Behind the Book: The Proudest Blue
last updated 18 December 2019
As 2019 comes to an end, we reflect on all of the wonderful projects that have published over the last twelve months. It has been an especially busy year for Bright artist Hatem Aly! We were thrilled to chat with Hatem about his creative process behind his latest picture book, The Proudest Blue, which published with Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in September 2019. Written by Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad and Morris Award finalist S.K. Ali, The Proudest Blue is an uplifting, universal story of new experiences, the unbreakable bond between siblings, and of being proud of who you are. Since its publication, it has received abundant praise from reviewers including starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal, and quickly earned a spot on the New York Times Best Sellers List. We caught up with Hatem about how he connected with the book on a personal level and the illustrations that brought this powerful book to life.
We’d love to hear more about your journey while illustrating this important book. As an Egyptian-born Muslim illustrator, how did you connect to the themes on a personal level?
I remember reading the manuscript for the first time and going silent in awe; I was taken by the beautiful writing. I grew up in a home with colorful scarves around with all sorts of beautiful materials, textures, and sizes. I played with them plenty as a child, and sometimes I’d help my mother put them on. At times, they seemed like waves when I ran with them or wore them as capes. Trying to keep them straight as a result of my super speed or time travelling was always difficult, and they were always wavy! These memories as a child helped with how the fabric feels and moves, and how it could blend with surroundings. I thought about how proud my mother looked when she put on a pattern she liked.
Transition from sketch to final artwork
Unfortunately, the hijab provokes some people to find reasons to say hurtful things about those who wear it and their faith. I’ve seen the struggle of those who try to block these hurtful words and cease any given power to them, and that was one of the reasons I gave the mockers in the book an insignificant non-solid visual presence. Their words are like a cloud of dust.
“This sensitive representation of family relationships that provide a loving coat of armor against the world’s difficulties is memorable and inspiring. Bullies are depicted as faceless shadows, emphasizing the importance of discounting what they say…Triumphant and true” — Kirkus (Starred Review)
School Library Journal raves, “The illustration and the colors are just as powerful as words conveying the passionate message of how to be proud of one’s culture, individuality, and religion, and how to stay strong and keep one’s faith.” From early sketches to final artwork, how did you approach style to empower each character and bring this story to life?
I sort of allowed the characters and their personalities to tell me how they looked. Faizah’s feelings, thoughts, and observations allow her to access her imagination and contemplate the situation while still watching over her older sister; she is proud, smart and creative. Asiyaa and her friends stand their ground and don’t allow the bullying to escalate. They are a good group of friends, so I showed them as such. I also experimented with some different ways to wear the hijab but ended up going with a simple one.
Early sketches and variations of Asiya and Faizah
The color blue is symbolic of Asiya’s pride— “a hijab of beautiful blue fabric, like the ocean waving to the sky.” Beautiful hues of blue appear bold and proud, flowing throughout the book in dreamy, meditative spreads. In what ways did you intentionally use the color blue to carry the uplifting tone of the book?
I called it Happy Blue once before because it’s not too strong and harsh nor too gentle and dreamy. It’s more of a present, refreshing, and confident blue. I wanted it to be empowering as a central color. I experimented with different shades at first and decided to go with the current one since it felt fitting.
“Aly’s digitally enhanced ink and pencil scenes alternate between dreamy meditations of strength and empowerment” — Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
What does your workspace look like nowadays, and how many pets would be expected to find keeping you company while you work?
Now that I got a bigger Cintiq than the small one I had I need to work out a larger desk! I tend to be messy when I’m working but not too bad, ha-ha. And I do have a roommate who is a lovebird! Our dog and two cats come and visit very often but not the 2 bunnies.
Early cover variations
“This excellent story about identity, visibility, and confidence, touches on rites of passage, bonds between sisters, and bullying and is unapologetic in tackling misconceptions and demanding equality.” — School Library Journal (Starred Review)
From picture books to chapter books, you’ve been quite busy since joining the agency in 2016! Can you tell us about what exciting projects lie ahead?
I have some great books I’m working on right now for 2021, for example In My Mosque, written be Mindy Yuksel, will be published by HarperCollins, and it is so sweet! As for books coming out in 2020 there will be The UK edition of The Proudest Blue with Andersen Press, another set of Yasmin books, Raj’s Rule by Lana Button with Owl Kids, and the fifth book of the Unicorn Rescue Society series!
“Inspiring…The lovely, playful illustrations by Aly capture the spirit of imagination and sisterly solidarity in the face of bullying.” — New York Times Book Review
View Hatem’s full portfolio here.
To work with Hatem, contact his agent James Burns here.