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Q & A with Tara Langlois & Patti McIntosh

An interview with the author and illustrator of The Remarkable Maria:

Patti and Tara, by Ryan (Age 10)

1. What was the inspiration for The Remarkable Maria?

Patti: I was first in Paramaribo, Suriname in 2004, working on a project with five organizations that helped people affected by the AIDS crisis. These organizations were quite small—especially the ones working with children “infected or affected” by HIV/AIDS. And they had many challenges.

I was saddened to learn that people thought the housing needs for children affected by AIDS would grow 10 times in the next five years. Ten-times! And there were incidents in the newspapers where parents were complaining about having children from one of the orphanages in school.

These things were on my mind. But the idea for Maria came when I visited one of the organizations on the first day of school and one of the young girls had been sent home because she had an open cold sore on her face. I thought the girl was remarkable. She was still wearing her school uniform and she was carrying herself with an amazing dignity—hanging out with the adults—waiting for the other children to come home.

The meeting that girl was the catalyst for everything. She seemed representative of many children affected by HIV/AIDS – faced with isolation and discrimination. I thought it was an experience – to meet a child affected — that I thought was important and, in as much as I could, I wanted people, both children and adults, to have the same experience – to meet a child infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. And so, I started to write the story that became The Remarkable Maria.

2. You worked with children in Suriname on illustration the book. Talk about that process and how it influenced the illustration of the book.

Tara: The kids were very important in how the final illustrations turned out. My imagination is limited by my individual experiences and how I see the world. So how could I possibly visualize Maria’s story from my kitchen table back in Canada?

We started the workshops by talking to them about HIV/AIDS, issues of discrimination and, over the course of the four days, read them Maria’s story. We asked them to show us through their drawings what Maria’s life would look like. What games would Maria be excluded from? (playing ball) What would Maria be wearing? (a skirt) What would her environment look like? (palm trees and dirt roads with random sprouts of grass). I learned a lot from the workshops and the children’s drawings. For example, the children’s drawings without details showed Maria’s loneliness and drawings of a sun, rainbow or flowers signified happy moments in Maria’s life.

3. Both words and pictures speak strongly in The Remarkable Maria. How did you
—as artist and author—work out a collaboration that you felt comfortable with?

Tara: It started with a draft of Patti’s amazing story, lots of talking and many, many sketches. The hard part, of course, is for the pictures and the words to complement and add meaning to each other rather than simply duplicate each other. We decided what aspects of the story were said better through words vs. images and edited accordingly. For example, a facial expression can be more effective than describing an emotion than words. And, the complexity of Maria’s life cannot be captured in a single picture.

Patti and I talked a lot about the characters, too. Each of them is inspired by actual people that Patti met on her first visit to Suriname. By the time we went down there in June, I had a strong sense of what they should look like and what types of personalities they would have. As I met some of these people myself, they (as well as others) influenced my ideas—a little homage to the people who had an impact on us.

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