The story is Frida, a life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo with text by Jonah Winter. While Juan's paintings usually have a strong sense of narrative — as readers who have seen her work in The New Yorker can attest — the picture-book form allowed Kahlo's life to be explained in all its complexity, which Juan appreciated.
“Working on a picture book gives you more possibilities to explain in better and more detail the different moments and events around a life,” she said. “When you work just on one picture to tell something you have to be abstract, to play with more rigor, because each touch of color could change the meaning you are looking for.”
Like Kahlo, Juan grew up with a pen in her hands. “During my childhood, I spent hours over hours drawing or making copies from old illustrations,” she recalled. A treasured edition of The One Thousand and One Nights was especially influential. “The stories were full of magic, and the beautiful old illustrations caught me, and I read them again and again until I needed my first pair of glasses.”
After graduating from art school in her native Valencia, Spain, she divided her time between art for gallery exhibitions and a wide-ranging roster of illustration projects — a Joe Cocker album jacket, a poster for a Tokyo film festival, work for German, Spanish, and American magazines. Her New Yorker work caught the eye of editors at Scholastic, and she eagerly accepted the opportunity to work on Frida.
Juan's research for the book began with Kahlo's own work: “I dove into her paintings to get an approach to her character and way of feeling.” Drawing on the Mexican folk art that decorated Kahlo's home, Juan invented a cast of folk characters that accompanies Kahlo throughout her life. The sweet jaguar, nattily dressed cow, smiling skeleton, and shy deer embody “a very important part of the Mexican culture, which Frida loved so much,” Juan said.
Juan enjoyed her Frida experience. “I liked the challenge of working with a text from another author,” she said. “It can only make your own universe richer.”