Circling Back

Lifelong San Antonio friends explore beauty of connection with new award-winning children's book

San Antonio friends explore beauty of connection with children's book

All Around Us
Adriana García and Xelena González. Courtesy photo
All Around Us
All Around Us tells the story of family, the life cycle, and the circles found all around us. Courtesy photo
All Around Us
All Around Us

Author Xelena González and illustrator Adriana García are creating quite a stir with the publication of their new children’s book All Around Us, a story of family, interconnection, and the circles found "all around us." 

After picking up the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award on October 25, the two will debut the Dreamscape Media animation of their book at this weekend's Luminaria: San Antonio Arts Festival at Hemisfair on November 10.

For the native San Antonians — and lifelong friends — the creation of the picture book eschewed the traditional industry rules where publishers ultimately pair illustrators and writers. It is rare for author and illustrator to know each other prior to collaborating, and even rarer still for them to be close friends from the same neighborhood.

In the case of García and González, that neighborhood is the West Side of San Antonio, a neighborhood in which both of their families were active community organizers. That neighborhood is heavily featured in García’s illustrations in All Around Us, images like a street view with a bicycle going by, in a shot of the narrator’s backyard as she helps her grandfather in the garden, and in front of the house as the narrator and her grandfather walk down the street.

All Around Us has everything people are seeking for themselves and their children during these times (or rather, perhaps what they really needed all along) including a lead female character, the story of a person of color, and a challenge to respect the earth and its cycles while recognizing our part in the larger picture.

That the book fills a void in children’s publishing is one reason for its success.
 In addition to the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, All Around Us also received the Texas Institute of Letters Award for Best Picture Book earlier this year.

However, for anyone who knows González (and, disclosure, I’ve been her friend for 15 years after we met while working at local literary arts organization Gemini Ink), this path has been charted for a while.

González taught creative writing workshops for Gemini Ink’s Writers in Communities program in the mid-2000s, where one of her favorite gigs was working at the Krier Juvenile Detention Center. There, she led incarcerated teens through the process of reading children’s storybooks and then creating their own stories. The program then gifted anthologies of their work to other young people in a teen parenting program.

“In my second year of this program, fully half of my participants were parents themselves, and I discovered that I too was pregnant,” González says.

The author used the same plan she laid out for her students to craft what would ultimately become her first book. “I began writing my first children’s book, meeting the same draft deadlines I’d set for my students, and doing what I’d asked them to do: ‘Write to your own child. What do you want him/her to know about the world? Can we imagine something new to shape their reality? Can you create what seems to be missing in mainstream children’s literature?’”

Like her previous work, All Around Us also used many of those prompts. Her daughter, Yemaya Xol, now 12, is featured along with her grandfather in the illustrations.

Prior to collaborating on the book together, González and García first created a “Story Walk” funded through an arts grant by the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture. The duo used the grant to pitch publishers with a finished product and identify an audience base eager to see the book in print. 

The audience responded, and their publisher, the El Paso-based, family-run Cinco Puntos Press, is now running the third edition of the book as well as an edition in Spanish. 

And then there’s that animation which debuts at Luminaria on Saturday night. There was nothing conventional about that either, as professional actors are generally contracted to narrate the books. However, González auditioned to be the voice and got the gig.

Whether the audience reads the book, sees the animation, or listens to the audiobook, González hopes the takeaway for kids will be seeing themselves as an integral part of the world they inhabit.

“For the child to liken herself to a rainbow — that part gets me every time," says González. "I’ve read it aloud many times already, but I still get a little choked up sometimes seeing that page. Perhaps because it’s my daughter. But also because we forget, as humans, how beautiful and magnificent we truly are. We forget how to love ourselves. Sometimes children experience adoration at home, but what happens when they don’t learn how to genuinely love themselves? What happens when they are no longer little and cute? Or what happens in the homes where children experience the opposite of adoration? It is so easy to recognize beauty in nature. It is not always easy to recognize it in ourselves.”