Suzanne Del Rizzo is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book My Beautiful Birds, which focuses on a Syrian refugee. She has illustrated Skink on the Brink, Gerbil, Uncurled, and Sky Pig. She lives in Oakville, Ontario.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for My Beautiful Birds, and for your character Sami?
A: My story was inspired by a small article I read while looking online for kid-friendly resources to help explain the Syrian civil war to my children.
I happened upon a little article about a boy who fled to the Zaatari refugee camp and while there befriended a group of wild birds. This article stayed with me for days and was the initial inspiration for Sami, the main character of my story.
I researched many refugee stories to get an accurate cross-section of refugee life, before I began writing, and took further inspiration from these fleeing families’ harrowing experiences as well.
I knew I wanted to explore and relate a child’s innate strength, hope and resilience, which I believe all children possess, even during hardships such as displacement.
Q: What do you hope young readers take away from this book, especially about the Syrian war and Syrian refugees?
A: Children are smart and very inquisitive about what is going on in the world; they are our leaders and humanitarians of tomorrow. I hope this book may act as a gentle yet realistic introduction to the Syrian refugee crisis but also may serve to remind us all that even during our hardest times, there is always hope and beauty to be found.
I wanted to ensure my book was respectful and accurate in my depiction of Syrian people. I was deeply moved and inspired by their quiet strength and courage.
I incorporated children’s collective “loves” of art, play/sports, and animals to illuminate how Sami could be any of us. Displacement happens every day, in war-torn countries, but also in our neighborhoods from divorce, or even moving house.
I hope my story helps to encourage readers to be thoughtful and kind, to look past the external, different of clothing, etc., and remember that inside kids are kids; to reach out and help refugee newcomers feel welcome and make new friends.
Q: When you’re creating a picture book, do you start with the text and add the pictures, or vice versa, or go back and forth between the two?
A: If I am illustrating another author’s story, I start by reading the manuscript and jotting down words in the margins that immediately spring to mind, it could be feelings, imagery, anything almost stream-of-consciousness-like, then I take those ideas, brainstorm and work on thumbnails and go from there.
With this book being my first book that I both wrote and illustrated, I started with the idea. As I researched to get my facts and solidify my ideas, I also created a file of reference photos to draw inspiration from and ensure my depiction was accurate.
As I wrote, my mind was racing with ideas and directions to explore with the artwork. So, by the time my first draft was complete I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to achieve and the direction I hoped to take with my artwork.
Together with my art director, Rebecca Bender, we brainstormed my ideas and I got to work creating some sample art to show the rest of the Pajama Press team. It’s hard to say if the words informed the pictures or vice versa as I feel it all grew organically in my mind during the story’s development.
Although I completed most of the artwork after the manuscript was revised and finalized, apart from my initial art samples, many of the final spreads are quite similar to images I had envisioned while writing the book.
Being the author and illustrator I wanted to let my illustrations do some of the “heavy-lifting” when it came to showing the more distressing imagery such as emotional moments and the city’s bombing.
Q: How did you develop your illustrating style?
A: My art style is always evolving. I have always loved sculpture and painting, and working with malleable mediums like plasticine and polymer clay let me do both.
I really enjoy the challenge of pushing whatever mediums I am using to the limit to explore new textures, techniques and different art styles to best suit the specific book project.
For example, with My Beautiful Birds, as it is a more literary picture book filled with emotion, contemplation and a more serious subject matter, I chose to illustrate using a limited colour palette in a more painterly, impressionistic style.
Yet in the whimsical Sky Pig, written by Jan Coates, I wanted my artwork to reflect the fun, quirkiness of the pig-child friendship by incorporating found objects, like watch-gears and vintage papers to give a little steampunk flair to the duo’s contraptions.
It is always really fun, when children are looking at one of my books; they run their little hands over the page as if to touch the low-relief illustration and pause to take in all the detail. That is just the best!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have been writing and polishing some new stories, some of which are currently under submission (fingers crossed!), and I have a few new picture book projects in the works but as they are in their early stages, I am unable to share any details just yet.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I‘m thrilled with the response to My Beautiful Birds so far, reviewers, teachers/parents and kids have said they’ve felt a great connection to Sami, and the story has really resonated with them. Just to let you know, I have created a series of My Beautiful Birds bookplates which I would love to sign and mail out to anyone wishing to receive one.