What happens when two New York transplants—a writer and an illustrator—feel that New York is as much their home as do its natives? They join creative forces to write a children’s book about immigration, called Larry and Friends.
Larry and Friends is a modern treatment of a people desirous of something different in a country other than their own.
The main character Larry, an American juggler from Brooklyn, invites a host of international friends—Henrik an Irish hare, Cecilia a Peruvian llama, Sumita the Indian elephant, Fu the Chinese dragon, Rimshi the Tibetan yak, and more—to his house for his very special day. The storytelling and imagery is forward and accessible and a charming conversation piece necessary for hearts of all ages.
Greenpointers recently sat down with Belgian born, Venezuelan raised writer Nat Jaspar (now a New Yorker of 20 years) and Ecuadorian born-and-raised illustrator Carla Torres, who also now lives in New York.
With both women having such strong cultural upbringings, we chat about their backgrounds; Larry and Friends, and its core hot topic of immigration; and their inspired process of co-creating a book in the children’s literature genre, yet for all ages.
GPers: What was your desire in doing this project?
Carla: There’s a lot of class-ism and racism and separatism in countries in Latin America. It’s one of the reasons I left. I didn’t want to have anything to do with that. But here in New York, it’s the city, the immigrants, the people that make it special—everyone coexisting together, and I wanted to capture that.
Nat: I’ve always been a lover of words. I’ve also always been an outsider, with the way I grew up. I feel like I’m from nowhere because I’ve traveled all around, so it’s like I have no one identity. This project was a book that could celebrate diversity, a person like myself, while still enjoying the world.
GPers: How did the project get off the ground?
Carla: I started creating the characters very organically. Some were inspired by people that I knew or stories. So, I was creating and illustrating the characters with clues from them. Larry, a juggler from Brooklyn, was the first of three trial characters. Each character was built with the ability to teach the reader a lesson.
Nat: Her roommate introduced me to her [Carla]. She was looking for a writer. I wrote children books before but not like this. I came over one Sunday to meet her and we clicked. It took about a year and four months to finish the entire thing. Each character has different layers, with elements that are intentional—that are funny for kids and parents—that was important.
GPers: These characters are drawn so beautifully. And, as such, they are so rich. What was your intention in creating them with such vividness and depth?
Carla: I was trying to represent the New York experience. I asked myself what are some of the biggest groups of minorities here. I chose animals that connected with the culture of Peruvians, Mexicans, the Irish, the Italian Americans and so on. I traveled to these neighborhoods and said, ‘So, what would happened if you went to Greenpoint, for example. Well, you would meet Magda, a lovely pig, and if in Brighton Beach, you’d meet Igor, the Russian bear” and so on.
Nat: Larry and Friends is a book tackling a universal issue: immigration. It’s for children but it’s also a book that grows with a child, so they can read it and learn more about these characters as they are learning more about the world.
GPers: What was your approach to making it friendly for minors while appealing to adults?
Nat: To appreciate diversity is good. We wanted to create something that showed diversity for any age. Telling the stories of immigrants in this country, in this city, was very important in doing that.
Carla: And, while it wasn’t necessarily about saying we’re pro-immigration, it was about telling a story of pro-diversity. We wanted to make something romantic and hippy with life lessons, something that wasn’t corny.
GPers: How did research play a factor into building your characters and creating the diversity in the book that exists in New York?
Nat: All the animals in Larry and Friends were chosen with careful research, from the characters and their countries of origins and the animals that are from there. We couldn’t just chose any zebra or any common dragon—we wanted ones endemic to their country and culture.
Carla: I went to the neighborhoods of the characters to draw inspiration. I also wanted to show the stereotypes in a positive way. I wanted to show some of the bigger minority groups that were here and drop in information here and there.
GPers: What was it like working together with one creating visuals and the other creating text based upon the visuals?
Nat: When I understood Carla’s vision then I could express myself, and we saw the humanity in each other. It’s like the more you accept people for who they are, versus who you want to be life, life is just amazing.
Carla: It was amazing. I am not a writer. Nat, she was able to say what I felt. It was very organic and really beautiful.
GPers: What conversations do you hope this project initiates in the world?
Carla: We are describing characters from places in a way that hasn’t been done before. I mean, we are talking about immigration—a very touching subject that kids may not otherwise get a chance to talk about. We want it to be material for conversation, from the simple to the complex. Every character brings a gift and every immigrant brings a gift to this city, and that’s a positive. Also, knowing that by being nobody, I’m everybody and by being nothing I’m everything.
Nat: People are moving and being. The minority isn’t a minority—it’s a majority. And, the women in this book are strong; they can go for what they want. We are all in this melting pot culture. Open your eyes; we’re the luckiest nation on the planet…there’s so much around us to enjoy.