Interview with the Manolo & the Unicorn Creative Team

By: Michele Kirichanskaya
May 24, 2023

Jackie Azúa Kramer is an award-winning children’s book author whose books include Dorothy & Herbert: An Ordinary Couple and Their Extraordinary Collection of Art, published by Cameron Kids. Her hopes are to write stories that reflect who children see in the mirror and what they see out of their windows. She lives with her family in Long Island, New York. Find her Instagram @jackie_azua_kramer and Twitter @JackieKramer422.

Jonah Kramer is a New York City-based actor, singer, dancer, and now children’s book author. He has traveled as a performer both nationally and internationally. He is delighted to coauthor his first book with his amazing mom. Find him on Instagram @jonahekramer.

Zach Manbeck is a children’s book author and illustrator who loves to create stories that advocate for characters that haven’t yet had a chance to live in books. He lives in Philadelphia. Find him on Instagram @zachmanbeck.

I had the opportunity to interview Jackie, Jonah, and Zach which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself? 

Jackie:: I’m a picture book author and to date, I’ve published about eight books including Manolo & the Unicorn with more releasing in 2023 and 2024. I’m thrilled that between three of my books, they’ve been translated into a total of ten languages. I would describe my writing and books as eclectic, as the inspiration to my stories come from many sources—travel, movies, history, music, art, and the natural world. However, my Latinx cultural roots, experiences, and memories play a big part in my storytelling. In the end, I hope to write stories that meet children where they are and reflects what they see in their mirror, and out their windows.

Jonah: I am a performer and now first-time children’s book author. I have a degree in musical theatre from NYU Tisch School of the Arts and I have worked as a professional actor in regional theatres as well as touring both nationally and internationally.

Zach: I am an author and illustrator from Pennsylvania. Manolo & the Unicorn is the third book I’ve worked on. My other titles You Are Here (Chronicle, May 2022) and Stanley’s Secret (written by John Sullivan, Paula Wiseman Books, Jan 2023) are available now! As an artist, people describe my work as modern vintage—nostalgic, yet fresh. As a writer, I aim to tell stories from a fresh perspective—stories that advocate for characters that haven’t yet had a chance to live in books, and stories sprinkled with lessons that encourage the forming of healthy minds. 

Jackie Kramer

What can you tell us about your most recent project, Manolo & the Unicorn? Where did the inspiration for this story come from? 

Jackie: Manolo & the Unicorn was written with my son, Jonah, and was inspired by a bullying experience he had as a child. I was interested in writing an odd friendship story. But our love of mythology and unicorns pulled the two themes together. We both have acting backgrounds so it was fun to act out scenes we envisioned for the story before drafting a word. The story explores gender identity and believing in oneself wrapped in magical realism and mythology. When I was a child, or even later, when I had my own children, there weren’t any books that explored the theme of gender norms and identity. I feel good knowing that today kids have access to books like Manolo & the Unicorn.

Jonah: I wrote Manolo & the Unicorn with my mom and it was inspired by experiences I had as a child. Growing up I often felt alone or ostracized because my interests didn’t match with what my peers expected of me. An early memory I have is being told that my favorite color couldn’t be the color purple because “purple is for girls.” When I shared some of these experiences with my mom she felt like we could write a meaningful story together. As a kid, I was obsessed with fantastical creatures and would spend hours drawing unicorns, mermaids, fairies, and dragons. So, having our story based in magical realism felt like the perfect fit.

Zach: Visually, my biggest inspiration for the book came from very early Disney concept art by the renowned Mary Blair.  No one can paint magic the way that she did. 

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, and children’s books? What drew you to the medium? 

Jackie: Since I was a young kid, I was cutting comics out from the Sunday papers and then pasting them onto another sheet of paper with my own story written underneath. I have always loved picture books. I loved to let my imagination step into another world. In addition, the stories helped me to understand the world around me. I started out planning on becoming an actor and trained at NYU, but my life’s journey took me in another direction. Ironically, my experience as an actor has helped me as a writer. In theatre, you have a beginning, middle, and an end with characters and settings. Page turns to me are like the end of a scene in a play, the curtain goes up and comes down. In the end, I felt I had something to say, and I hoped others felt the same way.

Jonah: I actually didn’t expect to get into the medium of children’s books. During the height of the pandemic, the theatre industry was hit extremely hard and I was out of work. My mom asked if I would be interested in writing a story with her based on some of my childhood experiences that I had shared with her. Coming from a theatre background I had already been telling stories, but now I got to tell them through a new medium. So, I kind of fell into the medium of children’s books, but I am so happy and grateful that I did.  

Zach: I think picture books are healing—for myself, and for readers. I create books that I wish I had access to when I was a child. Manolo & the Unicorn would have certainly had a home on my bookshelf. 

Jonah Kramer

How would you describe your creative process? And what went into collaborating with others for Manolo & the Unicorn? 

Jackie: Lots of daydreaming, musing, percolating, long walks, and Swiffering, before I put even one word on paper. Once I have the beginning and end, with the middle a bit fuzzy, I begin to draft the story. Sometimes I have a title that I love and work around that. If you write or illustrate picture books you need to accept and trust that it takes a creative village to make beautiful and meaningful books. I have been fortunate to work with a terrific team at Cameron Kids that had the same vision for Manolo & the Unicorn.

Jonah: Both my mom and I have a background in theatre, so we viewed a lot of the story as if it was a play or a movie. Typically one of us would write a section and then we would act it out for the other person almost as if it were a play. I remember we spent a lot of time trying to capture the nuances of what the first interaction would be between the Unicorn and Manolo. In the research we did on unicorn stories, we found that there is an etiquette and a level of politeness that is required when first meeting a unicorn. We went back and forth trying to find the balance of excitement, trepidation, and wonder that our two characters would be feeling when meeting for the first time. We acted this small moment out so many times. Ultimately most of what we acted out for that moment didn’t make it into the final edit, but it really helped to shape our understanding of the two characters and their relationship.

Zach: When creating Manolo & the Unicorn I spent a lot of time absorbing all of my favorite fairy tales from childhood. From there, judgment-free sketching and painting happens, and if I’m lucky things magically fall into place. The hardest part of creating anything is believing in yourself. I was lucky to have a team of people who really trusted my vision and encouraged me throughout the whole process of making the book. 

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration? 

Jackie: I may have answered this in your first question. I have many, many creative influences like travel, the natural world, my childhood memories, and art. That said, my greatest creative influence is my curiosity. For example, I wrote the nonfiction picture book, Dorothy and Herbert-Ordinary People and their Extraordinary Collection of Art, after watching an amazing documentary about Herbert and Dorothy Vogel. The Vogels amassed one of the largest and priceless collections of modern art in a small, one-bedroom apartment, then donated it all to the National Gallery. I had never written nonfiction before, but I keep myself open to the muse who presents itself in many ways. 

Jonah: My parents loved to share classic movie musicals with me, so I think a lot of my inspiration comes from movies and musicals. I also take a lot of inspiration from queer artists and creators. 

Zach:  As an artist, I have endless influences. Those influences are constantly rotated and revisited based on the nature of the project I’m working on. For Manolo & the Unicorn, Mary Blair was my biggest influence. I fell madly in love with her work my freshman year of college and that love has persisted. Her visual development, specifically for Cinderella and Peter Pan, really inspired me while painting Manolo & the Unicorn.

Zach Manbeck

Besides your work, what are some things you would want readers to know about you? 

Jackie: I look forward to the fork in the road.

Jonah: I have been fortunate enough to get to explore a few different creative fields. When I was a kid I wanted to be a marine biologist, I ended up studying theatre and becoming an actor, and now I’m a published children’s book author. It’s never too late to explore other passions. You never know where they might take you.

Zach: I prefer to let my work speak for itself. In the age of social media, we have normalized constant updates and open windows into people’s personal lives. As an artist who marches to the beat of his own drum, I deliberately keep my “window” closed. Let your work speak for itself. 

Are there any other projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss? 

Jackie: I have three more books coming out in 2023—We Are One-about our connections to each other and the natural world, Empanadas for Everyone-about a little girl who discovers her community when she makes empanadas, and Boogie in the Bronx, a toe-tapping, dancing and singalong book which features CD audio and video animation. I can’t say too much about it, but my latest WIP is nonfiction and takes the reader far into space.

Jonah: At the moment I don’t have anything that I am working on, but I am really trying to enjoy this moment of having my first book published. It has been so gratifying to see both kids and adults interacting with our story and sharing their excitement about it.

Zach: I currently have two new projects on my desk that are in very early stages.  One is a whimsical dreamy bedtime story and the other is a story about shyness and friendship.  I look forward to sharing more details about them in the future!

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (and the answer to that question)? 

Jackie:  Do you believe in unicorns?

I do! Magical things exist all around us and happen all the time. All we need do is to tap into our curiosity and believe.

Jonah: What animal would you be for the wild animal parade?

A unicorn, of course!

Zach: What is your favorite part of Manolo & the Unicorn

One of my favorite parts of Manolo & the Unicorn is how I used color to tell the story. Throughout the pages, you will notice a conflict between the colors red and green. Manolo, his Unicorn, and their magic exists in a “green” world. Characters and feelings that question Manolo’s beliefs live in a ‘red’ world. When Manolo’s red-hued classmates let him know that they think unicorns aren’t real, he temporarily shifts from being green to red. However, when he meets his unicorn, he is magically restored to green. A similar color transformation also occurs at the end.

What advice might you have to give to aspiring creatives, to both those interested in making their own picture book? 

Jackie: Join the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators. Read, read, read lots of picture books old and new. Discover books that you love and use them as mentor texts, and to understand what’s being published. Finally, don’t quit. Believe in yourself and understand that a rejection isn’t personal. Rejections are completely subjective.

Jonah: I would say that it’s important to write about things that are genuine and authentic to you. When the subject matter is meaningful to you it makes the writing process that much easier, and I think as a reader you can feel the passion and the love through the writing as a result. It is also important to know your audience and who you are writing for. And for me, I am passionate about bringing more LGBTQ+-themed stories to the table. I know that there are kids out there who would both enjoy and benefit from having stories that reflect their experiences, but there are not enough stories being written for kids who may identify as LGBTQ+. So, I encourage aspiring creatives to find what they are passionate about and to find a need. What stories need to be told? What voices need to be heard?

Zach: Cliché, but don’t give up. My first picture book was sold for six figures after a multi-day auction between several publishers. I was living at home, unemployed, and broke when I got that email. I went into it just hoping one publisher would make me a small offer. Life has a way of surprising us…if you let it!

Finally, what books/authors (LGBTQ+ and/or otherwise) would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT? 

Jackie: There are many I love but here are a few of my favorites, and one written by our multitalented editor, for Manolo & the Unicorn: Girl on a Motorcycle by Amy Novesky illustrated by Julie Morstad (Viking, 2020). Your Mama by NoNieqa Ramos, illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara (Versify, 2021), and Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall (Greenwillow, 2015).

Jonah: My favorite book is The Song of Achilles (Ecco, 2012) by Madeline Miller. The book is based on the Greek mythology of Achilles and it is told from the perspective of Patroclus who was Achilles’ closest companion. I love the way Miller takes Greek mythology but tells the story through a writing style that makes Greek mythology easily accessible to young readers. It is truly one of the most beautiful love stories that I have ever read. To be able to read a book that I could relate to as a member of the LGBTQ+ community was so rewarding when for so long we have been (and continue to be) underwritten, undervalued, and unrepresented in most of the media that we consume. I can’t sing enough praises for The Song of Achilles.

Zach: Matthew Forsythe’s Mina (Simon & Schuster, 2022) and Pokko and the Drum (Simon & Schuster, 2019) are my favorites. Matt is an incredible artist, a clever writer, and a wonderful friend. 

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