Diversity, Strong Female Characters and Great Vocab: Why We Love “One Word From Sophia”

Yasmeen Lead

Since publishing with Simon & Schuster/Atheneum Books for Young Readers in June 2015, Yasmeen Ismail‘s illustrations in One Word from Sophia have garnered enormous praise. Librarians, parents, book reviewers and young readers alike have invited outspoken Sophia onto their bookshelves and into their hearts. Her popularity has helped to ignite an important conversation: Sophia is a strong, intelligent female character of color and she has too few peers in picture books.

We were eager to get Yasmeen’s thoughts on working on such an important title, and also chat about her experience and technique illustrating Sophia.

When you first received art direction for One Word from Sophia, was it predetermined that Sophia would be a little girl of color or was that something you interpreted from the text on your own?

I think I just wanted her to be mixed race. It was a natural response… Someone from Atheneum mentioned that that was how Jim saw her, and I took it from there.

There’s also a bit of discussion from readers on whether Sophia’s family is racially blended or just illustrated with a variety of skin tones. What was the conversation between you and Atheneum in determining the characteristics of this fun family?

Well, what’s the difference?! If they have a variety of skin tones they are racially blended, and if they are racially blended they will have a variety of skin tones. But, yes, in my mind Grandma is Mommy’s mother, and Mommy married Daddy and he is white, and Daddy’s brother is Uncle Conrad who is also white, and Sophia is mixed race as a result. But I don’t really feel comfortable explaining that in such plain terms. They are a modern, normal family. They love each other and love their daughter. I don’t think it should be highlighted… LOOK A MIXED RACE FAMILY! 

It just is what it is.

You and author Jim Averbeck have seen a ton of really positive buzz from the We Need Diverse Books movement. When you were illustrating Sophia, did you get a sense that you were helping to create an incredibly special and important character?

Not really. I knew she was a strong character from the text. And in it she is strong. I was most interested that this little girl was so smart and had a can-do attitude. She was willing to try things and was persistent. She put her mind to things. That was what I thought was attractive about her. She is a good role model for girls… and boys.

Have you received any feedback from young readers, parents or teachers/librarians on how Sophia filled a hole in their bookshelf, specifically that of a strong, ethnically diverse female character?

The feedback has been incredible. Already the publisher has informed me (with a beautiful card each time) that the book has already reprinted twice! Schools have talked about how it’s great to see Sophia gracing the cover, and the general feeling is that Jim’s use of vocabulary in the book is teaching kids the wonders of new words.

We were delighted to receive a starred review from Kirkus, there was an awesome window display for Sophia in Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary and Garden Arts in Berkeley, California. There’s been articles in the Baltimore SunPublishers Weekly, and it’s been included in some incredible lists such as Top 2015 Mighty Girl Books for Children and Sonderbooks Stand-Outs 2015.

And when I travelled to Minneapolis last year I did a signing for Simon & Schuster at the NCTE Conference. The teachers I met were delighted with the book and were all very excited to bring it into their classes to show their kids.

From a creative standpoint, what was your process in illustrating One Word From Sophia? The colors and textures are so beautiful, is it entirely watercolor or do you incorporate digital elements as well?

Planning it out was key. I wanted the book to have a real flow throughout. Jim had made it clear in the text that Sophia had an obsession with ballet. It was her motivation, so I used dance to take the reader through the story. In the book you can see how she skips and prances through the pages. Sometimes she is less graceful, but over all she is usually in some thought out posture.

As with most of my books, I plan first (rigorously) and then I paint (watercolours) the elements of each spread sort of separately. This gives me control over the final image. These ‘pieces’ are then scanned in and then collaged and assembled in Photoshop to make the final artwork.

What projects do you have coming up next?

I have a couple of books with a UK publisher that I have just finished up. These are entirely new characters for much younger readers. I am really excited about them and I have loved working with the publisher. I am very proud of these books and can’t wait to shout about them!

And my biggest project at the moment is nearly complete. I have approximately 5 weeks until I have my baby boy. Once I get back on my feet again, I’ll be working on books for Bloomsbury, Walker and Nosy Crow in the UK… and maybe a little something for the US too!