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Award-winning illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal discusses journey

Published on April 20, 2022

Award-winning illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal discusses journey

Juana Martinez-Neal

Juana Martinez-Neal

Eastern Connecticut State University hosted award-winning children’s book author and illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal on April 13. A Caldecott Honoree and Pura Belpré Awardee, Martinez-Neal gave a book talk on three of her works, shared her family history, and described her personal process of illustrating a book and making art matches the narrative. Martinez-Neal also read a few pages of her award-winning debut book that she also illustrated.

The event was sponsored by the Departments of Education and English, as well as the JEDI group--Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion. The event was coordinated by Education Professor Susannah Richards, as education and English students have read Martinez-Neal's books this semester.

Martinez-Neal began by showing attendees pictures of her younger self along with her family members. Born and raised in Lima, Peru, Martinez-Neal came from a family of artists. Her father and grandfather were both painters, but she decided to go in a different direction than painting. Throughout her teenage years Martinez-Neal spent a lot of time sketching and at the age of 16 her father asked her to make an illustration for him.

Shocked and impressed by her creation, Martinez-Neal’s father then tasked her with the responsibility of sketching designs for the toy company he operated. Martinez-Neal continued this for five years. She not only got the chance to participate in meetings with the company’s CEO, but also got firsthand experience in the professional world of illustration.

At the age of 21, Martinez-Neal decided to follow in her father’s footsteps and enroll in art school to learn painting with the hopes of becoming an art teacher. “At the end of my third year at the school I was reviewed by my professors and they told me that they liked my work, brush strokes, composition and colors, but they said I wasn’t a painter — I was an illustrator,” said Martinez-Neal.

“And they were absolutely right, I am an illustrator. The only problem was that in Peru you did not have a career as an illustrator. Illustration did not exist even though I had been doing illustration for the toy company, we didn’t have the words to call it illustration and make it a career.” 

Martinez-Neal then moved to Los Angeles at 23 years of age and went through a culture shock. She was overwhelmed with trying to understand the new way of living and stopped painting and writing. She then met her future husband who helped to reignite her passion for art and Martinez-Neal started taking art classes at UCLA’s continuing education extension program.           

Juana Martinez-NealMartinez-Neal faced many obstacles and setbacks along her journey to becoming an author-illustrator, but continued on her path and has won multiple awards. In 2020 she illustrated, "Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story," written by Kevin Noble Maillard, was the recipient of the Robert F. Sibert Medal award, which recognizes authors and illustrators of the most distinguished informational book published the previous year. Her most recent award was in 2021 by the New York Times for bestselling illustrator. So far in her career she has more than 17 awards and recognitions.

At the event the three books Martinez-Neal highlighted were “Alma and How She Got Her Name,” “Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story” and “A Perfect Fit: How Lena 'Lane' Bryant Changed the Shape of Fashion," written by Mara Rockliff.”

“Alma and How She Got Her Name” was the first book that Martinez-Neal authored and illustrated. It tells the story of a Peruvian girl named Alma who hates her name because it is six names too long. Martinez-Neal’s inspiration and artistic process behind this book came from her own family, which she used to highlight typography, pictures, identity, pride and love.

“I wanted the artwork to feel like readers were looking through an old school photo album with black, white and sepia pictures,” said Martinez-Neal. In the book Alma’s father tells her that those names are of significant members of the family, and Alma learns to love the name she was gifted with — “Every single relative was within her,” said Martinez-Neal.

The second book Martinez-Neal discussed was “Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story,” which she illustrated. The book is about a modern Native American family that uses the traditional Native American recipe of fry bread to bring a family together. Martinez-Neal shared how she wanted to spotlight the Native American nations and tribes that exist in the United States and that they are listed on the end pages of the book.

The third and final book Martinez-Neal talked about was “A Perfect Fit: How Lena 'Lane' Bryant Changed the Shape of Fashion,” which tells the story of a seamstress who took the challenge of creating a gown that went against the current fashion standards while working under the plus size clothing brand Lane Bryant. This book published on April 12, 2022, so it was the first time that Martinez-Neal was able to discuss the newly published book in front of a live audience.

Attendees were also treated to images from her forthcoming book, “I Don’t Care,” written by Julie Fogliano and co-illustrated with another Caldecott Honor illustrator and good friend, Molly Idle, to be published in October 2022.

“If we’re not doing something new, if we’re not doing something different and exciting, then why are we doing it?” said Martinez-Neal. “I felt like I was doing the same thing as a recipe — I was getting tired. I found my way on my own and realized I’m doing books for little, tiny babies, so I need to speak a different way and make the images a different way and that just gave me so much happiness.”

To learn more about Martinez-Neal and all her published books and illustrations visit

Written by Bobbi Brown