Imagine that your dearest career fantasy has come true, and your friends and family are throwing you a celebration. You're the center of attention, the person of the hour. How would you feel? Thrilled? Grateful? Flattered? Rhode Montijo felt all those things when San Francisco's Galería de la Raza recently hosted a party in honor of his first children's book, Cloud Boy (Simon & Schuster, $12.95). But the shy Oakland-based artist and writer felt something else, too something close to panic.
"I was really nervous at my book-release event," Montijo remembers. "I even had the gallery face the chairs in different directions when they were setting up, because they were all facing toward me at first."
Montijo had reluctantly agreed to give a talk about the making of his book. But since several children were coming to the party, gallery coordinator Raquel De Anda suggested that he might actually read it to them. Read to children! Montijo begged off. He was sure he would mess up the story. "Well, I'm going to read it," De Anda said.
She opened the book. High up in the sky lived a lonely little cloud boy. She held up the first illustration, which showed a ghostly white child with a head like a ball of powdered snow and a tuft of hair like a dollop of whipped cream. As the story went on, the boy began sculpting clouds into images of things he saw in the world below: a rabbit, a sailboat, a tortoise, a whale.
Signing books nearby, Montijo peeked over at the children. "They were wide-eyed and open-mouthed, pointing at shapes in the clouds," he remembers. "I was overwhelmed with a wave of emotion."
It was just what he'd hoped for. No, it was better than he'd hoped for. And it so easily could have turned out differently. The eldest of five brothers, Montijo grew up in Stockton, always drawing but not thinking there was anything special about what he did. His talents caught the eye of his high-school art teacher. "He saw something in me and recommended art school, which I thought he was making up when he told me about it," Montijo says. "I didn't believe there could be a school where you could draw all the time." Stockton was pretty much all he knew; California College of the Arts might as well have been on the other side of the country. His teacher still likes to rib him about it. "He remembers after he told me this art college was in Oakland, I asked, 'Well, how am I going to afford a plane ticket to get over there?'"
Montijo graduated from CCA with a degree in illustration. After that he picked up gigs working on video games and Internet movies. Among his own projects was Pablo's Inferno, a Mexican-themed comic about a boy's journey through the land of the dead. He also helped create the infamous Happy Tree Friends, an Internet cartoon series with the candy-colored cheerfulness of a Little Golden Book and the body count of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Eye gougings, decapitations it was good work, and he was glad to have it, but Montijo really wanted to write books for children. It just seemed so hard: "It was mostly self-doubt, like thinking that publishers wouldn't like my stories and art or always feeling like I wasn't ready."
Then he got a violent wake-up call. He and his then-girlfriend were pulling onto a Colorado freeway when everything suddenly exploded. "I just remember getting hit and it going black," he says. "I wake up and there's blood and glass everywhere." The accident left Montijo with a bruised heart and a fractured tailbone; his girlfriend escaped with a broken collarbone. "It definitely made me realize that tomorrow wasn't promised," he remembers. "I put this off so long, and I had to just go for it."
He returned home and plunged into a frenzy of activity. "I was working crazy college hours, hardly sleeping," he says. After a couple of months, he had a new, kid-friendly portfolio. It included a remarkable set of paintings done in a quiet and enchanting style. He's now posted them on his blog, RhodeMontijo.com. In one, a cat gently applies a stethoscope to a canary in a cage. In another, a spindly character with the head of a golden sun scatters seeds from a flying rowboat.
Doors started to open. Montijo discovered that he knew someone who knew someone who could put in a word with a children's-book editor. He signed a deal for Cloud Boy. Now he's illustrating the first eight books of the Melvin Beederman, Superhero series, about the adventures of a bespectacled, math-loving crime-fighter. Other projects include a Halloween book and one with the flavor of a Mexican folktale. "I just lucked out," he says.
Maybe he did, a bit. But his work reveals other things: an instinct for color, texture, and expression. And those haunting portfolio pieces so promising. Lucked out? That's a story not even a child would believe.
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