Yasmeen started out as an animator, running a successful London studio working on a stable of commercial campaigns during which she ended up trying her hand at everything from art direction to script writing. In 2014 she moved to Bristol which coincided with publishing her first self-authored children’s book, Time for Bed Fred. Since then she has gone on to write and illustrate nine more and win several awards. Her inked and water coloured work bounds about with enthusiasm and imagination.
Your books apart from being charming, delightfully illustrated and fun are also empowering, full of positivity and reinforcing the power of play. This is all over your book NOTHING! Is it important for you to express these ideas?
YES. Totally. Very important. I have a choice at the beginning of a book. It can be miserable and boring and tedious, or, it can be exciting, positive and empowering. It is a window to influence someone’s life. Even if they don’t care or get it or hate it, or never really read it, the point is that I have been given a tiny microphone and I have to decide what I am going to say. And I choose to say ‘yes’, and ‘fun’ and ‘joy’. I think we can all agree that the world seems very shaky at the moment, but look at the voices that are speaking out. The women’s marches, the protests. And look how positive they are. The kids need to keep hearing those great positive and empowering messages all the time, so that they can fix the world for us when we’re old.
Did you always want to be an illustrator?
No, I did not. I had three main goals as a child, to be: An animator, a comedian or a Millionaire.
Tell us a bit about how you first got into the industry?
After 10 years of working as an animator (four of which I ran my own animation production company) it all came to an end. My business partner and I parted ways and after years of dedicating my time and tears to our small business I suddenly had nothing to work on. I had nothing to do. So I decided not to panic and to focus on the fact that it was an opportunity for me to really pursue something that I was interested in. I had a plan to project manage myself into illustration. I would enter lots of competitions, build my portfolio, approach agents and publishers. It worked. I got my first agent within about 7 months of starting out. Then my I changed agents just 3 months later.
Your first book ‘Time for Bed Fred’ has been nominated and awarded for some noteworthy awards. What was is about Fred that you think captured people’s attention?
People liked how fully of energy Fred was. They liked his bouncing around and his curiosity. He has boundless energy and can’t be contained. I think we all know someone (or some kid) like that.
Apart from ‘Fred’ what other work of yours, commercial or otherwise, represents a real breakthrough moment in terms of your career but also in terms of creativity?
I felt like it was a breakthrough when very early on in starting out and getting some sort of web presence I was contacted by Adweek Magazine in New York. It was the Big Apple calling and they wanted an illustration the next day for their magazine. I couldn’t believe it! I had made it to the States!
Are there other illustrators that you admire? Who were your favourite illustrators when you were growing up and why?
There are simply way too many to list. But I will try my best:
We all know Tove Jansson. She created the Moomins. And although her drawings are just perfect, her writing is just so smart and funny. The philosophy behind the Moomin stories makes me jealous. I want to write like her, but I know that I can’t. So I just have to accept that she is the greatest and I am myself.
Posy Simmonds has been my hero for a long time. Her graphic novels and books are drawn with such expertise. She is funny and well observed. One day I hope to meet her and gabble at her about how much I enjoyed Tamara Drewe. It’s a must read. Please get it and fulfil your life now!
Maira Kalman, a smart, sophisticated New Yorker is so cool I can’t bear it. Her work has an innocence that I love. Her colours are vibrant and pictures of her intrigue me. I want to have dinner with her and tell her that she’s so cool, but I’m scared she’ll yell at me… yeah, that kind of person!
I also can’t help admiring Marta Altés’s work. I am her biggest fan. Get all her books, and when there are more, get them too. She is so, so funny and has a delightful way. Her books are pure JOY.
Tupera Tupera are a Japanese couple that make the most madcap and beautiful illustrations. They are REALLY inspiring. I love their work.
100% Orange are also Japanese. I have no idea if it’s one person or several. The art is simple and naïve but full of humour and very clever.
How important are non-industry influences on how you think and produce work?
Very, everything I see, hear and read influences me. Galleries, TV, music, news, papers, books, people, food, nature… There is nothing that doesn’t filter into my brain and come out in my work. I am always thinking of the next story, and there is always something outside my office waiting to give me ideas.
Can you give an example of an important outside influence?
I use a lot of nature in my books. I paint flowers a lot. Even though my flowers don’t like realistic, it’s that abundance of nature that I am trying to achieve, the look of a full and bursting meadow. I have also been very influenced by the bold and bright simplistic art of Matisse’s later work that I saw in last year’s exhibition at the Tate. It was powerfully joyful work. The sort of thing that has you itching to get back to your desk so that you can try something that he did and see how it works for you.
Can you give us a sense of what your working week would be like?
My studio is in my home so I roll downstairs at about 9am and bring my breakfast into the studio and check my emails. I listen to BBC 6 music and BBC Radio 4. I get lost on Facebook and Twitter for a very long time and with any luck I’ll emerge from the internet at about 11am. Then I panic that it’s nearly lunch time and I start to paint. I set up whatever spread I am working on and assess what needs to be done that day, and then I get to it. I usually stop around 6pm.
Repeat that for 5 days.
Some weeks I get to go to London for meetings and say hello to my publishers or my agent. It’s always nice to take a trip.
How has your work practice changed since you started out?
It’s not sporadic work for me anymore. It’s a constant pile of work on my desk that has to be done. It’s sometimes a bit overwhelming. Drumming up that momentum to start a new book or a spread is hard but I just have to take a deep breath and go.
“I want children to take away the idea that they shouldn’t feel that their options are limited, that if they think they can do something or be a certain way, then more power to them!”
What is the idea behind your current series of DRAW & DISCOVER books? (can you share some images from these?)
I was already commissioned to do some sort of activity book, and I thought this would be a doddle, a quick book and invoice, but getting into it I realised that there was so much more to it then just saying “do this, colour that…” The series was actually for a publisher in New York (early in my career) before it got sold to Laurence King, and I flew out to meet the editor and to work on the books. She is a force! An incredible woman with a real understanding of kids books and her readers. She taught me a lot, and within a few days the activity books had real structure and I was able to actually channel my ideas into it. She guided me and helped me figure out what I wanted to do.
The idea behind the books was to take intangible ideas (inside out, up, down, around) and to use the activities to explain them and their opposites. On the surface the activity book is a simple idea to keep kids occupied, but underneath there is a lot of thought, learning and understanding. I soon discovered that my naiveté about making a quick book (read buck) was out of line with my whole philosophy of writing for kids. I was like the hare racing to the finish line, but the real reward was in making something beautiful, with characters you can enjoy, and with structure and depth. Something you can talk about in an interview like this! Something you can be proud of.
How do you think being a recent parent will impact on your working practice now?
I know since I have had a kid I have had to shorten working hours but i am probably more efficient with my time…of course I am also so, so, so tired all the time.
I’m fucking knackered. He sleeps well though, and is an absolute delight. For me I live in a world of anxiety. Anything I do I am waiting for the next interruption. He climbs me when I am cooking, cries when I sit down. I usually eat standing up or running around, that is, of course, unless he eats my breakfast for me. I haven’t actually been able to do anything until today. I have just hired a nanny. So far it is working out well. It is difficult though. And I always want to hear about other peoples’ experiences, how they cope. I think the hardest thing is the guilt. I carry it all the time. Working takes me away from him. I feel that he NEEEEEEEDS me. I feel like I am neglecting him. But perhaps it is the other way around. I love him, like a crazy momma. But I understand the importance, not only of preserving my identity (well, making my NEW identity as working and loving mum) and my sanity, but showing him that I am a person too, that people work, they can do things they love and that it doesn’t mean he is not loved any less. I cried when the nanny came. We are easing both him and I into the new situation.
It’s hard, but isn’t that always how it was going to be?