We caught up with best-selling children's author Yasmeen Ismail to find out about how she first got into children's publishing, the book which made a big impression on her, and what comes first…words or pictures?
Can you tell us a bit about your background? What inspired you to write your first children’s book?
I’m from Ireland, and growing up I knew that I always wanted to draw. I eventually went to art school where I studied animation. From there I moved to London, worked as a freelance animator and set up an animation production company with my business partner at the time. Four or Five years later we said goodbye to the company and I was left with nothing to do. I had some freelancing jobs, but I decided that this was the moment to examine myself and decide what it was that I really wanted to do. I needed to figure out my direction.
Deciding on that direction, now that I look back I can see that it was a slow burn. When I was very little I didn’t understand that illustration was a career option. When I was working I heard about some people who did illustration on the side, and then I met a guy, Adam Larkum, who illustrated books when he wasn’t animating. I was so surprised to meet someone who did that. And he was so good at it and I was so jealous! I loved his work. It didn’t occur to me then that this was something that I could do. At that point I felt that that was for other people. Almost as if I wasn’t allowing myself to try it out. Years went by and every now and then I would meet an illustrator and a little dreamy look would appear on my face. It wasn’t until I was faced with the end of my company and no idea what to do with myself that I thought about it again. And I pursued it. The writing came later.
How difficult was it to get the first one published?
It wasn’t. I mean, there was a year of figuring out my life and once I decided what I wanted I went after it and that took some time. My first published book was Time for Bed, Fred. I did all the things you are supposed to do when starting anything new. I researched, went to classes, built up my portfolio and sought out avenues in which I could draw, compete, and meet publishers and agents. I did invest time. But it was like my own personal illustration course. I gave myself space to play and learn. When I met Vicki (The Bright Agency) it was all there and ready to go. I was still working on my portfolio, but she saw a potential I suppose. The next day she had three meetings lined up for me. One of them was with Bloomsbury.
Like any potential collaboration, we had a meeting and liked each other. They liked my ideas and we all knew that I was new to the industry, so they really helped me through the process.
What are the main differences between creating reading books and activity books? Do you usually start with the words or the pictures?
With both processes, it’s a mixture of both. Looking back I am not sure which came first on any book! I think it is fair to say that the idea comes first. I don’t just sit down and write, I have to think about what it is that I want any given book to be. With the Draw and Discover activity, it took a little while to come up with the structure and the idea behind it.
How do you test out your ideas? Do you receive much feedback from your readers?
Surprisingly not! I get some feedback now and then, but not sacks of mail. I am more likely to receive feedback from adults than kids. And the feedback is usually positive. The best barometer for when I am writing and painting is whether it makes me laugh. If I’m giggling a bit when I am doing something I think it’s probably a winner. I have to put a lot of trust in my editors. During the building process of a book they are there to reign me in. They are very gentle though.
I guess the best feedback is when I go on school visits and work at events. Last week I was at the Oxford Bookfeast Festival and met 80 kids. I read a new book, Kiki and Bobo’s Sunny Day (Walker), and I’m always a little nervous when presenting something new. But they laughed and looked delighted and were excited, so it went well. That’s what I’m looking for.
Were you surrounded by books when you were growing up? Which books made a big impression on you and do you still have them?
I have some of my books still. I was certainly surrounded by books. I read a lot of comics. I read a lot. I don’t remember it so well really. There was a chapter book I remember being absolutely gripped by, but I can never remember the author or title. It’s gone. But I do remember the feeling. In terms of picture books, I don’t really remember, but a few years ago I saw Burglar Bill (Janet and Allen Ahlberg) in the Illustration Cupboard, and I had a real Proust-ian moment. I kept thinking “I know this book! I know it!” because I really did know it. It was read so many times, and I remember poring over the pictures. And I remember the story. There was a very very strong connection there.
What advice would you give to someone who has an idea for a children’s book but doesn’t know where to start?
I would tell them to get the Children’s Writers and Artists Yearbook. And I would tell them to read it cover to cover. I would tell them to take a course in Children’s Illustration or Writing or whatever they want to do and to go to the classes and pay attention. I would tell them to look at art and books and children’s books and to decide what it is they like and don’t like. I would tell them to drink in everything around them and to draw and dream and write. I would tell them not to delay.
What’s been your proudest publishing moment so far?
There are so many!If I had to pick one, I guess, my first meeting with Bloomsbury. Just the part where I was sitting in reception across from the bookcase with all the Harry Potter books facing me. I was so excited to be there.
What’s next for you?
Right now I am working on a second book for Simon and Schuster USA (written by Jim Averbeck). I am supposed to be writing my next book for Bloomsbury. I have another few books to write. It’s just books! books! books!
Find Yasmeen's books at laurenceking.com