Montreal has a terrific writing community and there is no doubt that its members have helped me grow as a writer. I met Suana Verelst, an award winning illustrator, several years ago at a get-together for writers and illustrators of children’s and young adult books. (She also makes great home-made soup which I tasted at our last Christmas pot luck.) Her latest, Razia’s Ray of Hope, is an award winning book based on the true story of a girl in Afghanistan who desperately wants an education and sets about to convince the men in her family to let her attend the new school for girls. The book will soon be published in the United Kingdom.
DL: What inspired you to work on this book “Razia’s Ray of Hope” and do you have any connection to Afghanistan?
SV: I was inspired by Razia Jan’s courage and vision to start a school under such adverse conditions and also by the human rights aspect of the topic. I was attracted to the beauty of the barren landscape and the architecture. I wanted to learn about the customs and the mystery that seem to be hidden behind the walls of the houses. When I started researching the project I knew very little about Afghanistan. All I knew was the violent past of the country.
I did have some idea of the Afghan people’s craftsmanship, their jewellery and their carpets. I learnt about the country by looking at hundreds of images and several videos. My objective for this book was to create a dance alongside the story. I wanted the illustrations to speak for themselves hinting at the country’s past and its present tension.
DL: Why did you choose to illustrate the book using a combination of realistic and non-realistic images? Is there any special significance to the illustrations, or did you just choose to do them that way because it is your style?
SV: I combined photographic and drawn elements to create a contrast or an emphasis to interpret the text. The photo-collages of the buildings that appear throughout the book allude to little Razia’s dream of an education and the eventual building of the school. The dove symbolizes the yearning for peace. The hinges pointing at the burka-clad women illustrate the tension and violence towards women. The pink blossoms speak of renewal and hope. In contrast to the very real feeling of the photographic elements the pencil drawings are softer in nature, the bright colours and textures speak of traditions, customs and hope. Finally, the paper elements and collages that appear as backgrounds refer to Razia’s secret reading and writing efforts.
DL: When did you realize that you wanted to be an illustrator?
SV: A professor in one of my graphic design courses in college introduced me to the art director of a publishing house for children’s books. Eventually I was offered the position of assistant production manager. I became familiar with the making of a book and what it takes to create a book. During this period I did not create or do anything specifically “creative”. This came only later when the senior editor came back from Italy with a fantastic catalogue of the illustrators that had exhibited at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. I was very much inspired by the creativity and the possibilities these illustrators had put into their work! It was then that I made the decision to become an illustrator for children’s books. The magic and the beauty I had discovered as a 6-year old had finally caught up with me… again!
DL: What advice do you have for someone who wants to become an illustrator?
SV: Being an illustrator is a wonderful career but one also has to be aware of the ups and downs. Acquaint yourself well with what is involved in being an illustrator before you jump.
Routinely analyze your situation and career, and be ready to reinvent yourself periodically. Keep creating new work, keep improving, continuous effort and persistence, have a passion for the work, stick to deadlines and be open to advise and criticism. Talk to illustrators. Study the market. Read books about illustration. Be flexible.
To learn about the real Razia Jan and the Zabuli Education Center go to Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation