Picture book art: meet the Illustrator Sandhya Prabhat

My Book Corner’s first post in this new series – Picture Book Art: Meet the Makers with illustrator Sharon Davey, was super popular – and now we are itching to show you the next one in our series. Super excited to welcome Sandhya Prabhat, the illustrator behind I Am Brown to share a brilliant insight into the creation of this fab new picture book…

Illustrating for ‘I am Brown’ has been an incredible experience. I was in touch with Alice Curry of Lantana Publishing regarding another book concept that I would develop for Lantana. However, this was taking a bit of time. During the same phase, incidentally, Ashok happened to email me this script that I instantly loved! I had come to understand Lantana was passionate about publishing books on diversity, and also working with people from diverse backgrounds and this meant a lot to me. With Ashok’s permission, I sent his script to Alice, hoping that it would click, and it did! In no time, we were all ready to work on a book together and this was so exciting.

The beauty of Ashok’s writing was that it was so utterly open-ended and yet so coherent and meaningful. His script was merely text, with no instructions on what is to be illustrated for every line or every page, unusually. When I called him about this, he said that this was as much his book as mine and that he’d welcome any approach of mine to his script. How generous!

Alice then suggested that I pitch to her a few different treatments of the script. Do we spin a story out of this? Do the lines follow a central character? Do the illustrations remain fairly abstract, in line with the open-handedness of the words?

After a few rounds of exploring, I thought it might work really nicely to have the book show many children in various forms of pretend-play. Each line of the book, some really deep, would be shown as a child would feel/act out/interpret the line. For instance, “I am a doctor” would have a child pretending to be a doctor, using ordinary household/accessible objects.

Alice gave me a green signal and I was delighted! I was then to try out a few pages. But first, she said, we’d need a cover.

The characters of the book came alive, as I read the lines over and over again. A little girl on the cover came first, with springy brown hair and a cheerful attitude. I did a few versions of her but one stood out for the editor and for me, and she made her way on to the cover.

Next, I tried to design the other characters, keeping in mind that ‘brownness’ was not of one kind. They’d be different genders, heights, shapes, sizes, have different types and colour of hair, have different eye colours, varying facial features and be dressed in clothes of all kinds. With this in mind, I designed one page.

It was all starting to come together and I found my momentum. I went ahead and created roughs of a lot of pages. Some lines were really tricky. “I am love… I am friendship… I am happiness” was a difficult page. A tiny story of sorts helped to depict these lines.

The page about the religious beliefs was the toughest of all. How would I show children in pretend-play, and show their diverse beliefs, but also show all the beliefs on an equal platform? I finally tried out this composition where paper cut-outs various places of worship were hung above the children praying underneath them. All the cut-outs would be joined to form a chain.

What meant a great deal to me were little notes from Alice that reminded me to think about all aspects of human diversity. For instance, the page where all the children would dress up, would have a boy in a dress and a girl in a suit.

Lastly, organically the book worked itself out such that it began with one character looking at her reflection in a puddle, reflecting on her Brownness, and then had two, and then had many characters, playing. The last page ends with the same character, with her friends, looking at their reflections in a puddle together, tying the whole book together. My favourite line of all is Ashok’s brilliant last line that goes, “I am You.”

Thanks so much, Sandhya Prabhat! Watch out for the next post in this series, coming soon…

In the meantime, I Am Brown will be in bookshops in the UK on 5th March and in the US & CAN on 3rd March. OR, buy your copy from Lantana’s online shop and donate a book to a child in need via the UK charity Read for Good. 

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