Our Favorite Day of the Year: A Talk with Iranian Illustrator Rahele Jomepour Bell
I just know I can’t be the only person to have noticed that there’s been a significant uptick in the number of Iranian authors and illustrators of children’s books published in America in the past five years. To what do we owe this international influx of talent? After all, the sheer variation in these artists is astounding.
“Musa’s feeling nervous about his first day of school. He’s not used to being away from home and he doesn’t know any of the other kids in his class. And when he meets classmates Moisés, Mo, and Kevin, Musa isn’t sure they’ll have much in common. But over the course of the year, the four boys learn more about each other, the holidays they celebrate, their favorite foods, and what they like about school. The more they share with each other, the closer they become, until Musa can’t imagine any better friends.”
Don’t be fooled by its cover. Behind this innocuous facade rests a rather clever take on holidays, going to school for the first time, friendship, and encountering the new and unexpected in other people. I was intrigued enough by Bell’s style that when the chance came to interview her about the book, I took it as an excuse to learn a bit more about what precisely is going on in the world of publishing both here and overseas.
Betsy Bird: That you so much for joining me here today? Okay, so here’s that preliminary question I pull out because I’m always intrigued by what an illustrator considers a worthy project. In your case, what drew you to this particular book? What about it, do you like the most?
Rahele Jomepour Bell: The minute I read the story of Our Favorite Day of the Year; I knew there is a voice for me to speak up in this story as an immigrant artist. I could find myself between the characters in this story. I am a person who is open to all messages caring love from all different cultures and religions in this world. I love to know more about people and their beliefs; I think these differences and contrasts bring pure beauty to this world. We do not have to be similar to get accepted in our society; we need to respect each other’s minds. We can be friends with all sorts of cultural backgrounds and spiritual forms. I learned a lot from the characters of this book.
This book had a real challenge, and it was doing a lot of research during the process of making it. It includes a lot of ethnic, racial, and lifestyle referrals, and I needed to be careful not to make a single mistake in order to make the pictures. And I loved it.
BB: This begs the obvious question: What’s your favorite holiday, personally?
RJB: My favorite holiday is Nowruz. I believe all people in the world celebrate coming spring everywhere, but perhaps no one takes the arrival of spring more seriously than Persians. Persian people have celebrated the festival of Nowruz, the Iranian new year, for thousands of years. Nowruz means “A New day.” It’s a holiday admiring rebirth and renewal filled with family, friends, feasting, music, poetry, and hope for a felicitous new year to follow. We set up A Haft-sîn table decorated with symbols of spring and renewal on display. I have included its picture in the endpapers. Can you find it? 🙂
The first thing we do on this day is taking a shower, put on the new clothes, and sitting around the Haft-sîn table, then making wishes wordlessly, purifying our taste by trying the Norouz Persian pastries. Hugging and loving each other and telling this to each other: “Norouz Mubarak.”
Later, it is the most exciting part, and that is getting ready to go to Grandparent’s house and spending the rest of the day with cousins and aunts, uncles. Ahh, it is the happiest day of my life. I am trying my best to keep it alive for my child Darya here as much as I can and let her experience the happiness of celebrating this beautiful day.
BB: Okay. Now I seriously want a Nowruz picture book.
You are originally from Iran, and we’ve been seeing such a fantastic increase in the number of Iranian artists publishing in America today. I know you’ve published in Iran itself. What can you tell me about the picture books you might find there? What are the top topics of interest? How does the business differ from publishing here in America?
RJB: As a child born and grown up in Iran, from the beginning of life, I was exposed to lots of ornamental and detailed Persian patterns, from Persian rugs motives to my grandma’s quilt. There have always been stories behind these images. I remember sitting and playing with my paper cut characters in the garden, knitted and pictured in the Persian rug in our living room. I told all of these to say that Iranian initially are illustrators. If any artist you find from Iran creates any form of art, you can find the origin of the narrative skill and storytelling in their artwork. I think because of that there are lots of great illustrators from Iran.
Iranian love fables and folktales. I found these books are a little bit less bold here in America to compare it in Iran. People in the literature field in Iran are trying their best to keep the roots of this genre active. The taste of children’s books I see published in Iran is more similar to East European books. Publishers and picture bookmakers are more in the act of exchanging their books with Europe through book fairs there such as having book exhibitions in Bologna book fair, Belgrade, and Frankfort book fair.
The big difference I can point to is that there are more independent publisher houses in Iran to compare it with here in America.
But the book marketing here is more organized and very well-delineated.
I LOVE working as a picture book maker here in the US because I have the chance to be alongside many incredible artists and authors from different countries and getting published by the US publishers. I love the diversity here in the publication industry, which we do not have it in Iran. And it feels like a big gap there, I believe. When a country brings different people from different backgrounds and perspectives, it helps any form of industry always refreshed and new.
BB: What would be your dream assignment? What kind of book for kids would you like most to illustrate?
RJB: My dream book project is picture booking my own stories with no boundaries to have the freedom to make both pictures and words.
I know my readers are astute; children are super smart. I want to make books with less commercial cuteness but more explorative and imaginative concepts, including emotions and deep feelings, poetic.
I want to show children that there is no line to be creative and innovative through my art. I do not see any problem with having a little bit of bitterness and dark concept in picture books. Kids love this stuff. Short answer, just like Maurice Sendak’s books.
BB: Always a good answer. And finally, what are you working on now?
RJB: I am about to finish my third book’s final artwork. I am going to miss working with the one and only Laurent Linn, my art director at Simon and Schuster. This book will be going to be loved by every single reader, I hope. I can’t wait to share the Book’s Big Adventure, with the world; written by Adam Lehrhaupt, publisher: Paula Wiseman Books.
Big time thanks going out to Rahele for going above and beyond the call of duty in answering my questions. Thanks too to Shivani Annirood and the folks at Simon & Schuster for connecting me with her in the first place.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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