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A love letter from sons to fathers: Queens author pens award-winning children’s book

Apr. 13, 2023 By Tammy Scileppi

Kids are like little sponges. They learn and grow by observing their parents and absorbing everything they hear and see around them.  

An artistic child learns about the wonders of nature and growing things, while observing his father, who works as a landscaper. That curious youngster would become an award-winning author and artist, best known for his beautifully illustrated, Latino-themed, children’s picture books.

Jamaica-based creative John Parra, was that little boy. These days, the talented, young grandfather has been celebrating with friends and family, after winning a second Christopher Award for his recently released book “Growing an Artist: The Story of a Landscaper and His Son” (Simon & Schuster, ages 4 to 8) – his first as author and illustrator. Parra won his first Christopher Award in 2012 for illustrating “Biblioburro,” by Monica Brown. 

“Growing an Artist” book cover (Christopher Award winner). (Photos are courtesy of John Parra)

His other titles include: “Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos,” “Hey Wall: A Story of Art and Community,” “Waiting for the Biblioburro,” and “Green is a Chile Pepper.” 

“Winning a Christopher Award is incredible. I am honored that I have won this distinction twice,” Parra said, adding, “I love the motto written on the award — ‘It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness’ — and deeply connect with this and its connection to my purpose in art.” 

These special awards celebrate authors and illustrators, as well as writers, producers and directors whose work “affirms the highest values of the human spirit.” A heartwarming family story, “Growing an Artist” is one of 12 books for adults and young people, as the Christopher Awards program marks its 74th year.

Described as a love letter from sons to their fathers, the story follows Juanito and his landscaper father from house to house, where Papi prunes, weeds, mows, and transforms overgrown yards into beautiful spaces. Meanwhile, with his sketchbook in hand, Juanito draws anything that catches his eye, from a nursery with rows of plants and flowers to baby birds in their nest. And Papi’s son understands that his father feels pride in owning his own business and in a job well done.

“Birdhouse Subways” – MTA subway poster. (Photos are courtesy of John Parra)

Young readers learn about the importance of family values, a strong work ethic, and following your dreams.

“I wrote ‘Growing an Artist,’ based on working for my father, who ran his own landscape and construction business,” Parra told QNS. “I grew up in Southern California and started following my dad around when I was just 7 years old. Landscaping with him became my part-time job around age 12, and I worked until I was 24. I also helped him with his landscape blueprints, and even considered studying landscape architecture and design as a career, before embarking on my path towards becoming an illustrator.”

For his new book, the author said his goal was to include themes “that spoke of the bond between a father and son and family, the importance of hard work, and the links between art, nature, and creativity.” He also wanted to shine a light on jobs and workers that often go unnoticed, and to encourage readers to feel proud of who they are and where they come from.

Parra’s Hispanic roots and heritage provided a rich cultural palette of inspiring imagery and customs. Mexican murals, family characters and memories, folk art, science and nature dioramas, papier-mâché piñatas, pop and surrealism, music and dance costumes, as well as regional cuisines – are all visual influences seen in his eye-catching work. 

Always an art lover, he started drawing at an early age. Eventually, the budding artist moved to Queens and has lived in the borough for the past 23 years.

“After graduating from the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, Calif., I decided to move out to New York to start my career in art/illustration,” Parra said. “I drove with my mom from California to New York in April of 2000. I was 27 at the time. She used to live in Queens in the ‘60’s, so we decided to try there first. We found a great studio loft in Elmhurst. The landlord was even an alumnus of my art school.”

The author’s father was one of his early influences and mentors.

“He would tell us stories and draw for my brothers and I, growing up. And a big part of my art is also inspired by my Latino roots on my father’s side; Mexican folk art and retablos [small, colorful oil paintings, made on tin]; the artists, such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and much more, were all early influences,” Parra said. “And my mother was also an inspiration. She was an educator, who loved books and art. She would take us to the library and museums when we were young.” 

“My dad always told my brothers and I that he devotes 30 percent of his life to his family, 30 percent to work, and 30 percent to baseball,” Parra continued. “That meant only 10 percent for everything else. He usually followed this up with a good, strong laugh. My dad was always proud of me and my work. He was an amateur artist himself, who loved to draw landscapes and baseball. He passed away just before the book was published, but he did hear and see the story as I was working on it.”  

The artist’s unique designs can be seen on six U.S. Forever postage stamps, titled “Delicioso.” And his MTA art card poster called “Birdhouse Subways” has been displayed throughout New York City subways. 

“Delicioso,” – USPS Forever postage stamps. (Photos are courtesy of John Parra)

Always thinking out-of-the-box, Parra decided to create that subway poster when he saw a news story about old subway cars being dumped in the ocean. 

“Fish and marine life were taking over them and making it their homes. I wanted to go the other way and thought it would be cool if the birds around New York had subway birdhouses. That was the start,” he explained.

The poster was seen inside subway cars last year. Every year, they bring in three artists to create new designs,” according to Parra, who said he was contracted to create the poster by the MTA Arts and Design team. “The newer posters are now up but my wife said she sometimes still sees mine on the A train,” he noted. (You can purchase a copy of the poster at the NY Transit Museum Store).

Recently, the artist was also asked to design postal stamps. The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) wanted to create a book of stamps celebrating Latino cuisine. “I had done some children’s books, such as ‘Green is a Chile Pepper’ and ‘Round is a Tortilla,’ that they saw, that had a connection with Latino food, and they reached out to see if I’d be interested in working with them,” he said. The USPS selected his traditional Latin food designs, titled “Delicioso.” According to Parra, the Delicioso book of 20 USPS Forever postage stamps, are now past “the regular purchase date,” but he has seen them available from online vendors.

Parra said he will be doing an online presentation on June 28 – “about the stamp process” – in partnership with the Smithsonian Postal Museum, in Washington, D.C. 

The hardworking creative has had numerous gallery shows in New York City over the years and presented his work at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He participated at the Queens Museum’s Children’s Book Celebration and has also visited schools in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan, where he presented his work and talked about his books and illustrations.

“I want kids to see that through work and creativity they can accomplish anything. ‘Growing an Artist’ is a fun book about spending time with a parent and being proud of who you are,” Parra said. “The book is also a celebration of workers who contribute to creating a better, more beautiful world, but sometimes go unseen.”

You can purchase John Parra’s books wherever books are sold, both online and in stores. Those interested can order on AmazonBookshopBarnes and Noble and Indiebound.

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