March 27, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #63: Mehrdokht Amini

Mehrdokht Amini is rapidly becoming a household name. Her books have been awarded the American Library Association Notable Book award, the PubWest Book Design Award (Gold), the Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Books of the Year, the Children’s Africana Best Book Award, and she has illustrated books published in Iran, Poland, Korea, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It's safe to say her work is universal, impactful, and authentic, and her illustrations in Ranjit Singh's Nimesh the Adventurer are everything you would expect. 

About the book:
Nimesh is walking home from school. Except...there happens to be a shark in the corridor. And a dragon in the library! And why would crossing the road lead to the North Pole? A fun-filled story about a little boy with a BIG imagination, Nimesh the Adventurer will surely make even the dullest journey a dazzling adventure.

Let's talk Mehrdokht Amini!

LTPB: Let’s start by talking about your newest book, Nimesh the Adventurer. How did you come to be the illustrator for this book? What attracted you to Ranjit Singh’s text? 

MA: I had worked with Lantana Publishing on another book called Chicken in the Kitchen in 2013 which was quite successful, so when Alice Curry, the co-founder of Lantana, asked me to do this book for them I was thrilled to have another chance to work with them again.

The story is about an Indian boy living in England today who fantasises about every mundane detail on his way back from school to home. From the outset I was told that the objective was more about exploring the experiences of children from diverse backgrounds growing up in Britain today rather than emphasising on the Indian heritage of the main character. This was really the only point that my editor insisted on and so, although in the research stage I had came across the tradition of Indian Gond painting, and being fascinated by it wanted to find a way to include some elements of this form art into my work, I had to take another direction.

This change of approach proved to be fantastic for me because I started to think more deeply about what makes Britain different from other places, and as I am an immigrant here myself, it was a great exploration for me. I remember years ago I read a book about the culinary voyage of a celebrated chef in Iran, and in that book the author pointed out that one of the characteristics of the Persians is their love of picnicking! He mentioned that in every Iranian car’s boot lies a picnic rug; rolled up, ready to be used just in case! I was never conscious about this small fact of our life, yet it is true that during the nation’s holidays, every single inch of any green space is filled with families having their meal and making their tea side by side out in the open spaces on their rugs!

I think these small details about a nation’s behaviour are marked better in the eyes of the strangers. As I started to think more about the “Britishness” I remembered some small details that I had noticed during the past years of living here. For example how I was touched when I first saw a wooden bench in a park dedicated to the memory of a deceased friend or family, the British love for gardening, their cravings for Indian food and fish & chips, their love of tearooms, their enthusiasm for queuing, how they say sorry automatically, etc. I tried to integrate these elements into my work as much as I could to pay homage to a country that is so welcoming and beautifully diverse.

The manuscript was also quite interesting for me because it was a bit ambiguous and open to imagination with endless possibilities to be visualised. We discussed for a long time whether to infuse the reality/ dream together in each spread, have them side by side on single pages or on separate double spreads.

Very soon and in early stages of the work I found out that the style I had used for my previous books didn’t do justice to the text and so I decided to explore new ways of picturing the text. It was a bit risky because after so many years of working solely with digital software for the first time I decided to use hand painting and collage more extensively in my work and try to think a bit outside of the box with regards to the compositions.

LTPB: You’re juggling many, many projects right now, which is pretty amazing. What is the first thing you do when you get a new project? Do you make a conscious effort to create different types of illustrations for different types of books?

MA: It depends on the nature of each project and the storyline, but the first step for me is usually doing research and exploring the ideas. It is a crucial stage because everything that follows is based on this stage of the work. The more the story is rooted in reality the more important the research stage is. For example, I had a commission a few years ago to do a few pieces based on a story that was related to Hispanic culture. I had to do extensive research through photos, their art, history etc… to familiarize myself with the setting in that story.

Conversely, I worked on another project some years ago about a garden elf that simply introduces in each spread a few vegetables that he grows in his garden. This project didn’t need that much research because it was a fantastical creature, and I could give free rein to my imagination.

As for style, I try to mould my style in accordance with the mood of each project and age group of the audience, but generally speaking the style is sometimes difficult to shake off and it develops almost gradually and unconsciously. What I strive to achieve is to avoid repeating myself whenever possible, but it is not often easy because the art directors usually look into the portfolio of your previous works and make their mind about working with you based on the style you already have. Often they select some of your images and insist that you follow that particular style.

LTPB: What differences have you found between creating a picture book on your own (text and illustrations) versus illustrating someone else’s text? How do you see your illustrations fitting into the larger project?

MA: The difference is really a matter of control and responsibility. Personally, I prefer not to meet the author before the sketching stage because I don’t want to be influenced by with how the writer imagines the story.

Once a picture is formed in my mind, whether it is coming from the writer/editor or my own, it is difficult for me to shake it off, so I prefer to be free to imagine the story as I like in this stage. Occasionally, I have worked with authors who have tried to control the visual aspects of the work and I have found it a bit difficult. Of course, when you do your own text you have more control over how to treat the text the way you like.

I think in a picture book the illustrations should complete the text and at the same time be truthful to it, but also go beyond the narrative whenever there is a space for manoeuvring. There is no point in having a picture book that the illustrations are the exact translation of the text without adding anything to it. Things like adding animal characters or elaborating the scenes or even having a sub-narrative within the possible boundaries of the storyline can spice up the whole experience for the little audience. In the Chicken in The Kitchen for example I took the liberty to bring a cat into the story because I didn’t want the main character be all alone, encountering a giant chicken in the middle of the night!

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

MA: For years I worked solely with digital software. I was always an ardent supporter of digital techniques, and I still think that they are among the best tools to work with and could carry you as far as your imagination. For me, manual painting techniques were very limited and time-consuming and I used to get annoyed with people who were against digital techniques. Even now, I think that if a digital illustration looks dull and flat it is because the user is not competent enough to apply it properly, just as some artists might not be able to skillfully use watercolour or collage techniques. Adding to this is the fact that nowadays every illustration is sent to printers as a digital file.

The only hesitation I feel now regarding the use of digital software is that after some years of working with them I noticed that my style hasn’t changed as much as I wanted. Nothing is left to accident using digital means. When I started to do some manual illustrations again, I noticed that I can explore new possibilities much more than I did before. Sometimes, the mistakes could open up a whole new perspective. So now I try to mix the two techniques to get to the result I am seeking to achieve.

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

MA: One of my picture books with Chronicle Publishing is due April 10 and is called Crescent Moons and Pointed Minaret.

I am also finishing a picture book with Charlesbridge Publishing called A Moon for Moe and Mo, which will be out at the end of summer.

Also, soon I will start working on a text by Erin Nelson Parekh based on Shakespeare’s Tempest but I haven’t yet started the sketching.

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

Very interesting question!

I tried to imagine a storyline for my life and came to the conclusion that it really hasn't been a very adventurous life. My choice would be Sara Fanelli who can turn the most ordinary things in life into the most extraordinary!

A million thanks to Mehrdokht for taking time to answers some questions! Nimesh the Adventurer publishes from Lantana Publishing April 5, 2018, and catch the book on the following sites all next week!

Special thanks to Mehrdokht and Lantana Publishing for use of these images!

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