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The Power to Believe with Jackie Azúa Kramer, Jonah Kramer, and Zach Manbeck

Jackie Azúa Kramer, Jonah Kramer, and Zach Manbeck share Manolo & the Unicorn, a story about seeing and believing wholeheartedly in the extraordinary--unicorns and oneself.

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[2:32] Introduction


Matthew: Welcome to the Children’s Book Podcast. I’m Matthew.


I am a teacher, a librarian, and a fan of kids. Being a fan of kids means believing in a number of things. For example, to be a fan of kids, to me, means believing that kids understand the world in a unique and personal way. It means believing that the questions kids ask help to reveal the hidden nature of the things around us. It means believing that kids are truth tellers and truth seekers and that having the privilege to spend time in your world means that I’ll get to see the world a little differently.


The book we’re talking about today centers on a kid who sees the world a little differently. A kid who believes. And the power of believing alongside them.



[3:40] Book Summary


Matthew: Manolo & the Unicorn by Jackie Azúa Kramer and Jonah Kramer, illustrated by Zach Manbeck



To Manolo the world is a magical place--a place where he searches for the most magical creature of all: a unicorn. Manolo loves unicorns. When the Wild Animal Parade is announced at school, and Manolo declares that he will come as his favorite animal, his classmates say there is no such thing as unicorns, making the world feel ordinary. That is, until Manolo meets a real unicorn--wild and graceful--and discovers that the world is truly extraordinary.



[4:29] Meet Our Guests: Jackie Azúa Kramer, Jonah Kramer, and Zach Manbeck


Jackie: My name is Jackie Azúa Kramer. I live in Long Island, New York. I write picture books and I am the co-author of Manolo & the Unicorn with my son Jonah.


Jonah: Hi, my name is Jonah Kramer. I am a performer and now children's book author, and I am the co-author of Manolo & the Unicorn.


Zach: Hi, I'm Zach Manbeck, a unicorn believer and the lucky illustrator of Manolo & the Unicorn.



[5:04] In the Wild Animal Parade


Matthew: Do you have a favorite animal? In the story, Manolo’s teacher reminds the class that tomorrow is the Wild Animal Parade, where everyone will have the opportunity to share their favorite animal with the class. So, what animal would you honor at the Wild Animal Parade?


I’ll give you a minute to think it over while we hear from my humans and from some of our guests.


Be thinking! Here we go.


Julia: Hi, I’m Julia.


Jonah: Hi, my name is Jonah.


Julia: In the Wild Animal Parade I would be a sloth because I just really like hanging. And I like being calm and just being, like, still. And just playing games.


Jonah: In the Wild Animal Parade I would be a cheetah. I would be a cheetah because I love how fast they are. They include orange, which is my favorite color. And I think, overall, in general, they are a wonderful and unique animal.


Jackie: Not a magical creature, but I love elephants. I love the family bonds and the matriarchy that elephants have. They're just beautiful creatures and with big, beautiful hearts.


Jonah: I think that if I were to join the Wild Animal Parade, I would be… I'm tempted to say unicorn because of the book, but I think at that age I was really, really fascinated by dragons. I was really just obsessed with them and I had books on them and I loved them so much. So I'm gonna go with dragon.


Matthew: What great responses! I would probably have to go with humpback whale. They have always felt magical to me, as if they are flying through water. And although they are the biggest animal on the planet, their presence fills me with awe and calms me down.


I wonder what Zach’s animal would be? I didn’t get a chance to ask him, but will make sure I do next time I see him. I have a feeling it’s something wonderful and magical!


And what about you, listeners? What animal would you honor in the Wild Animal Parade? Turn to a friend or classmate, to a sibling or grownup. Or you can think your response to yourself. You can also share aloud with me. I may not be able to hear you, but I’m always listening. Favorite animal. Go!



[8:01] A Purple Crayon and a Story


Matthew: Belief is a powerful tool. I mentioned believing in children at the start of this episode. To have someone to believe in us can give us strength and confidence. But we can also find strength and confidence in believing in ourselves. This isn’t always easy. And letting the world see our true self takes a fair amount of vulnerability in the uncertainty of how others may respond.


This, it turns out, became the base of the story of Manolo and the Unicorn.


Jackie: I had been thinking about writing an odd friendship story, like think: a koala and an ostrich meet. And around the same time, my son Jonah had shared an incident at school where he was bullied by a classmate for coloring with a purple crayon. And it just made me think about how at such a young age he was navigating questions about his identity.


So this was during the pandemic and we had nothing better to do so the two of us started to think, “What if instead of the crayon, a boy is teased because he believes in unicorns.”


Now, we had a story with a foundation that touched on themes of gender stereotypes and gender identity.



[9:44] Imagination Has No Age


Matthew: Magic and magical thinking emanates from the pages of Manolo and the Unicorn.


Jonah: When writing this book, we talked a lot about the magical thinking of kids.

Kids just have this innate gift of imagination. I think we can all remember getting lost in our own world that we created for ourselves. It's a gift that we're all born with, but as we get older, we sort of tend to lose sight of that and forget how easy it was to once imagine things.


But we really don't have to look or think that hard. There really is magic all around us, especially in nature. We just have to stop to take a look and see it.

I think that's what's so amazing about Manolo as a character. He has this ability to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, and what greater gift is there than that? Which is why I think it's so important to nurture and encourage kids to use their imagination and encourage everyone, you know, imagination really has no age.



[11:00] Communicating Through Colors


Matthew: There is a special relationship between imagination and illustrations. The artist, of course, must use their imagination to create the art throughout the book. But the artist also has the job and responsibility of helping us to believe in what’s going on in the story.


Zach Manbeck has done such an exceptional job in this regard. I’ll include a number of spreads on my website. But for now, enjoy Zach talking through his approach to these beautiful illustrations.


Zach: The color palette from Manolo and the Unicorn was very carefully chosen. I like to think color can tell a story, just like words can. Manolo, his unicorn, and all of the magic appears in hues of blue and green, while those who don't believe in the magic appear in shades of red, the color directly opposite of green.


In the story, there's a gentle clash between red and green. One area we can see this unfold is when Manolo's classmates tell him unicorns aren't real, and that unicorns are for girls. Suddenly Manolo turns from green to completely red as he begins to question everything. Maybe unicorns aren't real.



But thankfully, just as all hope is about to be lost, Manolo's Unicorn appears for the first time, and Manolo is magically restored to green. His faith and magic has been completely revived.




[12:36] BREAK


[12:47] Reading Aloud From Manolo and the Unicorn


Matthew: Welcome back.


I love asking authors to read aloud to us, but today we have three guests and so I asked if our guests wouldn’t mind being a little vulnerable by each sharing a favorite excerpt from the story. The parts they shared and the reasons they shared them are just so wonderful to me.


Jackie: Oh, goodness. Zach's art is so gorgeous. It's hard to pick only one.


But I think the page towards the end where Manolo and the unicorn are celebrating around the fire. Um, and I'm just gonna read that page for you guys.


Around a crackling fire, they feasted on wildflower honey, and the world was magical once again.


Manola looked up at the morning star and thought about home. He wanted to share this magic with everyone.


I love that. I love that there he is, having had the most incredible experience with the unicorns, and yet he is staring out at that morning star and he's thinking of home. You know, like the classic Wizard of Oz line, “There's no place like home”.


And even more important is that he wants to go home and share the magic with everyone, even after he was teased. And that says a lot about Manolo as a person. And that's why the unicorn appears to him, because he is pure of heart.


Jonah: My favorite thing that we wrote is, um, this part that says…


Wherever the Unicorn went, the flowers opened wider, the trees stood taller, the sun shown brighter.


And then, later in the book at the end, we repeat the same thing, but we add, and so did Manolo.


And I just remember when we wrote that piece of text and then reflected it at the end to show Manolo's journey, I remember thinking, like, “Wow, like. I don't know. This is pretty good.” Um, especially, you know, this is my first time writing, um, a children's book. It was the first time when we were working on the book that I was like, “Wow, you know what, you know, I am a writer, I can do this.” So that was definitely like a gratifying moment. And I always, um, smile when I read, um, that text, um, both in the middle of the book and when it's, um, shown up again at the end.


But then my favorite illustration would have to be, um, something that also shows up a couple of times in the book. It's this page where Manolo is sitting on a hill and he's reading, but the hill is in the shape of a unicorn. It is a unicorn.


And when we were writing the book, we had put in our art notes that we really wanted the unicorn to sort of be seen in the background of some of the imagery before Manolo discovers the unicorn to almost show that the unicorn has always been there, sort of watching over Manolo and taking note of him, but not yet ready to reveal itself.


And I think when we gave that art note, you know, we pictured maybe like a physical unicorn kind of like peeking out from behind a bush or something. But when we saw the illustrations that Zach came up with, I was kind of blown away because he found a way to show the unicorn hidden, but in and of nature, like the unicorn is a part of the natural world that Manolo is in, which is such a, a central theme in the book.



And I was just so blown away when I saw these illustrations of Manolo sitting on the hill, which is actually a unicorn, because I never would've imagined to illustrate it that way. But it's so beautiful and it makes so much sense that the unicorn is the natural world around Manolo.


And Zach does it a couple of different times throughout the story. And it's just so cool to see the different ways that he interpreted that art note and found a way to incorporate the unicorn into the natural world.


So it was just, like, amazing to see how someone else's mind. Sort of takes an art note that we gave and interprets it in a way that was far more beautiful and imaginative and creative than, you know, I had even thought it could be.


Zach: Working on this project was a lot of fun, so I got to make a lot of work that I was really proud of, but one of my favorite spreads probably has to be the one at the end.

It's the final major color shift of the story marching forward. Hand in hand we see Manolo's classmates have shifted from all red to a green palette. His classmates are feeling open-minded and they finally accept him.


Growing up, I often felt intentionally excluded from the group because of my interests. I suppose that's why I relate to Manolo so much. I love the ending because it reminded me of what a younger version of myself needed from my classmates.

I'm so happy that Manolo got his happy ending because honestly, for me, it was healing in a way.



[19:14] A Message From Jackie, Jonah, and Zach


Matthew: It is that time: when we say goodbye for now to Jackie, to Jonah, and to Zach.


I am grateful to each of them for sharing the animals they love and the feelings they believe in. I loved the time and reflection on how it feels to be able to be our true selves and to be seen by others for our true selves. I will now be on the lookout for other books where the colors used by the artist are helping to communicate feelings and tell the story. And I’m also just so excited to have a book to help me connect with even more readers like you around unicorns and, most especially, around believing.


As I prepare my library for the next time it is full of children, and as you prepare for whatever is coming next in your day, I asked Jackie, Jonah, and Zach if they each had a message they would like me to share with all of you. And, of course, they did!


Jackie: Take a deep breath and give yourself a hug.


Jonah: The character of Manolo is based off of me as a kid. And some of the experiences that I had growing up where I had multiple occasions where someone would tell me that something that I liked or showed an interest in that I wasn't allowed to because of who I am and how I express my gender.


You know, I was told that I couldn't use a purple marker because purple is for girls and not for boys. I was told that I shouldn't be taking dance classes because dance is for girls and not for boys. I was told that I couldn't be a Disney princess, which I will still debate to this day.


But I think that Manolo is… He is me, but he is a version of me that is braver and far more courageous than I was at that age. And I heard those voices, those external voices telling me that all the things that I couldn't do instead of encouraging me and supporting all of the things that I wanted to do and wanted to be. And I let those things get to me.


And sadly, some of those things that I was interested in, I sort of lost interest in because I was afraid of what people would think about me. And I wish that I had the bravery and the courage that Manolo had to not let those external forces tell him what he could and

could not be.


So I think to boil it down, my message, for anyone is to not let anyone make you feel embarrassed or ashamed of anything that you feel passionate about.


I encourage you to jump head first and with full force into whatever that thing is that ignites that passion in you and to just chase it and, you know, never let that go. Never let anyone deter you from something that you feel excited about.


If there is something that you love to do, I promise you it will bring you so much joy and you never know where your passions can take you.


Zach: And my advice for all of you is this: In a room full of people who tell you that unicorns don't exist, don't be afraid to be the only one who's brave enough to believe.

I still believe and I'm proud of it.


[23:50] Closing


Matthew: The Children’s Book Podcast is written, edited, and produced by me, Matthew Winner.


Follow the show wherever podcasts are found, and leave us a rating or review when you do. That helps us out a whole lot because it helps the show get discovered by and recommended to new listeners.


Jackie? Jonah? Zach? Where can listeners find you?


Jackie: It's jackieazuakramer.com and of course I'm on Instagram and Twitter. And please follow me if you're so inclined and come check out my website.


Jonah: I have a website that's just my name jonahkramer.com.

And then all of my social media, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok is all gonna be Jonah E Kramer, because Jonah Kramer was taken.


Zach: You can find me on Instagram at ZackManbeck. And also please check out my other titles: You Are Here, my debut as author and Illustrator. And also Stanley's Secret, written by John Sullivan, a sweet story about a boy who hides his talent for dancing.


Matthew: Visit matthewcwinner.com for a full transcript of this episode plus some questions that you can use as you think about this episode.


You can also reach out and let me know what animal you would honor in the Wild Animal Parade.


Write to me or send me a message at matthewmakespods@gmail.com. That’s M-A-T-T-H-E-W M-A-K-E-S P-O-D-S at gmail dot com.


Our podcast logo was created by Duke Stebbins (https://stebs.design/).


Our music is by Podington Bear.


Podcast hosting by Libsyn.


You can support the show and buy me a coffee at www.matthewcwinner.com.


And always, don’t forget to check out the Reading Culture Podcast with Jordan Bookey, from Beanstack, if you are a fellow teacher or librarian. It’s the perfect podcast to explore building a stronger culture of reading in our communities. It’s available wherever podcasts are found. And Jordan is a buddy of mine. I love cheering on this show.


And on that note…


Be well. And read on.



End Of Episode

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