When we source books for Maktabatee, we look for a few important components: a storyline children in the West can relate to, compelling illustrations, easy to understand language, and of course the quality of the book itself. When we began this process, we were taken aback by the incredible talent we found, especially the whimsical and creative illustrations that adorned book covers and pages. These illustrations helped the story come alive and made the scenes of the story even more memorable for our kids.
The illustrations of the talented Maya Fidawi stood out among the stories we began compiling for our launch collection. If you’ve read Uncle Khalfan’s Sheep, you know the story will bring out the belly laughs pretty quickly. The sheep take a trip to the dentist, and each of their unique personalities is captured with utmost detail-- from the dainty “Mazyoona” carrying her lady purse and donning a fur jacket, to the athletically inclined “Haddaf” with his gym shorts, dumbbells, and cheeky smile.
Not only is it hard to artistically capture the exact expression of humans in these books, but more so the animals! We can read the face of Fifi the troublemaking cow as she wreaks havoc in Dana’s house with a grin along the way.
And while the characters of a book are important, the setting of the story is equally compelling. In Fidawi’s illustrations, you are pulled into the pages of the book and can almost smell the aroma of garlic and chicken in Nora’s kitchen as her parents try to convince her to eat her mulukhiyah instead of watermelon for dinner.
In Majid’s grandmother’s house, parents in particular will feel a sense of nostalgia as they notice all the details of the setting of a traditional Arab home, from the woven rugs, to the antenna on the tv, to the Turkish coffee in the backyard.
We wanted to know what inspires these beautiful illustrations and the story behind them, so we interviewed Maya Fidawi, a Beirut-based children’s book illustrator.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? What kind of childhood did you have?
I was not a great student during all my school years. I did not care about anything in school except the art class; it was sacred to me. I was picked on frequently, called names, and never actually had friends. This made me resort to art—I was drawing nonstop, even during class and explanations, sometimes even during exams.
I learned that being an A student is not a requirement to being successful in life. I believe that finding something you are passionate about (and if you’re lucky, making a job out of it) is more important than any grade you need in school.
Where did you grow up and how did it influence your future career?
I was born and raised in Beirut, by a family who admires art in all its forms. We never left Lebanon during the war, so I guess the chaos that I witnessed as a child, and now as a grown up as well, impacted me in many ways. My late grandmother was my first inspiration. She used to draw and play music when I was a baby. Watching her while growing up added a lot of excitement to my worldview and colored childhood memories.
How did you become an illustrator?
After graduating from the Lebanese University, with a major in Painting and Sculpting, I worked as a freelancer in several advertising agencies, executing storyboards, package design illustrations, etc. A client once saw my work on a calendar and she happened to be a publisher. She asked me to draw a book for her publishing house. It was back in 2004, the book was titled “Life's Like That.” And that's how I started illustrating books, word of mouth and a bit of work here and there!
How would you describe your style as an illustrator? Can you briefly explain your creative process, mediums, etc?
Well, my friends and colleagues call me queen of details. I observe a lot (politely) and discretely, and I depend on my visual memory when I illustrate. I enjoy drawing anything sarcastic, and anything that relates to love and emotions. I’m inspired by different Arab and non-Arab illustrators, and I try to keep myself updated with the latest trends. It's good to be inspired by a certain artist, but it's also tricky and dangerous, because each artist should add their own experience, soul, memories, and culture to their work. It shouldn’t be a copy of others.
I get bored quickly and I don’t like repeating the same style more than once, that's why I try to change my medium, color palette, style of drawing. For me, each new book is a new challenge and an experimentation field. When I look at the work I did ten years ago, for example, I’m very critical of it, and I wonder, “What was I thinking?!”
Do you think illustrating Arabic children's books is harder than other books?
Not necessarily, it depends on the content, the size of the book, the amount of text, then comes the age group. Naturally, you will have to put yourself in the shoes of a five-year-old sometimes, which is a cool place to be. I always prefer drawing for the younger ages because they are less complicated beings.
What do you think makes a great children's book?
Everything that is in between the cover-- the text, the good illustrations, the production, the paper quality-- it's a whole package. If the text is excellent and the illustrations are not very appealing, the book wouldn't be a hit and vice versa. If the illustrations are great but the story is weak, you get a similar result.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I never had a favorite book as a child. I just grabbed any book I could find and admired the illustrations for hours, wondering how could they do this! But by far, the stories my grandma told me were the best, because there were no illustrations, I had the freedom to imagine the scenes and characters, which was more magical than any book I ever read as a child.
Has becoming a mother changed the way you illustrate children's books? What is your favorite Arabic book to read to your children?
Becoming a mother has changed my whole life and turned it upside down; it's a huge challenge and it certainly has impacted my work. I use my daily life details in my illustrations-- my children's little toys, clothes, or manners, and mostly their features, are everywhere in my illustrations.
Thank you, Maya, for giving us a bird’s eye view of the life of a children’s book illustrator! You can find Maya’s illustrations in these books and you can read our other interview with author Maitha Alkhayat in the Maktabatee Spotlight series here.