March 3, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #134: Akem

Brown Sugar Babe, written by Charlotte Watson Sherman and illustrated by Akem, captures the message of self-love and acceptance with sincerity, beauty, and a lasting sense that everyone deserves to see themselves reflected around them. I talked to illustrator Akem about her connection to this story and her process for bringing Sherman's words to life. I hope you enjoy!

About the book:
"I don't want to be brown!" says a little girl about her skin. But so many beautiful things in the world are brown -- calming beaches, cute animals, elegant violins, and more. Brown is musical. Brown is athletic. Brown is poetic. Brown is powerful! Through lyrical words and stunning illustrations, it soon becomes clear that this brown sugar babe should be proud of the skin she's in.

Let's talk Akem!

LTPB: What excited you most about Charlotte’s manuscript? What were you most excited to illustrate?

A: I was sent the text of Brown Sugar Babe, and certain lines triggered images and memories within me. The lines “It was dark behind your sleeping eyes…..when you blinked and beheld a world of colour.” The image of the baby I painted for the book came out because it was in a memory that I had squirreled away in my mind years ago.

The next line “I’m pink,” hit me in the gut because of its innocence, and because I had a similar experience when I was younger. I was given a box a crayons to colour with. I don’t remember if there was dark colour to use, but I picked up the tan one and ask the teacher something like, “is this the skin colour one?”

So there was a sense of connection and recognition when I read the text and the images came along from a personal history.

LTPB: How did you become an illustrator of children’s books?

A: It was an accidental moment, I was still exploring where I fit in as an artist. Around 2017, I created a series of connected images that I wanted to use as a portfolio to get into the animation industry. After I finished the images, there was a moment when I realized that I could write a story that went with them.

Around that time, an agent became interested in my work so I sent that to her...and Sea of Clocks became my first author/illustrated picture book. It has been shopped around to major publishing houses since then and has some positive feedback. It’s been very strange experience however, in that they like it but don’t know where it fits to sell it.

The opportunity to illustrate Brown Sugar Babe came later. My personal paintings were found through Twitter by the editor Jes Negrón, and my agent was contacted.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium?

A: I use Photoshop, and it’s currently my preferred medium. I do want to learn a traditional medium so I’ve started painting with acrylics.

LTPB: What do you do when you’re not illustrating?

A: I have a full-time job at an animation studio. So I haven’t been doing much but watching Netflix to relax after work. But I also write, so I’ve been picking away at a few short stories. 

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything I can show?

A: I’m working on a short story and new personal paintings in my Mythic Texture series. In my day job, I’m currently working on the new season of Carmen Sandiego.

LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive) would you want to illustrate it and why?

A: LOL. I’m not sure what to say about this... there are many artists that I like but I’m not thinking about my life that far ahead.

It’s enough for me to create now. There was a least a decade of my life where I was creatively lost and long periods were I didn’t write or draw. Right now, I’m living the life I dreamed of and the present moment is enough.

Thank you so much to Akem answering my questions! Brown Sugar Babe published last month from Boyds Mills Press!

Special thanks to Akem and Boyds Mills Press for use of these images!

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