'We live in a wonderful multicultural world': Why diversity is at the heart of everything I illustrate
Published on: 14 June 2022 Author: Natelle Quek
Natelle Quek has illustrated a book called I Am Nefertiti: a joyous story about identity and belonging. Here is how – and why – she worked so hard to get her representation of this cast of characters right.
Illustrations by Natelle Quek from I Am Nefertiti by author Annemarie Anang
I Am Nefertiti is a story about celebrating our names and identities, and how we’re all unique and special in our own way. I was delighted to be asked to illustrate this joyful story, and wanted to emphasise the themes through my illustrations, to create a bright, uplifting picture book, one in which lots of children would be able to see themselves.
Nefertiti: A black girl based on the author's daughter
Author Annemarie Anang wanted to create a book in which her daughter could see herself represented, so the main character Nefertiti is a little black girl based on her Ghanaian-British heritage. But Annemarie didn’t prescribe what Nefertiti would look like – that all came together when I read the text.
I knew Nefertiti would be calmly confident, yet loud and proud when she plays her drums! Much of her attire came from practicality – sitting at a set of drums, she needed to be comfortable, and bold colours would naturally draw you to her at every page turn. When it came to Nefertiti’s hairstyle, I spent a lot of time looking at reference photos and especially watching YouTube videos of parents doing their children’s hair. I wanted to do as much research as possible to make sure Nefertiti looked authentic. I ended up sketching a few different options, and together with Annemarie, we settled on Nefertiti’s current hairstyle.
For the other children in the band, I wanted to create a cast of characters that could reflect a real music class, whether in a school setting or as an extracurricular class activity.
We live in a wonderful multicultural world that children experience in their day to day lives, so seeing that reflected in books I think, I hope, fosters self-affirmation and greater connections for children of all different ethnicities, abilities, and identities.
Ultimately, they’re just a group of kids playing in a band, each with their own unique identity – which amplifies the theme of the book.
Kai: A boy with a lower limb prosthesis
Just as our world is filled with people of different ethnicities, cultures, languages, gender identities, and much more, so it includes people of differing abilities. I felt that you don’t often see children with prostheses in picture books, and so I created a little boy, Kai, with a lower limb prosthesis.
I spent a lot of time reading, looking at prosthetic company websites, looking through photo references, and watching videos of children with lower limb prostheses. There are a lot of different types and options just for lower limb prostheses alone, and videos were crucial as they helped me to identify components and how they move with the person.
I hope that any young readers with a prosthesis will see themselves represented accurately in the book. It's important to note that the prosthesis is not all that defines Kai, but is just one facet of who he is – just as you would not reduce other characters like Pippa to just her freckles, or Joy to her glasses, for example.
Celebrating a music class that's full of diversity
Ultimately, the cast of characters that I created for this book in collaboration with Annemarie and the team at Five Quills reflects just a small percentage of the many different types of people in the world. But by mirroring more diversity in books for children we take one more step towards celebrating the multicultural world that we all live in. We assimilate a lot of information and experiences in our day-to-day lives, both subconsciously and consciously.
The impactful connection that children experience when they see themselves reflected in books fosters positive self-perception and identity. Likewise, reading about other cultures outside of their own fosters empathy and a deeper comprehension and appreciation of people from different backgrounds.
These experiences are invaluable as children navigate their communities and the world around them.
I Am Nefertiti by Annemarie Anang, illustrated by Natelle Quek, is published by Five Quills on 2 June 2022, £7.99 paperback.
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