In a series of interviews with Arabic children’s book authors and illustrators, I decided to start with professional illustrator and aspiring author Mohamed Sami, who has illustrated—among other things—the عالم سمسم book أين ذاهب القمر؟, part of the مفتش فلفل series. You can find much more of his work—for children, grown-ups and “whatever”—at SamiStudio.Com.
What made you to want to get involved with children’s literature? How did it come about?
It all started back in Grade One in elementary school through reading comics, and wondering: Why are their lines so clean and smooth, not rough like my pencil lines?
I adored reading comics, I appreciated the lots of visuals with each sentence. I liked general children’s books, but comics were my cinema. I paid close attention to the illustration details to the degree that I noticed at a very early age that Mickey magazine has over 7 or 8 styles of illustration, which made the thing more complex to me. I said to myself “How is this guy able to change his style that much?”
Back then, I had the idea that Walt Disney was the One Big Artist who drew those tons of comics every week, along with the animated movies (short and feature). He was my superman.
I didn’t know that our translated magazine is compiled from many other magazines with various artists from different countries, which is why the styles vary, and a while later I learned that shocking fact and that Uncle Walt died a long time ago.
And your life as a professional children’s-book illustrator?
To fast forward the details, I’ll jump to my first job as an illustrator a dozen years later. I was already enrolled in the Faculty of Fine Arts, loaded with desire to make a world of illustrated stories, targeted at my age group. To be honest it was the visuals that dominated my thinking at that time, and was kind of protesting against why do they put the name of the writer before the name of the illustrator on the covers of all fine, long comic stories. I was thinking: “We did most of the job, look at the amount of illustrations and the amount of words in each page—that’s not fair.”
But i knew the meaning of the phrase “writers block” soon afterward, and knew the value of the writer when I, ehmm … failed to write the stories I always dreamed of. I was thinking ideas will flow on the pages once I start writing, and from this point the idea of Writer/illustrator got delayed for quite sometime.
I started publishing illustrations along with other writers’ articles at the age of 18, in magazines like Egypt Today, Sports and Fitness, PC Magazine…. I got excited to see my illustrations printed in magazines sold everywhere, and kind of stopped seeking the old dream of spreading meanings and emotions through an illustrated literature (if I may call it so). I kept on making illustrations for books written by others. I have illustrated around 10 (children’s books), and double that number of educational/instructional books.
Lately, after all those years of experience in the field of children’s lit, the idea of making children’s books from A to Z as a (writer\illustrator) is really growing in my head.
What would you like to change about Arabic children’s literature, as a field? Would you change how it’s written, illustrated, read, sold, discussed, awarded, distributed, or otherwise?
Well, I wouldn’t say I would change [anything]. I might add a more informal way of telling the story through using contemporary vocabulary, and use more real current clothing and decorating styles in the images, rather than using the typical stereotype styles used in Western books, and repeated here.
I see creating beautiful treatments for already existing environmental features is a very enjoyable thing to do in the illustration world.
I thought of using some cinematic sequences in the way the story is told, like starting in the middle of the story then after a while you get back to the start that will solve the mysteries not very clear from the beginning (Ocean’s 12 kind of treatment). But I’m still not sure if this is suitable for youngsters or might be a bit complicated.
What were some of your favorite books (or comics) as a child? In what ways did they or do they inspire you? What are some of your favorite children’s books (or comics) now?
I must say that Asterix has been my favorite for over 10 years, and had a direct impact on my style of drawing (especially inking) along with all the stuff of Disney that formed the foundation for my career.
Later on I shifted to more older-age type of comics like the stuff you see in MAD magazine… I never found any interest in the superhero (Marvel – DC Comics) that everybody else liked.
Now I adore the simple, light, child-like type of books (Walid Taher is a good example). In comics: Calvin & Hobbes and Zits are what I like to read before I sleep.
What do you keep in mind when trying to illustrate for children? Is it different from illustrating/designing for adults?
You have to pay extra attention to details, because what might play a second and third role in the background in a tableau for adults, is likely to attract the attention of children, and they may ask why is it not appropriately drawn, or why are the dimensions not convincing for them, or why is it here to start with. If it, for example, belongs in the kitchen or the bathroom, there has to be a reason (or at least some type of answer) to why this is here.
Colors has to be vivid/ beautiful, and children appreciate the sense of humor a lot, so I make illustrated jokes through a bizarre picture on the wall in the background, or a funny-looking taxi driver at the very far corner of the page whenever I can.
*In what ways has your involvement with children’s lit been satisfying…and unsatisfying?
Honestly, so far I’ve never been free enough to press the full throttle. You always have guidance from the publisher, regarding what he thinks may be acceptable from the readers, or regarding the approach of the publishing house in general. One other serious issue is the budgets dedicated to the creation part of the books, it’s not quite staysfying that it always pushes the artist to be thinking about the next project while working on the book at hand, which definitely is not the best thing in any creative business.
But i am really optimistic about what’s coming next, as I haven’t been fully focused on making something exceptional for the past few years, and now I am willing to dedicate more time and effort to make something good.
*So that means shifting from illustrator to author/illustrator?
I am more of an illustrator than anything else, but over the past ten years I’ve made (written and illustrated) about 500 single-panel cartoons that discuss issues that matter mostly to the youth.
They became very familiar on the internet, so that I have recieved them as forwards in group e-mails about forty times or more, from people whom didn’t notice I am the cartoonist behind those cartoons… It makes me relieved to say an opinion, give an advice, tell a short story I faced in my day or even objected to a situation by protesting out loud through a single panel cartoon, accompanied by a couple of paragraphs or maybe just a single word.
And right now, I thought why not express those ideas and advices on the pages of a book for our lovely children in the context of a story? After all, stories are meant to deliver ideas and emotions.
And I also believe that the best creative work comes out driven by anxiety to express something so bad that it flows on a strong current of feelings and talent.
*Thanks very much for your time, Mohamed!