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Yasmeen Ismail on gender stereotypes, joyful illustrations and her inspiring ‘firecracker’ sister

September 4, 2015

I’m supposed to be made of sugar and spice and all things nice. But I’m sweet and sour not a little flower.

Much has been written recently about gender stereotypes in children’s books. In her new picture book I’m a Girl!, former animator and talented children’s book creator Yasmeen Ismael tackles these stereotypes head-on.

I’m a Girl! is also an engaging, energetic picture book with loads of humour and beautiful, anarchic images.

The girl in the story likes to win, she likes to be spontaneous, fast and strong, and because she also likes to dress in t-shirt and shorts, she is forever getting mistaken for a boy. And when she meets a boy who likes wearing princess dresses and playing dolls, they both quickly discover that they share interests that are wide and varied.

As author and reviewer Jo Cotterill says,

‘I’M A GIRL! can help to change the world.
Whilst brightening it with stunning colours and fab pictures at the same time.’

We asked Yasmeen Ismail:

yasmeen with im a girl coverBRK:
Your new picture book I’m a Girl bears a message on the front cover: ‘Be yourself there’s no one better.’ Was there a particular event or experience that inspired you to write and illustrate this book?

YI: I wanted to write a book about my sister. When she was little she was a little firecracker. She had short hair and wore dungarees and she was constantly being called a boy. She would retort with a firm “I’m A GIRL!” She felt angry about it. She wanted longer hair so that no one would call her a boy, but Mum wouldn’t let her grow it. That was the start of the idea. Now my sister has a daughter of her own, whom I love very much. She started to wear a lot of pink at an early age and her goal in life is to be a princess. I asked my sister if it was her influence, and she told me it had nothing to do with her or her husband, but that my niece was adamant that she wore pink. I wondered where this came from if not from her parents. Surely my innocent three-year-old niece’s brain hasn’t been infiltrated by social constructs already?

Obviously, right now, there is a new wave of feminism taking hold also. I was more aware when writing and I became passionate about it. When it comes to little tiny things, we have to protect them. My niece is now six years old and I don’t want her to limit herself to narrow view of what the world expects of her.

BRK: While there’s some humour in the way the lead character (a girl) is repeatedly mistaken for a boy, there is a serious message too. What do you hope kids (and the adults reading with them) get from this book?

YI: I hope they think it’s funny! I hope they enjoy it, and I hope they don’t find it heavy handed. I want boys AND girls to read it. I don’t want people to look at the title and think, “oh, it’s for girls, and not for boys.” It’s a book for everyone. I want kids to think, somewhere in their brains, “oh, that’s like me, I can do all those things too and that’s fine.” What I would love is if everyone accepted it as the norm. That would be refreshing.

im a girl internalBRK: You use images and simple text to illustrate a range of quite complex ideas in this book, from forms of play (skipping through a field of flowers; playing with dolls, trains and cars – and squabbling with other kids; making a mess) to emotional attributes (bravery, spontaneity, desire to ‘know’ facts, ambition). What were the trickiest concepts to convey in your words and pictures?

YI: I actually found the whole book very easy. It just flowed out for me. It was already formulated. The writing was immediate. I think the first draft had just a couple of editorial comments, but after that it was good to go. I was surprised that such a complex discussion was so relaxed in the making. I think my brain had already worked it out before I sat down to write. As for the illustrations, well, for me that is usually governed by the text. This time the text was so open I could be very easy with it. I could make a whole other story inside it. It was actually very joyful to draw her. She is so full of energy. It was fun to have her cart-wheeling and skipping, and whizzing about.

It seems that the ideas would be hard to convey, but I just had her as a child. I took the gender out of it. That made it easy.

BRK: How does your experience as an animator influence the way you conceive and illustrate your books?

YI: Ah! Well, when I studied animation I had to do hours and hours of life drawing and movement drawing, and when you are animating you have to learn about thrust and anticipation and making things go. After a decade of animating you have a greater understanding of weight and motion, and with that you can instill your drawings with energy and momentum. People tell me that my illustrations are full of energy and that’s why. As for stories, I had to learn about storyboards and planning.  I learned much more about this when I became a jobbing animator and director. Coming into writing picture books it was of a great help to me. I was jaded by the advertising and animation industries and I had developed a thick skin. I wasn’t precious and I understood the power of an edit. I had already had my uphill struggle of killing off my favourite characters and ideas. I was more open to change as a result and I understood that it made stories stronger. It’s quite Zen really! A real letting go and acceptance!

BRK: How were the images in this book created?

YI: My process is that I sketch out the whole book and plan everything first. This is something else I learned with filmmaking. That pre-production is key. If your foundation isn’t sound then everything else will eventually crumble. Of course, there is some allowance for change, but once my structure is solid this doesn’t matter so much. Then I paint. I paint in water colours. I paint pieces rather than the whole spread on one page. A lot of illustrators can do that, but I know my limitations and I do what works for me. I scan the paintings into Photoshop and I collage my spreads together.

BRK: What are you working on next?

YI: Right now I am working on a book for Walker Books UK and a new title for Bloomsbury Publishing. I am also writing for Nosy Crow Publishing. I have many projects on,  and I have just finished a couple of editorial projects. One was for the National Portrait Gallery in London. It was incredibly exciting to work with them.

BRK: Please tell us about some of the books that had an impact on you as a child.

YI: I don’t remember many books that I had. I loved Burglar Bill by Janet and Allen Ahlberg. I would look at it a lot. It’s a very enjoyable story and beautifully illustrated. I also loved Come Follow Me by Gyo Fujikawa, and I have just recently re-discovered The Rabbits’ Wedding by Garth Williams.

Bloomsbury Publishing have created a fun activity pack for I’m a Girl! You can download it (in PDF format) here. 


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