Yesterday’s Apple to Zebra is today’s Advocate to Zeal, offering our youngest generation an upgraded, inclusive education thanks to authors, illustrators, and publishers transforming the 26-stop ride through the alphabet. The ABCs of AOC takes young readers on a familiar trip via the lens of bold Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both sharing her story and shedding light on complex ideas like Grassroots and Xenophobia in a simplified form for kids and adults to unpack together.
Taking on a public figure like AOC is no small challenge, and illustrator Krystal Quiles was more than ready to capture the essence of her fellow Bronx native. The freelance artist has created videos for Planned Parenthood, a map for the High Line, illustrations for The Nation, and more. Through her varied work and collaborations, there is an unchanging theme at the center – Quiles’ desire to inspire. Like many creative people existing outside the sometimes insular boundaries of the “art world,” Krystal grew up loving art but did not know how to turn her passion into a career. The famed activist Marian Wright Edelman easily comes to mind, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Now, thanks to Krystal, there may be children out there looking at her work, thinking about their future roles as artists, Congress members, or contributors to the improvement of society at large.
When did you first become interested in drawing?
My dad would always draw funny little characters in newspapers and build stuff with scrap material, so growing up my older sister and I were encouraged to be creative. I would sit and watch morning cartoons with a sketchbook and draw the Rugrats and Powerpuff Girls. When my sister went to an art conservatory high school, I’d always annoy her by doing the still life drawing assignments with her. I didn’t know where drawing would take me, but I knew I loved the process of creating so I never stopped.
At what point did you decide to pursue art as a career?
Graduating high school and thinking about the future was an extremely stressful period for me. I didn’t personally know anyone with a career in the arts, so I had no context. But I knew I wanted to continue perfecting my craft and although it seemed frivolous, I was determined to pursue this in college. With my parents’ support, I attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I don’t think my teenage mind had thought about careers going into college, I was definitely too naive. But by the time I graduated, as exhausted and still unprepared as I felt, I decided I would do whatever it takes to make a career out of illustration. I moved back home to the Bronx with my parents and took on multiple part-time jobs, all the while keeping the side-hustle alive.
Does anything about your cultural background inspire what you do?
Growing up in New York, I was inherently inspired by my family’s Puerto Rican culture but also by all the different cultures around me.
I remember there was a point when I was younger and wanted to rebel against my parents who were raised in conservative Catholic families. I felt there was a mold pressed upon me that I didn’t want to conform to and it made me reject my culture a bit. Then there was a trip my family and I took to Puerto Rico and it changed my perspective and subsequently my art. I felt a sense of home that I couldn’t even place in New York. Both of my grandmothers were single mothers who left Puerto Rico as young women looking for better opportunities. They made lives on the Lower East Side and in the south Bronx, and in turn, my parents raised us to be proud of our older generations, which inspires me every day to work hard and never take anything for granted.
As I get older, family history and culture has become more prominent in my work and a form of inspiration. My creativity spikes when it’s warm out or when there’s a tropical breeze; I love music and dancing with my paintbrush. My great grandmother, Menchita, used to make and sell pavas, hand-woven straw hats, and I like to think this is where I get my love for embroidery and textiles. I’m still working on a collection of illustrations printed on fabric with embroidered detail that is inspired by a 2018 trip to Puerto Rico I took with my girlfriends.
How did you become involved with "The ABCs of AOC"?
I was approached by an Executive Art Director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers who had come across my work and thought I would be a good fit to collaborate on the book Jamia Wilson was already writing. This was soon after I decided to start working full time as an illustrator and I could not have been more excited about this opportunity. At first, I was told it would be an ABC book about a public figure and when it was revealed that AOC was the subject, I just thought, wow, this will be fun.
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How was working on a book different from your other artistic collaborations?
This particular book project came with a very tight deadline, and at first, the art directors proposed that some of the pages could be photo collages of my illustrations— which would cut down on some drawing time. However, once I started sketching out ideas, I realized how open to collaborating the team was and it encouraged me to fill the pages. I always bring 100% to my projects but there was a certain amount of pressure and excitement that came out of me creating a marathon of illustrations.
What do you hope readers take away from the book? Have there been any surprising reactions?
Mostly I hope people feel optimistic and inspired. Jamia created a collection of words that emits positivity, inclusiveness, and community which in turn is what I wanted to illustrate. I hope this book encourages children and adults to be accepting of each other and to listen to one and other no matter their differences.
After the book’s release I was approached by The National Youth Foundation to speak at the March 2020 Girls Rally that will be held in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. The event is all about promoting literacy and it’s truly an honor to have an opportunity like this to inspire girls. I encourage anyone who is interested in being involved in Girls Rally to reach out to TNYF @nationalyouthfoundation on Instagram.
Which letter/page are you most proud of?
I will always have a special place in my heart for B the Bronx page. I didn’t want to capture one specific spot in the Bronx but rather a vibe that is found throughout the borough. I love the elevated trains that let you look out and see the big apartments and tiny people as the seasons change; there’s a sense of family and culture. Public parks and gardens really shaped my childhood, I think it’s important to pass that on.
A book, illustrations for publications such as The Nation, animations for organizations like Planned Parenthood - you have been quite busy! Is there a common thread in your various endeavors?
Thank you - I hope it stays that way! I’ve been quite fortunate to have been working on projects with teams that are spreading inspiring messages. I make work from a positive place and I want to share meaningful stories. It’s exciting that my work has attracted the attention of organizations I feel proud to get behind. I understand that these topics are controversial and not everyone will engage with them. But there’s an opportunity in art to express an openness so that people can have a dialogue. Visual interest leads people to talk about things, like immigration, women's rights, and the political landscape.
What is your dream project or collaboration?
There’s a long list scribbled in journals and in various note apps. A graphic novel team-up with my sister would be cool. Being involved with more kids’ books is this illustrator's dream as they rely on drawings to tell a story. Dancing is my primary outlet and I have been inspired by countless NY dancers and choreographers, so if this can manifest into a project that would be amazing. My favorite artist growing up was Keith Haring. I loved that his art had no boundaries and was so accessible, I could go to 128th St. and see his mural. Nowadays, there are a lot of amazing muralists and accessible art but it’s always been a childhood dream of mine to make art that could be enjoyed by anyone, nice and big, in a public place.