Today I’m happy to celebrate the newly released picture book La Noche Before Three Kings Day by fellow Musa Sheila Colón-Bagley, illustrated by Alejandro Mesa and published by HarperCollins on September 12th, 2023.
This book is special to me because I grew up with the tradition of Three Kings Day (in México known as Día de Reyes Magos), so it was delightful to get to read an advance reader copy of Sheila’s Book a while ago. It definitely brought back many memories from my childhood, while I also learned how this tradition is celebrated in a different country than my own, in this case Puerto Rico.
What makes this interview even more exciting is that I got to have a conversation with both, Sheila and Alejandro, and so we’ll get to know more from the perspectives of an author and an illustrator working together on a picture book.
About LA NOCHE BEFORE THE KINGS DAY:
It’s almost Three Kings Day, and while the grownups prepare a large meal, the kids prepare their shoe boxes for los Reyes to arrive later that night. Will they stay up late enough to wish the Kings a Feliz Día de los Reyes? Or will the magic pass them by?
Sing along with a great big familia as they fill up their platos, play their favorite juegos, and wait for the three kings and regalitos to arrive. This enchanting celebration of a beloved holiday is brought to life through lively rhyming dual-lingual text by Sheila Colón-Bagley with festive illustrations from Alejandro Mesa.
Now, on to our interview:
M. Welcome, Sheila and Alejandro! I’m thrilled to have you both here to talk about your wonderful book. So the first thing I’d like to know is if you grew up with the tradition of Three Kings Day and how that impacted your idea for this book.
Sheila, would you like to start?
S. I grew up hearing stories of how joyous El Día de los Reyes Magos was back “home” in Puerto Rico. While I didn’t celebrate the holiday as a child, I was delighted when my eldest daughter, then six, asked to celebrate it after watching an episode of Dora the Explorer about it. That was fourteen years ago, and with three daughters now in our family, it’s always been one of our favorite holidays, particularly for my youngest.
Each year, on the evening of January 5th, we’d gather around the kitchen table to decorate shoe boxes followed by a celebratory dinner of our favorite Latinx food. Just before bedtime, we’d leave out bowls of carrots or lettuce and water for the camels. Instead of placing their shoe boxes under their bed, though, my daughters placed them by the back door, so they wouldn’t be awakened by the Three Kings at work. The next morning, they’d rush to their boxes to see what gifts they received from the Three Kings, before heading off to school. But, unfortunately, none of their friends at school would know what a special day it was for them. Throughout the years, I looked for picture books about the holiday to bring to class and share at story time, but they were few and far between and I didn’t feel like they quite captured the magic. So, I decided to write one and drew inspiration from a copy of The Night Before Christmas that a mall Santa had given one of my girls.
M. It’s wonderful that you took action when this kind of book was missing in the market! And how great that you adopted the tradition with your girls. It’s never too late!
How about you Alejandro?
A. ¡Hola! Thank you very much for giving us this nice opportunity to talk about La Noche Before Three Kings Day.
I was born in a small town in Boyacá, Colombia, a traditional Catholic country that always celebrates December 24th as the Birth of the Divine Child or Baby Jesus. My relationship with 3 Kings (as the holiday that celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings is known in Colombia) was marked by a deep curiosity, encouraged by television. In the 1990s, Colombian television was influenced by different Latin television networks, mostly from Mexico and Peru. I did not understand why there was a relationship between the gifts and the celebration in January. For me, that link should only exist in December. However, I fondly remember the decoration of the manger in my house. When placing all its figures, it was impossible not to think of the three gentlemen who rode their camels. My mother used to place them at the end of the manger and, as the days went by, she brought them closer to the house of the Child Jesus so that, on January 6th, they would arrive and accompany him on his last night. The visit of the Magi marked the end of Christmas, the manger, the lights and the tree. January 7th was the day Christmas holiday ended in our tradition, which meant waiting until a new November 15th to start over again.
M. Those are such beautiful memories, Alejandro! I’m sure it was special to get to participate in this book. Can you tell us how you got to be part of this unique project?
A. In 2018 together with my wife, we decided to travel to Madrid, Spain, to study. We specialized in Character Design and that stay was absolutely beautiful. While there, we were able to see up close the celebration of Three Kings Day and the enthusiasm with which children await the date. It is very magical to think that the traveling kings will bring gifts to children. On camels they can bring many more gifts than they can carry under their arms.
In October 2021 I received the proposal to illustrate a beautiful manuscript on the Three Kings feast. After reading it, I thought: -This is so cute! – I could imagine the characters immediately, I saw two little sisters living that night before the celebration, with the emotion that waking up and finding gifts brings! It was such a close story to me, because it had all the nuances of celebration that I lived as a child and live today as an adult. It was a close, heartwarming and familiar story. The huge desire that I have to illustrate Latino stories also influenced me in saying YES! Our people have a huge universe in their daily lives and traditions that the world should know about!
M. Working on something that resonates with you definitely makes the experience more special. I’m happy you got to live that with this book, Alejandro. How did you decide which style and colors to use for your illustrations?
A. When doing a second reading of the manuscript, I made a small sketch of the Little Sisters, and that drawing defined the visual vision of the book. I’ve always had a great interest in mid-century illustration and cartoon style, and I found Sheila’s wonderful text a lot of fun. I thought that this family should be colorful and diverse, staying happy at all times, so that the reader could perceive the joy that our families experience the night before the party. That is why I opted for a highly saturated color palette, with primary colors that would stand out and contrast in each of the characters. My favorite page is the opening. I see myself at home, receiving my uncles and cousins who came from Bogotá to celebrate Christmas with us. It is a beautiful memory from my childhood, going down the stairs of my grandmother’s house to see them arrive and shout excitedly: LLEGARON MIS PRIMOS!!!!
M. I can definitely agree that the colors you chose for the book are very bright and happy. Great choice!
Now, Sheila, can you tell us which was your favorite scene to write and how was it for you to meet your characters for the first time?
S. Spoiler alert! This story was so much fun to write, especially with weaving Spanish throughout the book. But if I had to choose one scene, I’d say it’s the ending, because the little girl gets to see Los Reyes fly away on their magical camels. I think Alejandro portrayed this moment perfectly.
Regarding the characters, I had seen sketches, but I literally gasped when I saw Alejandro Mesa’s full color illustrations. The family, the girls, the food, and of course, los Reyes, all came out wonderful. I couldn’t believe how he had taken my cuentito and brought it to life so beautifully, so magically. The love, joy, and wonder just pop off the page! I wanted Alejandro to have full creative freedom, so I did not include any art notes. However, I was able to weigh in and provide input throughout the process. I also made two requests, which were to include a Puerto Rican flag and a Coquí frog.
M. Meeting your characters for the first time is truly magical. Can you both share why you think this book would be appealing for kids and teachers and what are you hoping children will take away from it?
S. I think both kids and teachers will enjoy this new twist on an old classic. The rhythm and rhyme in both English and Spanish—along with gorgeous illustrations—make for a fun read-aloud! Regarding the take away, I hope that kids who celebrate El Día de los Reyes will feel seen and represented. And for kids not familiar with it, I hope they enjoy learning about this beautiful tradition.
A. I feel that lore stories have a charming component. They allow you to get closer to others and understand their roots, which for us are closely linked to celebration and family. La Noche Before Three Kings Day speaks precisely of that. Tradition always has a magical quality, which encourages conversations in its environment, invites you to recognize it and, why not, to celebrate it. As for the take away I would love for readers to recognize the relationship between tradition and family, because the celebrations are beautiful, but they are much more meaningful when the family is present. It is important to recognize that magic resides in the bonds and relationships that we are able to forge around the table, music, words and a hug.
M. Those are lovely answers. Finally, can you both share any new projects that you’re currently working on and what comes next for you?
S. I have several picture book manuscripts ready to query. In the meantime, I’m savoring my debut year and looking forward to some upcoming school and story time visits, as well as the Latinx Kidlit Book Festival.
A. I recently finished a beautiful story about the wonderful Eleanor Roosevelt that I hope to share soon. Currently, I am working on some personal projects and have returned to teaching. I’m a character design teacher and I’ve been having a lot of fun. I hope soon to tell new stories from our Latin America and, of course, enjoy the release of “La Noche Before Three Kings Day”, which I know will bring a very special air to my life.
Sheila and Alejandro, thanks so much for sharing about your book and this wonderful Día de Reyes tradition. I wish your book had been around when my kids were little, I would have loved sharing it with them. I hope that many children will be happy to read it in the coming months and especially during the holidays. I wish you both the best with your book’s recent release and good luck with your future projects. Congratulations! 🎉
Sheila Colón-Bagley is a children’s book author. Born in Puerto Rico, but raised in Philadelphia, PA, Sheila draws on her dual heritage for inspiration for her books. She is motivated by a desire to provide multicultural children with more stories about families that look and live like they do. “La Noche Before Three Kings Day” (HarperCollins, 2023) illustrated by Alejandro Mesa, is her debut picture book.
Sheila holds a B.A. degree in journalism from Temple University, and lives in North Carolina with her family and a spoiled Havanese dog named Vader.
Alejandro Mesa is an illustrator of children’s books from Soatá, Boyacá, with experience in publishers such as Planeta, SM, Harper, Epic, Random House, and Disney. He’s also a teacher and expert in Character Design at U-TAD, and a contributor to the Netflix series, Legend Quest. Alejandro works from Bogotá, where he shares his studio with his wife and his French bulldog, Flora.
Thanks for reading!
Cover by Jonathan Meyer.