“Use those beautiful and brilliant minds of yours,” says the grandmother of Angelina and her brother in the 2022 bestselling children’s book The Year We Learned to Fly, a sequel to 2018’s The Day You Begin, by writer Jacqueline Woodson and artist Rafael López (BFA 85 Illustration).
Stuck inside their apartment during a storm, the siblings—inspired by their grandma’s words—imagine flying over their city, which is “exploding with every kind of flower we’d ever dreamed of.” López’s illustrations burst with pink and purple color. Later, Angelina’s grandma tells them about their ancestors, who were slaves and also “learned to fly” with their minds.
“I needed to represent the truth of history while speaking to an audience of young children,” says López. “I used vibrant colors and positive symbolism to give hope. We wanted children to know that even if you are feeling alone, bored, angry or frustrated, imagination has the remarkable power to lift you up in challenging times.”
Created during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Year We Learned to Fly resonates on a deeper level, with the pandemic’s impact on children and families, López says. The illustrator, who lives and works in San Diego and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, struggled to make it all work, he says, when schools closed and his son and family were home, quarantining.
“Early on, I wondered what I could do as an artist,” López says. So he created coloring pages that he posted daily on his blog and Facebook page. He encouraged other illustrators to do the same. “There’s something calming about coloring that allows children to express themselves, giving them a break from computers and phones,” he says.
For his own mental health, López would go on long bike rides through parks and canyons in San Diego, before sitting down to draw. In San Miguel, he wandered alone on quiet cobblestone streets early in the morning, drinking coffee and contemplating color and his next illustration.
“In many ways, we creatives have the advantage of knowing how to find escape in our work, and need solitude to find our voice,” López says. “Routines have been disrupted, and lives have changed, but this has also given us time to reflect on family, friends, our work and what matters. The pandemic has reminded me of our shared humanity and connections.”