amazing things that growing up in a border town has to offer. And of course, one of the things that is really big in the El Paso and Juarez area is wrestlers. And not just wrestlers but masked wrestlers, luchadores. They were inescapable to me when I was a kid, especially when I would head over to Juarez and see these beautiful displays of capes and masks and cheap plastic luchador toys, which immediately made you curious, and you wanted to fill in the blanks and understand who these characters were.

Wrestlers like El Santo, Blue Demon, Mil Máscaras sparked my fascination, not just for luchadores but also for masked superheroes. And in El Toro and Friends, I get the opportunity to expand the luchador universe and introduce my very own wrestlers, and it’s something that I love doing more than anything. So we have El Toro, La Oink Oink, Jack A. López, Armor Dillo, Lizarda, Croak. And then of course you cannot have heroes without introducing villains. And so we have The Wall, Donny Dollars, and the list is going to grow from one book to the next. It’s going to be amazing.

I was so excited, especially with Tag Team, to see wrestling used to present a story that’s so positive and constructive—I can honestly say I’ve never had so much fun reading about cleaning—just because professional wrestling, at least in my experience, is largely misunderstood and sometimes looked down upon, and I feel like that extends into publishing. I’m surprised there aren’t more children’s books with wrestling, because they’re so popular with kids!

So I’m wondering, as you’ve shared your work, what kind of responses you’ve gotten from, first, teachers and publishers. Have they been skeptical of the wrestling? And second, with children. Have they recognized Lucha Libre? Have they connected to it or have you had to explain it or introduce it to people?

Well, this series has yet to hit the stands, so a lot of that feedback I’ve yet to receive, but I will say that when I was writing the first two El Toro books—and this was before the pandemic, so I was able to visit schools—I did a lot of test readings to kids in classrooms, and they loved it. There was laughing and cheering and all sorts of fun stuff.

But as for the bad take that some might have, what I love about wrestling is that it doesn’t always just have to be about the battles that take place in the ring. Wrestling is much better when you understand the backstory of what the wrestlers are going through, what leads them to get into that ring, to battle each other. And so there’s a lot of drama that happens to build up the battle, and those are the kinds of things that I love to focus on.

Another thing is that luchadores, they are the early archetypes of the superheroes that adults and kids are devouring hour by hour throughout our country. Whether it’s in graphic novels or on Disney Plus or whatever, we are just inundated with American superheroes, and this is a wonderful opportunity to showcase the types of heroes that we have been worshiping in our border towns across the United States.

I couldn’t agree more. I think wrestling is such an underrated area of storytelling and character-driven storytelling.

It’s just so much fun to draw. I mean, it’s fun anytime you get to draw somebody spinning somebody over their heads, when you can just really exaggerate the human form. I love drawing a page where characters are just flying through the air.

Let’s talk a little bit about your art, then. You have this very distinct style, but it also, to me, feels very familiar, although I’m not 100 percent sure why. Can you talk about how your style developed over the years and what some your artistic influences have been?

I really love how you just said that my style is familiar to you but you’re not quite sure why, because that’s something that a lot of people tell me, and it’s really because a lot of what you’re familiar with in my style is what I love about cartooning and comic books. I am a huge student of early American cartooning, comic books, pop culture, and somehow I have figured out a way to jam-pack my own artistic style with things that have influenced me over the decades. And so yes, of course, Mexican luchadores but also eighties cartoons that I would watch on TV, everything from the Hanna-Barbera universe to Pink Panther, to Disney, Looney Tunes, comic books that I would pickup from the 7-11 in the nineties. X-Men, Incredible Hulk, Batman, movies, it’s all in there, and I’ve kind of regurgitated all of these things into what is now the World of Vamos! and everything else that I’ve done over the years.

I feel like I can’t talk about your art without mentioning Elaine Bay, who colors your work and is a big part of your life in many ways, because her work is so outstanding.

I am just incredibly lucky to work with Elaine.

I’m curious about your collaboration. Do you work closely together or is it more that you do your piece and then hand it off, and she works her magic? What’s it like being in such close quarters and working with someone like that?

Well, I’ve known Elaine since I was 16 years old. That’s almost 30 years of my life that we have known each other, and we’ve been living together now for about 20 years, so she has influenced me deeply in how I approached my artwork, and vice versa. And so, as it turned out, I was working on SpongeBob comics about five years ago, and I needed a colorist, so I asked Elaine if she would be interested, and she sent some samples into our editor at the time, the amazing Chris Duffy, and he loved the work that we did together. And then when this opportunity came along, since we were doing such great work together on the SpongeBob books, we decided to continue our professional relationship and extended into the World of Vamos! And I honestly couldn’t imagine these books being colored by anybody else. She has really brought a lot to the books. They would not have looked nearly as good if I had done the job all by myself.

But basically when we were developing this World of Vamos! our main goal was to make it a love letter to our hometown, to the border town that we both grew up in. Everything from the effects of the sun on the environment, how it bleaches color, the colorful way that people color their homes—all of these things were things that we talked about. I create the line work, and I basically just hand it off to Elaine, and she always comes back and surprises me with her color choices. And it’s always magnificent.

That’s beautiful. That sounds like such an ideal scenario.

It is.

And there’s so much evident love and care in the details of the work that you both do. It really pays off.

Well, thank you.

This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publisher of Tag Team and Training Day, both available on May 4.

About the Author:

Ronny Khuri is an associate editor for Books for Youth at Booklist. He has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University. His dæmon is a Siamese cat named Tiger Lily.

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