Five minutes with Yasmeen Ismail

Published on: 5 Medi 2014

Yasmeen Ismail Photo by Olivia HemingwayWe loved Specs for Rex! Rex is a real character and it's great to see a story that shows being different in a positive light. How did you come up with the character and the story?

When I was little I got glasses. A girl in my class got glasses the week before and when she arrived at school the whole room erupted with laughter. She was humiliated. I was terrified, I knew that it would be my turn to be laughed at and I was terrified. Fortunately for me the novelty had worn off and no one cared when I came into school with my specs. Kids can be cruel and other kids know it.

Being perceived as different when you are learning to socialise is a terrifying prospect. With Rex (as with me), he anticipated rejection when actually his friends were oblivious, and/or accepting. I think for young kids it's hard to know what others outside of your family unit expect of you, and that they can actually surprise you with their kindness.

As for designing Rex, the name came first and I thought that he should look like a lion. And I kept drawing a character that looked kind of like a lion... eventually I realised that I should just draw him as a lion. Sometimes I am slow like that!

While you're working on a book, do you ever take it for a test-drive and read it out loud to children?

No. I don't think I did. I know it makes good sense, but I trust my editors. And as I said before, kids can be cruel! HA!

How did you discover your love for watercolours?

A LONG time ago, when I was about 7 or 8 I went to an after school art class. My teacher, Mary, taught me how to use watercolours and to paint. I mainly painted horses and dogs. Not too different to today!

Have you always loved illustrated books, and are there any books you have particularly fond memories of?

I never had an unusual fascination with illustrated books. I never started collecting them at a young age (nowadays I do) or anything. But I loved looking at pictures. I was very clear about what I liked and didn't like when I was a kid. Then in my teens I was all about comics. I loved all books with pictures. I loved looking at them and poring over them. I remember making little books with my sister when I was little too, but not sure that was exceptional, I think a lot of kids did.

I have fond memories of Burglar Bill by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Come Follow Me by Gyo Fujikawa, and Fairy Tales by Terry Jones and Michael Foreman.

If children enjoyed Specs for Rex, what other books would you recommend to them or their parents?

I hope they do!

If they want another book on the whole 'being different' theme, there is a fantastic one from Antheum (S&S USA) called Gaston, by Kelly Di Pucchio and Christian Robinson. What a fantastic book. Great story, well written and Christian's illustrations are just gorgeous.

Others that I like are any of the Melrose and Croc books by Emma Chichester-Clark, anything by Richard Scarry, and one of my favourite Christmas books is The Christmas Bear by Ian Whybrow and Axel Scheffler.

And if you don't care about understanding a book but just want to look at stunning illustration check out Tupera Tupera, a wonderful duo from Japan. I don't speak Japanese, but can't get enough of their work.

Check out Yasmeen's book

Specs for Rex

Yasmeen Ismail

A perfectly judged niche story that has general appeal due to a clean text and cute character; Specs for Rex is a visual treat that's really worth putting your glasses on for.

Read more about Specs for Rex

Check out Yasmeen's book

I'm a Girl!

Yasmeen Ismail

Like all good children's writers, Ismail has managed to bind the message in a picture book that is a delight in every aspect.

Read more about I'm a Girl!