In a twist on the children’s mystery format, first-time children’s book author (and lawyer) Jill Diamond has recently published a mystery in which the Mission’s murals play a central role.
Lou Lou & Pea and the Mural Mystery, illustrated by Lesley Vamos, is set in a fantastical Mission-inspired world where two young friends use clues that start appearing in the murals to figure out who has committed some misdeeds. Centered on the neighborhood and its community, the book explores the girls’ friendship and community while making nods to real elements of the local culture like the murals and the annual Día de los Muertos procession. A second book in the series is forthcoming.
We talked with Diamond about the themes in the book, how to write a mystery, and how kids sometimes pay more attention to the details than their parents. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Mission Local: Combining murals with a crime mystery for kids. How did you come up with that?
Jill Diamond: I really wanted to write something that was focused around the murals, as the book is inspired by the Mission, although it’s not explicitly set in the Mission. I think there is something that can be really appealing to kids, colorful, accessible community art, big, dramatic, and outside.
I wanted to write something that featured the murals in it, and then doing a mystery seemed like an obvious route to me – I love mysteries myself. Murals have such potential for riddles and hiding clues and it just seemed like kind of a great combination.
ML: How long have you been here and what struck you as ripe for a storybook?
I’ve lived in or around the Mission for 15 years and been in San Francisco since 2001. I started writing it kind of loosely in 2010. In the beginning, I sort of only had the concept that I wanted to write about: These two ten-year-old girls, and I wanted to write a mystery. I started writing scenes and jotting down things. I didn’t have a coherent plan for the book. I took a break for a little while and then I was like, I really love that idea, and want to work on that some more, and started pulling all of that together
ML: How collaborative an effort was this with your illustrator?
She was hired by the publisher – We did collaboration more when it came to the illustration. I don’t do any of the actual illustrating because I’m so bad at visual arts, but I got input and feedback as to how I pictured things. She’s actually Australian, but she did a really good job I think, getting the feeling of the Mission. I was very impressed.
She did a fantastic job particularly with the murals and the Día de los Muertos illustrations.
ML: Did you know going into the story who the villain would turn out to be or did it sort of develop as you wrote the story?
I did not…I sort of had these general ideas, started writing these scenes, and I had no idea how it was going to unfold. I wrote a significant amount before I figured out how it was all going to work. I also had no idea who the culprit was going to be. I kind of had to get to know the characters before I got to a point where I knew where the mystery was going to go.
ML: Many of the references here – a girl who lives on Lucky Alley, the Dia de los Muertos parade, the candle shop, and of course the style of the murals – could literally come from the streets of the Mission. But it isn’t literal, this is a more fantastical, whimsical version of the Mission where the little girl lives in the crow’s nest of a house shaped like a ship. Besides the Mission, what were some of the other influences that shaped this world?
JD: What you said was exactly what I was going for: A whimsical version of the Mission. And I think probably the other influence is other children’s books. I really like children’s books that are on the more whimsical side. I wanted to take my world and make it into something that’s… It’s already a fun, colorful, great community, but kind of add a little bit of whimsy and the fantastic to it.
And the things that I wrote about that are in the book that are true to life, like the murals and dia de los muertos really lend themselves to that sort of technique, I think
ML: There are some implicit lessons in this book – one protagonist always nudges the other to be more polite, they are more successful when they work together, and of course there is the language aspect for Spanish learners. But is there a broader message you’re sending with this book?
My main goal in writing the book was to make it a book that was fun as opposed to being didactic. It’s not something that I wanted to be a message book in the sense of choosing a lesson.
One of the things I really wanted to do was portray a multicultural community like the Mission… as a backdrop for another story. Most of our communities in America, here in California, are multicultural, and I wanted it to be something that wasn’t an issue in and of itself, but it was just a realistic backdrop for a book that had other themes like friendship and mystery. The multicultural aspect of it was really important to me, but I didn’t intend it to be a message necessarily.
ML: Much of this story revolves around murals changing. You emphasize that murals change all the time, but in this case the association is always with a crime. What do you hope kids will take away from this story about art and change?
JD: One of the things that happens in the book is that [it’s the] girls and not the adults who are really paying attention to the murals. And they’re the ones who notice the details, and notice the changes. I don’t think I’m trying to send a message about art, but just talk about that those things can really appeal to kids and the changes can be really interesting for kids. If I were a kid living in the Mission I would be really interested in how things are changing all the time in the art.
It’s also a portrayal that the murals operate in the Mission and it’s public community art that’s very fluid, so you are constantly getting new murals and new artists and it kind of lets everybody participate. We don’t live in a museum as a community, but it makes sense that art changes along with the community.
It shows how things operate in the community since it allows different people to be artists. It’s not just a static set of people who have this community art.
ML: The kids also are really engaged with art in other ways, like with a singer that they are very fond of, and even engage with the community on behalf of the artists.
I think that’s something I love about kids. They are often engaged in the details of things that adults sometimes miss and then … really love their community. They just pay a lot of attention to these things.
They want to solve the crimes for the sake of their community, not just the things that have happened to Lou Lou individually. I tried to include a lot of reminders in the book that they want to protect their community, and prevent things from happening to other people in the community. Community and friendship are probably major themes of the book.