Habib Ali has illustrated the picture book Neel on Wheels by Lavanya Karthik, a Children First book that will be published in June 2018.
He is interviewed by Richa Jha, writer, publisher and picture book connoisseur.
RJ: Congratulations on such a beautiful book! I especially love the way the cover gives just a hint of what’s to come and in such a magical way without giving away the story. How did you think of it?
HA: What you see on the cover was not the first choice initially. I had made one which had a bit of shadow play element in it but it felt weaker when compared with what we had inside the book. And so I am really happy that finally we have part of an interesting illustration from inside the book on the cover now. It’s from the middle of the book, where Neel’s wheelchair suddenly takes off into the air. I too like the way the page and cover have come about.
RJ: There is a lot energy in your spreads which is not easy to get in illustrations. Does that come naturally to you or did you have to work on it for this book?
HA: That’s what the story needed! The story itself is fun and has a feeling of a lot of speed. I enjoy working on such stories or those where there is an element of fear that the children face initially, then they fight it and come out victorious. This book has all of that so I really enjoyed working on it.
RJ: What is your preferred medium-hand drawn or digital?
HA: I enjoy manual drawings. At present, I am concentrating only on these. I haven’t given much thought to working digitally but I do want to learn to work that too.
RJ: The book has such a lovely mix of the indoor and outdoor scenes. Which one did you enjoy doing more?
HA: I had a whale of a time doing the entire book! But I have a special fondness for a couple of the indoor night scenes that we have at the start of the book. The outdoor scenes were a pleasure to work on, too. I worked with great enthusiasm on the ones that show the sports field and where Neel’s wheelchair flying.
RJ: Your illustrations add so much to the story! There are spreads where your imaginative visualization adds a lot of depth to the story’s narrative. For example, in the tiger-bees-rhino spread. How did you come up with those?
HA: The original idea came from Lavanya Ma’am and Anushka Ma’am. But once that was established, I worked on the different perspectives that I could use to get the desired effect. It was challenging, but a lot of fun to try those out.
RJ: Which spread was the most difficult to get right?
HA: I would say, the night scene at the start of the book where I needed to get the play of light and shadow on the soft toys just right (it is also my favourite). It ended up being a difficult one because I kept on trying out several perspectives to get the essence right but none seemed to work well for what we had in mind for that page. And because I was trying to work on too many ideas simultaneously, I was going nowhere. What finally worked for the page was a much simpler treatment that seemed just right!
RJ: Anyone in real life you based the look and feel of Neel on?
HA: Neel’s character is not inspired by anybody I know. My publisher’s brief to me was that the characters needed to look ordinary, someone every child could identify with. I remember sharing four or five character sketches for Neel. Based on their feedback, I did some minor changes on the one they said worked the best. They liked what I then sent them for Neel and his brother and that is what I stuck to for the final illustrations.
RJ: What kind of stories do you enjoy working on the most?
HA: I love working on books for children. Especially those that have a lot of action – running, jumping, horsing, monkeying around kind of action! Neel on Wheels has all of it.
RJ: Was there a special colour palette you set out with for this book?
HA: I kept in mind the likes and dislike of most children. That helped me pick the colours for the different spreads. But these were also essentially colours that we see in our daily lives all around us, so in that sense, nothing out of the ordinary.
RJ: Is there a favourite colour you have?
HA: While I love the colours orange and aqua-green, I use them only if the needed in a frame. Or you could say that I am always looking at ways of incorporating them into my illustrations! But there isn’t any one specific shade that I use more than the others.