August 22, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators #258: Shahrzad Maydani

I recently had a chance to interview Shahrzad Maydani, illustrator of Always Sisters: A Story of Loss and Love, written by Saira Mir. Shahrzad always finds powerful and meaningful projects to work on, and it was such a pleasure delving into her process for this book.

I do want to issue a light trigger warning for this interview, as the book deals heavily with topics related to neonatal death and grief.

About the book:
Raya can't wait for her baby sister to arrive. She's already got a name--Nura--and Raya is certain they'll be best friends. She's got all kinds of plans for things they'll do together like run through the sprinklers, play dress-up, and give piggyback rides.

But one day, Mama returns from the doctor with tears in her eyes. Nura won't be coming home after all. Raya feels confused and sad, like all the love she has for Nura is trapped inside her. With the help of family, friends, and her school counselor, though, Raya finds a way to grieve this loss and to share the love she'll always feel for her sister.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Shahrzad Maydani!

LTPB: Thank you so much for giving me some insight into your process, Shahrzad! How did you become the illustrator of Always Sisters: A Story of Loss and Love? What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Saira Mir’s manuscript? What is your personal connection to the story?

SM: I just want to say thank you for having me on the site! My agent Kirsten Hall shared the manuscript with me and right away I was drawn to the connection between Raya and Nura. I have two daughters and grew up with sisters, so I feel very connected to that experience. Even more so I was just so eager to get to illustrate a book where the characters are experiencing such intricate, heavy emotions. I think what Saira did here is such a service to anyone who has experienced the loss of a child and I am very honored to have been a part of it. It’s really such an invaluable tool for families.

The first images that came up were of all three siblings in costume. I really loved the idea of playing around with this contrast between Raya’s world, the one that she is building for Nura, and this abrupt stark reality that hits her. It wasn’t the direction we ended up going with for the final book, but I was still able to keep hints of the bear costume in Nura’s hairstyle, which I think is a lovely little detail.

LTPB: The topic of this book is particularly tough, dealing with issues of loss and grief. How did you approach the illustrations so that they would be accessible to young children? What was your research process like, and what challenges did you encounter?

SM: I believe children are incredibly emotionally literate, and really adults are the ones who tend to diminish their capacity to hold space for uncomfortable feelings by trying to shield or temper life for them. I think feeling grief is such an integral part of what it means to be human. So, if we feel free to speak to our children about joy then we also owe it to them to speak about pain because they will experience it, there is no escaping that.

In terms of my process, it is mostly intuitive, and I try to just follow whatever impulses I have. For this particular book I did feel a responsibility to Nura’s spirit and did ask for her influence while creating the artwork. I would meditate before starting work just to connect with her because I believe this is very much her story as well and I really wanted to do it justice. Amazingly enough this was probably the easiest book I’ve ever worked on and I really attribute that to her. The ideas came about easily, and I ended up having to do very few edits.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

SM: I used watercolor and chalk pastel for the artwork, which was something relatively new for me. I had only just started experimenting with chalk on a book prior to this one but it felt really fitting for this text. The way I work is to put down the chalk very loosely and then erase away some of the details. It ended up creating this lovely hazy effect and also beautifully mirrored the experience of something being there but also not there–Raya being with Nura, but not quite.

A few of the spreads were also influenced by my children’s drawings. Although I have always loved their work, this was the first time that I felt really pulled to use them as a reference point. My daughters will often create alongside me and I like to think that these were Nura’s ideas coming through in their art.

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

SM: I’ve just finished up two projects that I’m really excited about, Sourgrass by Hope Lim and Sister Friend by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow. Those books will be coming out over the next year or so.

I’m also very grateful to say that I will be starting work soon on my author debut (Untitled) with the amazingly talented team at Kokila. I wish I could share more but it’s still early days and I like to keep the magic in the box for as long as I can!

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

SM: Easy, Quentin Blake no question! I grew up reading Roald Dahl, so Blake’s illustrations hold a very special place in my heart. He has such a sense of humor in his work and I feel like the splashes of watercolor with his linework fit so perfectly with the urgency of childhood. He really captures the jittery joy that children have. Overall, if I could distill the feeling I get from his work, I would say it’s akin to getting a cheeky wink from a sweet old lady sitting on a bench.

A big thank you to Shahrzad for talking to me about her process. Always Sisters: A Story of Loss and Love publishes from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers today.

Special thanks to Shahrzad and S&S for use of these images!

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