Illustrator Eric Velasquez, the son of Afro-Puerto Rican parents, was born in Spanish Harlem and grew up in Harlem. His dual heritage coupled with the experience of living in dual cultures in New York City gives Velasquez a rich and unique cultural perspective. As a child, his love for doodling and drawing was strongly encouraged by his mother.
“Doodling — that’s my word because that’s all I ever did,” recalled Velasquez of his grammar school days. “I would doodle all the time. I struggled with reading — my parents come from Puerto Rico and we are people of African descent—and when I got to school the teachers couldn’t really figure out why this little Black boy with this funny last name that didn’t seem to fit and just couldn’t seem to read or write well. So, they just put me in group C and kind of left me there, and I would just do a little from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. — until I discovered comic books. Once I discovered comic books I became invested in the story. When I struggled I would ask my mom to help me. My mom worked at a hotel where there were a lot of celebrities at the time. She didn’t know what to do so she would ask writers (like I didn’t realize how famous he was until much later), but she asked Norman Mailer: ‘I have this little boy, and he is having trouble reading.’ He said, ‘Well, get a dictionary, keep it handy and when he asks for help just hand him the dictionary — but don’t do it for him.’ Which was kind of frustrating for me as a child because I would ask, ‘What’s this word? How do you pronounce it?’ And she would say, ‘here, you go figure it out.’ And I really had a hard time with that, but it forced me to really figure it out using the pronunciation key and the whole thing.”
Velasquez became a successful student, and went on to attend the High School of Art and Design and earned his BFA from the School of Visual Arts in 1983. Upon completion of his studies, Velasquez began his career as a freelance illustrator. Over the next 12 years he completed a body of work of over 300 book jackets and interior illustrations. Such works include Beverly Naidoo’s award-winning “ Journey to Jo’Burg” and its sequel “Chain of Fire;” the complete series of “Encyclopedia Brown;” the complete series of “The Ghost Writers;” “The Apple Classic” series, published by Scholastic Books; “The Terrible Wonderful Telling at Hog Haven”; and Gary Soto’s “The Skirt” and its sequel “Off and Running;” as well as the cover of the 1999 Coretta Scott King award winner “Jazmin’s Notebook” by Nikki Grimes.
From his grandmother, he inherited a love of music, and from his father he developed a love of film. Growing up in this setting, Velasquez utilized his cultural insights in 1999 and expanded his range as an illustrator/storyteller with his autobiographical picture book “Grandma’s Records.” Velasquez describes this book as an inspirational tribute to his grandmother: “This was an emotional journey through time to the place I come from.”
Velasquez advises young people who would like to become artists to “draw, draw, draw, paint, paint, paint, read, read, read.” He thinks it’s important for young artists to discover their own abilities and to invent their own visions. “Becoming an artist was a natural choice for me,” said the illustrator. “I have never thought of being anything else.”
Illustrator Eric Velasquez will be among the many publishing notables at The 21st Annual African American Children’s Book Fair on Feb. 9, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Community College of Philadelphia, 17th Spring Garden Street. The event is free and open to the public.
Contact staff writer Bobbi Booker at (215) 893-5749 or firstname.lastname@example.org.