The award-winning artist Rashin Kheiriyeh, who publishes as simply “Rashin,” has illustrated over sixty books in countries all over the world. Later this month, however, marks the first picture book she has both written in English and illustrated. Saffron Ice Cream, a story for which she mined some of her own childhood memories, is about her family’s trip to Coney Island after moving to the States from Iran. In brightly-colored, textured oil and acrylic illustrations, we read about her memories of trips to the Caspian Sea, segregated by curtains into a women’s side and a men’s side; her fondness for Persian music; and memories of her friends. At Coney Island, taking in the sights and sounds, she is overcome by longing for her old home—but quickly makes a new American friend.
Last month saw the publication of Hannah Eliot’s Ramadan, a board book about the holy month of the Muslim faith, part of a new Simon & Schuster board book series called Celebrate the World. Rashin’s exuberant illustrations capture Muslim families of all skin colors celebrating their faith: “We will remember to love our family,” Elio writes, “pray, and give back to others all throughout the year.” It is a book the Kirkus review describes as a “treasure that reaches far beyond the traditional board-book audience.”
Rashin, who also teaches in the art department at the University of Maryland, worked on both books as a 2017 Sendak Fellow. I asked her via email about that experience, her new books, and more.
It's unusual—and wonderful—to see a board book for young children about Ramadan. What does it mean to you to have illustrated this and to share this book with children?
Yes, you’re right! It is not so common to see a children’s book about Ramadan in the United States. When Simon & Schuster approached me with the idea of having a collection of board books based on different cultural celebrations called Celebrate the World, I was so happy to get a chance to illustrate one of them for Ramadan, the most important and biggest religious holiday for Muslims.
Ramadan is the name of a holy month in the Islamic calendar. For 30 days, Muslim families practice their religion by praying and fasting from sunrise to sunset. They do charity for people in need. In fact, Ramadan is all about helping the community, making peace, and trying to being a better person. Ramadan ends with a great world-wide festival, called Eid al-Fitr.
I think Ramadan is a good book for kids wanting to learn more about Muslim culture and celebrations.
In the book, I tried to show the different phases of the moon from the start to the end of Ramadan so that I could incorporate Islamic symbolic patterns and designs into my illustrations. The lanterns I draw on the cover are actually a Ramadan decoration! I am so excited to share my art with children through this book.
Saffron Ice Cream seems to be based on your own childhood experiences, yes?
Yes, Saffron Ice Cream comes from some of my favorite memories as a child. I had a happy childhood in Iran, and Saffron Ice Cream was a story I’ve been eager to share. I was just looking for the right time. It is a story about Iranian people and their real families, about home and immigration, about similarities and differences.
At what age did you start studying art in Iran?
I went to art school when I was 16. I started studying Graphic Design at Azadegan Art School in Tehran. That was the first art school for girls, and and I was so passionate to make art that I spent five hours commuting to school every day for four years. The school was far from my house, and Tehran is famous for heavy traffic.
Then I continued studying art at Azad University and, later, at Alzahra University for my Masters. I have also received my honorary Doctorate from Iran. Then I went to Cité des Arts in Paris and SVA (School of Visual arts) in New York.
Tell me about the Sendak Fellowship. Did you work on either Ramadan or Saffron Ice Cream, while there?
The Sendak Fellowship Award was a great surprise! It came at just the right moment in my life. Both my house and studio were under construction when I received the fellowship.
I was so happy, first of all, because I am a big fan of Maurice Sendak, and secondly, I had no room to work on my new book projects! The Sendak Fellowship provided me with a beautiful studio at Scotch Hill Farm in upstate New York. There, I was able to finish the illustrations for Ramadan and Saffron Ice Cream. Also, I had the advantage of working beside great artists like Eric and Terry Fan, Eliza Wheeler, Tomie dePaola, Paul O. Zelinksy, Arthur Yorinks, and Dona Ann McAdams.
How does teaching art inform your own illustration work, if at all?
I started teaching art a few years ago in the Art Department at the University of Maryland. I have to say that it is a great experience. I try to help my students understand the foundation of an art piece, how to achieve the right composition. And as I teach, I of course learn new things as well. It is so much fun spending time with my amazing students. I am usually so full of inspiration when I leave the class.
So, I think teaching is a good influence on my artwork so far. (I had twins in my drawing class last semester, and I am thinking of making a book about them.)
You've published books in countries all around the world. How do you think we here in the children's book publishing community in the States can do better about seeing international books?
Compared to six years ago (when I came to the United States), the publishing community is certainly getting better. I remember there were just a few international authors and illustrators in bookstores and libraries, but now I see more international books getting published, which is great. Having international children’s books by authors and illustrators from different cultures and countries helps boost the energy of young readers, since it’s exciting to get to learn amazing new stories from all over the world.
What's next for you?
My next book is The Book Tree by Paul Czajak (Barefoot Books). I also have some new story ideas that I’d like to work on, and there is a possibility of having a show in an art gallery in this summer. I am also super excited about my new commission from Google to do an illustration for the 2018 World Cup. Go, Iran!
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
SAFFRON ICE CREAM. Copyright © 2018 by Rashin Kheiriyeh. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc., New York.
RAMADAN. Text copyright © 2018 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Illustrations © 2018 by Rashin Kheiriyeh. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Little Simon, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division, New York.