Today we are talking with up-and-coming picture book author and illustrator Fifi Abu. Thank you for being here today, Fifi. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I have a master's degree in children's literature as well as a master's degree in library science. I am an active member of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and a recent Children's Book Academy graduate.
In my work as a youth services librarian, I spend my days surrounded by books that have already been created. The rest of the time I write and illustrate books yet to be born.
I dream of a day when all children can see themselves reflected in the books they read.
Your life is all books, all the time. How marvelous! Tell us about some of your earliest memories of books.
I loved books from the beginning. Before I could read, I would get lost in the illustrations, completely immersing myself in the world of the book. Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World was an early favorite. I loved the details and the way that the stories were all set in different countries. I still think about the Tokyo subway scene with the flattened sausage every time I squeeze onto an overcrowded subway in Boston.
Pictures above from Fifi's childhood collection of Richard Scarry books
Where’s Wallace by Hilary Knight was my obsession. The full-color double spreads are something that I went back to over and over, searching every detail and feeling fully satisfied with the colors selected for each illustration. Knight’s powerful depiction of motion has been a major influence in my work.
How did you go from reading books to becoming a writer and illustrator?
I was always making books as a child. Whenever I had access to a stapler, I made books. Writing and drawing were daily activities, sometimes in collaboration with others, but mostly as a solo effort.
The summer I turned ten, my cousin and I wrote and illustrated Peter in Catland and sent it off to a relative who worked for Random House. Unfortunately...
The story was not published. But, I did not give up.
In college, I took classes in children’s and adolescent literature and felt the pull to create books. My advisor told me about a graduate program in children’s literature at Simmons College in Boston. The program was highly academic, focusing on literary criticism, not fine arts. Fortunately, while at Simmons I was also able to complete a semester of independent study around illustration. I interned at Charlesbridge Publishing, but was ultimately drawn to libraries and went back to grad school to get my library degree.
Can you tell us a little more about your independent study with illustrator Marcia Sewell?
I met with Marcia Sewall one day a week for critique and instruction, while taking a picture book illustration class at Mass College of Art at the same time. I did this for one semester and worked on a project called Discovered!
Discovered! was about two lazy twin babies who were under-appreciated by their family. They get discovered by a casting agent and make it big as models. After they had made a load of money, their family saw their value. It's all very tongue-in-cheek.
Illustrations below are from Discovered! --both illustrated & authored by Fifi
Going back to school for a second advanced degree was a big commitment. Can you expand on what happened to drive that decision?
The switch from wanting to work in libraries after having wanted to work in publishing came after my internship ended. In publishing, the work focuses on the few books that are coming out that season from a particular house, with little interaction with the public. In libraries, the work involves all books, from the past, present, and future, as well as direct contact with the public.
What advantages do you have in being both a librarian and a creator of children’s books?
I have a very clear sense of trends and how the public responds to specific books. Most people on the path to get published do not have this luxury. Everything I have done in my education and my career has prepared me for the pursuit of my dream on the creative side of the industry.
What is your writing and drawing process?
Sometimes I have an idea for a character and sometimes it’s more plot-driven. I would say that the writing and drawing occur simultaneously. The art takes much longer, so there tends to be a time when the text is complete, and the illustrations are being worked and re-worked. I’m happy trying different things and doing the illustrations over and over.
Your illustrations are fun and childlike. I have found it’s hard to draw in that way as an adult. How do you keep your mind and heart open enough to draw from a child’s point of view?
I think that my lack of technical training in illustration means that I draw the same way I have drawn my entire life. I have developed through looking at the work of others, but the spirit of my illustrations have remained consistent.
There is only one style with me; it’s all 100% me.
Tell us a little bit about your current project.
I’ve just completed a dummy for Mama Wears a Hijab, a project I’ve been working on since last spring. It’s a 99-word nonfiction poem for ages 4-8 about the garments worn by observant Muslim women all over the globe.
The book has generated some interest from traditional publishers. We will see what happens.
A book like Mama Wears a Hijab stands out in the USA where the default seen in children’s books and other media is still generally white and Christian. Lately, we have seen a lot of conversations by writers and publishers about creating more “diversity” in the stories kids are reading. What are your thoughts on all this?
My work has always focused on people of color because that is the world in which I live.
The push in the industry to create more diverse books is positive, but what I see a lot of is Caucasian writers and illustrators still getting the book contracts and Caucasian people still working in publishing. So it’s still the same people telling the stories. They get to tell the stories about white people, and they get to tell the stories about brown people.
Some of these stories well written, and some are not. But the power remains in the hands of the same individuals.
The book industry often uses the word "diverse" in an awkward, incorrect manner.
“Diverse books” is an accurate use of the word, because a group of books can be diverse, showing variety. But I’ve encountered applications for contests and grants asking for an explanation of how the applicant is diverse.
A person can be part of a diverse population or live in a neighborhood with great diversity, but the word diverse refers to something with a great deal of variety and requires multiple things, not one thing. So how can one person be “diverse?”
It feels insulting that the buzzword surrounding the movement is not even grammatically correct.
A group of authors can be diverse, but one author is not a diverse individual. One could have a diverse ethnic background, meaning that there are multiple ethnicities in their genetic makeup, but one person is not diverse.
The literary world can do better than incorrectly using a word.
You make a very thought provoking point. Thank you for discussing what many would consider a difficult topic. What is the best advice you've received during this journey toward becoming published?
The best advice I’ve heard is that if a person doesn’t have an art school background, they should not be concerned with taking classes. I have heard this over and over from people in the industry at SCBWI conferences.
The people who say this believe that art school destroys the spirit of the work and crushes anything fresh and pure that the untrained illustrator is bringing to the work.
Drawing and being taught how to draw are not the same thing and introducing hesitation and self-doubt into the equation can be devastating to the purity of line, color, and self-expression that an illustrator is bringing to the work.
Last question! This is one of my favorite questions to ask an author. If there was a book written about your life, what would the title be?
Unscheduled. I’ve never been a person with a game plan or a strategy; it’s been more like just letting things unfold.
Thank you so much, Fifi, for taking the time to share so many of your fabulous illustrations, your upcoming project, as well as your thoughts on some serious questions.
If you would like to see more of Fifi's work or to discuss a writing and/or illustration project, go to her website at: http://www.fifiabu.com