Anoosha Syed is an author, illustrator, and character designer from Toronto, Canada who has worked on over 20 picture books. Syed graduated with a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts from Ceruleum: Ecole d’arts Visuels in Lausanne, Switzerland. She has worked with many clients across her career ranging from Atomic Cartoons, Disney Jr., Google, Netflix, PBS, Target, Walmart, Warner Bros, and more. Syed’s work includes the following children’s books: “I am Perfectly Designed” with Karamo Brown and Jason “Rachel” Brown, “Other Words for Home,” “That’s Not My Name,” and many more. She also has a YouTube Channel, dedicated to teaching individuals about the illustration industry, called Anoosha Syed. Syed’s awards and honors include the Society of Illustrators 62 Annual, Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature Honour, and Royal Society’s Young People’s Book Prize Shortlist as well as being featured on the Huffington Post, BBC, and more. Through her illustrations readers can truly capture the inclusive characters Syed tries to showcase throughout her work. Continue reading to learn more about Anoosha Syed’s work!
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Your debut picture book, “That’s Not My Name” resonates with so many individuals who have had similar shared experiences such as having their names mispronounced at a café, at school and trying to find a monogrammed keychain. What was the inspiration behind creating this book and how does it feel to have had such a lasting impact on individuals from a variety of backgrounds?
For my author debut, I knew I wanted it to be a story that I would’ve benefited from as a kid. As a Pakistani Muslim immigrant, I grew up never seeing myself in the media I consumed unless it was in the form of negative stereotypes. Now that I’m in a position of power, I feel a responsibility to create work that kids today can see themselves in. In my research I brainstormed through a bunch of different ideas; including concepts dealing with body positivity, empathy, being the new kid, and so on. It wasn’t until a conversation with my husband that I realized a book about names would be a sorely needed topic in the kidlit world. Both of us had very rocky relationships with our names; I hated my name and went by Annie for a long time until I finally, in my adulthood, found a love for it. Whereas my husband Daniyal has gone by the anglicized ‘Daniel’ his entire life to the point that very few people in our lives actually call him by his real name.
I wish I had a book that taught me to be proud of my name and the culture and meaning behind it, and didn’t allow other people to make me not respected when they tried to change it to something easier for their comfort.
I recently made a TikTok about the book that became quite viral, currently at 2.5 million views. And 90% of the comments are from adults who keep saying the same thing; I wish I had this book as a kid. It’s insane to see how much of a universal story this ended up being, but I’m so happy to know that my book was able to resonate with so many people across the world, and hopefully encourage both children and adults to love their names.
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You worked with Karamo Brown and Jason “Rachel” Brown on the book “I am Perfectly Designed.” What was the experience like of working with both of them and what do you hope individuals capture from these illustrations?
It was a fun opportunity, and it’s definitely one of my most well-known books which was even featured on a Netflix series called Bookmarks! Not to break anyone’s bubble, but I’ve never had any contact with Karamo and Jason. It’s usually a surprise to people but I very rarely work directly with the authors of my books; I work with the art director and editor of the publishing house who also acts as the mediator for both our ideas. It makes sense though; I wouldn’t want to tell the author how to write, and similarly, I don’t want the author to tell me what to do either, since we have expertise in our own fields.
But to answer your second question, I have illustrated over 20 books with different authors and you might find a recurring theme to my work. I aim to take on projects that have a strong message of empathy and in my illustrations, I try my best to showcase the world that we live in. This means children from all types of different ethnicities, skin colours, types of families, abilities, and more. I think it’s incredibly important that children can see themselves in my books.
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With Daal being such a universal food for South Asians as well as others, what were your thoughts around illustrating “Bilal Cooks Daal” and what was your reaction to winning awards for it?
While I had illustrated several books prior, I consider Bilal to be my ‘breakout’ book. It’s when I really felt like I had found my style and I had full certainty that I wanted to be a picture book illustrator full-time; since before this I was also working within the animation industry and straddling between both worlds while not fully committing my time and creative energy. Bilal was also the first book I worked on where I identified so closely with the character. The author Aisha Saeed had done a wonderful job portraying the desi diaspora experience which I hadn’t seen before and it thrilled me to work on a project which I would’ve loved to have read as a kid.
I loved working on the book, and seeing the praise and success around it. Especially how much people related to it, really helped to solidify my love for the kidlit world.
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What are some common misconceptions about being an illustrator?
Quite a few misconceptions! I’ve already mentioned that on projects I have no contact with the author and I only work directly with the publishing team. The other big misconception is how the publishing process works. I get a lot of authors who will message with their ideas for children’s books…but in traditional publishing, an author doesn’t need to have an illustrator on board for their submission; if anything it actually hurts their chances.
If an author is interested in publishing a children’s book, they should write up a manuscript and get a literary agent. They will then submit their book to publishers and, if a deal is made, the publisher will choose the right illustrator for the job. The publisher has the connections, the money, and the knowledge of the market to know what kind of artist is best for the text.
The second misconception is about what my job is like; a lot of people think that I sit around and just draw all day and I wish that were true! Actual illustration only takes up 20% of the job; the rest of my hours are spent communicating with clients, meetings, social media management, marketing, promotion, cold-emailing, finances/taxes, chasing after payments, negotiating, reading contracts, researching, and a lot of other admin work. As a freelancer, I have to wear a lot of hats, and although I can outsource a few roles (like having an accountant and agent), it’s important to have a knowledge of the boring bits of the job.
What do you hope individuals take away from your illustrations as you have taken the time to put in so much detail conveying every emotion in the stories you create?
Above all, I want my readers to find humor, compassion, and love in my books. I want kids to feel like they belong, to learn something, and find joy in my artwork.
How do you get through a block when you are having trouble illustrating for a client?
I have a block, it might just be burnout from working continuously. The best thing to do is to take a break for a while and let my mind and body rest for a bit. That means stepping away from my work and just living my life. People often forget that creativity and inspiration come from life, and if you are not living life to the fullest, you can drain that inspiration pretty quickly, so I will hang out with my friends, watch, movies, read books, travel, etc. I’ll also try to refuel my inspiration with new sources since sometimes you need that change in perspective. So that can mean discovering new artists, brushing up on some history, and again museums, movies and books.
The other issue can be that I want to be creative, but my usual outlet for that isn’t fulfilling so I might change my medium and explore my creativity in a different form. So as a digital artist, I might try something like pottery or knitting, or a new technique, like playing with pencils or oil paints. Using a different medium will challenge my brain in a different way, and hopefully, bring these new skills into my work when I get back to it.
And if all else fails, sometimes you just have to force it. I am working with different clients, and I have deadlines to uphold, and sometimes I just don’t have the luxury of spending so much time with this sort of self-reflection. So if I really need to get the work done, I’ll sit down and do it. Sometimes an impending deadline can really help with that and give me the motivation to get it done.
Have you faced adversity in the field?
Definitely! And I faced it from all sides, both from the publishing world, as well as from the community. Illustration is definitely an unconventional career path for South Asians, and while my parents tried their best to be supportive of course, there were a lot of people in my life who did not understand my career goals and choices, and would’ve preferred to see me go the traditional route (haha!). Thankfully it is getting better, and we are seeing more and more brown people coming up within these industries but we still have a ways to go. And I think the issue is mostly a lack of education, since most people still think of the starving artist trope, and don’t realize that the arts, although a very competitive field, can be lucrative and fulfilling.
As someone with a large social media platform, I’ve unfortunately had people who would want to see a brown Muslim woman fail, either because they are bigots or think of my career choice as inappropriate. And sadly, people who think that the books I create are too woke and shouldn’t be read by children. Did you know that the book ‘Bilal Cooks Daal’ has appeared in some banned-book lists? All because it showcases a brown family, who loves their culture and wants to share it! It’s really quite sad but again hopefully it’s something that will change over time, which is another reason why I do what I do. Your most influential time in your life is your childhood, and if I am able to help shape minds at a younger age towards a compassionate and caring life then I would consider that a job well done.
What are some upcoming projects we can look forward to from you?
I have several books coming out next year! I have a board book called ‘Swaddled with Love’ coming out in April. I have a book called ‘Rani’s Remarkable Day’, which I am super excited about; it tells the story of a little South Asian girl who is a princess. I would’ve loved to have read a book like this as a little girl because you really don’t see examples of Pakistani princesses; and no, I don’t count Jasmine as good representation (ha ha!). Finally, I have my second author/illustrator book coming out, which I’m actually working on right now. I don’t know how much I can say about it, but it is going to be a comedy and it will be the first book I’ve ever done that is traditionally illustrated, which is a huge challenge for me, but something I am really excited for you guys to read.
Lastly, what do you hope readers take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
If you’ve ever been interested in writing or illustrating books, then go for it! Don’t let any of the judging uncles and aunties in your life tear you down. We need more stories about our community out there. I have a YouTube channel where I talk about how to get your start in this industry and how I make my books, so if you are interested, definitely check it out.
Photo Courtesy of Anoosha Syed and Penguin Random House.