Green Bean Books

Q&A with Aviel Basil for This Is My Shabbat

1. What does it mean to you to have illustrated the first Jewish children’s book with Braille?

It’s really exciting and I’m thrilled that I got to be a part of that. The idea that there’s a book with a blind boy in it and his blindness is not an issue, that the story is not about that, makes me so glad. It’s a small but important step – a chance for every boy or girl to see themselves reflected in a children’s book without the story being about their identity specifically is an important step.

2. Do you have any experience creating art for people with disabilities? What was the process of learning how to incorporate Braille into the book like?

I haven’t worked on anything that is especially for people with disabilities, but I try to include any kind of person in the books that I illustrate – not as something special, but as a neutral choice that shouldn’t be extraordinary. If I need to draw a group of kids, it should be a natural and normal thing for me to include a diverse group that reflects real life. In this book specifically, I had to do research and understand how a blind boy acts on an ordinary day to make the story feel as real and as natural as possible.

3. How long does each illustration take you to plan, sketch and complete? What does your process look like?

The first and hardest part (and also the most fun part) is the first sketch on an empty page. It’s an exciting stage, because I really don’t know at that point what the book will look like. Everything starts with reading the text a few times without even drawing; I just read it over and over while putting pressure on myself to draw anything. Usually ideas and images simply pop up at this stage. Then it’s the first rough sketch, which is basically just shapes and lines. It’s a stage that I don’t show anyone and it’s only for me while I try to figure out the scene and the composition. This first part (the reading and first rough sketch) takes a while. The next phase is working on the first sketch. This is usually a faster step for me if I have a clear idea of what I want to do. After that, I choose a colour palette and start working on the coloured illustration. The colour palette is such an important step. It sets the whole feel of the book. As soon as I find a palette I like, everything gets easier. Then, I just sit and colour everything.

4. Who are your artistic inspirations?

The illustrators that got me passionate about being an illustrator are Miroslav Sašek and Jean-Jacques Sempé. I was exposed to their work when I got into design college and they made me feel that illustration is what I’m supposed to do in life.

5. Which Jewish or secular children’s books did you love growing up and why?

My favourite book as a small child was There’s a Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer. It was beautifully illustrated, funny and scary, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

6. How do your illustrations from this book differ from those for your upcoming release, The Extraordinary Dreidel?

They are not that different. They have the same feeling in a sense, but what makes them different is the location and the family. One story is set in Israel, so the floor in the apartment is very Israeli, and one story is abroad so the scenery and nature around the family are different. The external objects and surroundings are different but the characters in the story are quite similar. I think the colour palette also reflects the change in geography.

7. What words of wisdom can you offer for aspiring writers/illustrators?

Draw and send a lot emails. It can be a bit hard at the beginning of this profession when no one knows you yet and you just want someone to give you your first chance. My biggest advice is that persistence works. Keep doing what you love and keep approaching as many people as you can until you get your break.

8. Where do you stand on the ‘Own Voices’ debate? For a Jewish story, do you think it’s important to have a Jewish author and/or illustrator? Could this story have been done as well by non-Jewish author/illustrators?

I believe that anyone can illustrate anything. I’m sure that a non-Jewish illustrator could have done a great job with this book. But I do think that emotional attachment helps. The fact that I’m at home with the context of the book on a personal level helped me make it more personal and familiar, and to get that in any book is great.