November 22, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators #270: Maryam Tahmasebi

I am very proud to share this special interview with Maryam Tahmasebi about her illustration process for Empty & Me: A Tale of Friendship and Loss, written by Azam Mahdavi and translated by Parisa Saranj. This bilingual Persian-English picture book was originally published in Iran, and I'm so pleased to talk to Maryam about bringing it Stateside for her US illustrator debut. I hope you enjoy taking a closer look at this meaningful book with me. 


About the book:
After a young girl's mother dies, Empty appears and silently takes up the big blank space left behind. For some time, the girl can't connect with her dad or any friends, and Empty is her closest companion. But then, a happy reminder of her mom pops up one day, and this bit of joy helps the little girl open up to the world around her. Empty stays around, but the little girl starts to connect with others and share new moments of happiness with them.

Let's talk Maryam Tahmasebi!


LTPB: Congratulations on your US illustrator debut! How did you become the illustrator of Empty & Me: A Tale of Friendship and Loss? What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Azam Mahdavi’s text?

MT: The first time I read the story Empty & Me, written by Azam Mahdavi, I was very surprised, because it was a very different story. Empty & Me was the fifth picture book I worked on, and it differed significantly from the others in terms of its bluntness, tone, flow, ending, and theme.


I was drawn to the story from the beginning. Out of all the books I’ve worked on so far, this one was the closest to my personal taste. The unique narration style and the underlying concern resonated with me, and I was excited to work on it. However, it was definitely not an easy task, and the challenges only increased as I progressed.

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

MT: It can be said that picture books in our country are mainly for children. Although good picture books are not limited to a certain age group, the number of non-child readers of picture books is low in our country. Although the main audience of this book is children of the same age as the main character, the story’s narration is heavy and difficult for this age group and is more suitable for older audiences. Most of the books I had read with similar themes were not as honest, straightforward, heavy, and blunt as this one.


At the beginning of the work, I didn’t know how to start… I censored my true feelings and didn’t allow the impact that the story had on me to be portrayed without a filter… But in subsequent reviews with the art director Farshad Rostami, I realized that the art director had seen some of my personal illustrations that dealt with topics such as loneliness and depression, and it was for that same honest perspective that he had chosen me to illustrate this story. I gained more courage and sat down to work again with a fresh perspective. I considered my own personal opinion, not the common assumptions I had made about picture books until then, and I no longer thought I had to filter the images for children.


In my opinion, children are just as susceptible to depression as we are to sadness and grief; they also know this feeling well. How can we expect them to understand such emotions with an artificial and happy appearance and accompany them with it?

It was then that I realized that an image should not only be beautiful. I’m still not sure and I don’t trust my own thoughts. My opinion may change every day, but today I know that dealing with certain parts of the events of this world is difficult and different, I see no reason to hide that part, simply because it is unclear how long the delay in confronting these events will be.


LTPB: What is the first thing you do when you receive a new project? How do you make a conscious effort to tailor your illustration style to each new manuscript?

MT: For me, each story has a different style and tone. I try not to have any preconceptions in my mind when reading a new story and let each story show me its own new path; I do the same thing when reading books. I imagine a unique model and space for each story and allow it to take shape in the way it is coded, not just the way I’m used to seeing it.

Honestly, the most exciting part of any project for me is the moments when I’m excited to know what style and technique is suitable for that story; the excitement I have from the completion of my ideas for a new book, bit by bit.


Then I pick up my pen and try to empty my mind of the things that come to mind. The first drafts are not always good and even a bit clich├ęd, but among them, I find ideas that clarify my path and preserve the unique and new parts that are specific to the new story. And based on those, I move forward to complete the new story design and make it work.


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?

MT: Sometimes, I look at the feeling, mood, and genre of the book for our technique selection. For example, the first book I worked on was related to fear and had an Expressionism theme. At that time, I didn’t have the skill to consciously choose my technique, but with trial and error, I used different materials together to achieve the theme I wanted. After that experience, it became almost the same for each of my book’s projects. I also think about the technique in the storyboard stage, but I don’t let my mind be too focused on the technique and create limitations for myself in the design stage. I focus more on the design itself and make sketches in monochrome. After all the frames are completed, based on the mood and theme of the story, I test the techniques that seem suitable to story and choose the best one.


For the book Empty & Me, it was the impact and reflection of shadow and light, brightness and darkness, cold and warmth that I took from the story. To better convey this theme and atmosphere, I thought a pastel and pencil-like space was a good choice.


However, in such techniques, the final frames (illustrations) are often get damaged during scanning, and the soft and delicate quality of the illustrations is compromised. That’s why I used digital tools to ensure that the final frames were done with complete control and were exactly what I wanted.

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

MT: I’m currently working on several projects simultaneously.

One of them is a book I wrote about a boy who has a close relationship with his grandmother until she becomes ill, and their relationship gradually changes. The story is about Alzheimer’s disease.



When I was young, my grandfather had Alzheimer’s, but we as children didn’t know much about the disease, and the adults didn’t explain it to us much either. I remember having a hard time understanding and dealing with my grandfather, and as I grew older and he wasn’t with us anymore, I thought it would be better if I had known about this issue in childhood. I thought that talking to children in the form of a book always has a better result, and I wanted to work on a book about this experience.



Another book I’m working on is by Azam Mahdavi, author of Empty & Me. This time, both Azam and I have created a very different theme in the story and illustration.




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?

MT: If I had the honor of having someone illustrate my life story, I would really want that person to be Shaun Tan. Although it was a very difficult question, my answer will always be Shaun Tan. Apart from my strong interest in Shaun Tan‘s work, the attention to detail and creativity that is evident in the way he creates an image is unparalleled. I always enjoy following Shaun Tan‘s work. I remember the first time I saw his work was in the animation The Lost Thing, and after that, I felt that I wanted to be more honest with myself and my mind, and I gained the courage to draw what was in my mind more freely.

And I think this is the greatest impact that can be taken from an artist.

A big thanks to Maryam for taking time to answer questions. Empty & Me published last month from Lee and Low Books.

Special thanks to Maryam and Lee and Low for use of these images!



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