In her first children’s book, Grow, Watermelon, Grow, New York-based Iranian designer/illustrator Charlotte Noruzi uses both Western and Iranian themes to tell a story from her childhood. The resulting work is bright, cheerful drawings about a little girl who insists on growing her own watermelon.
Because much of the book relies on an elegant mix of styles and some pretty innovative tools (see below for Noruzi’s description of using actual watermelon slices to make prints), it’s also arguably one of the most sophisticated children’s books on the market, especially among those with an Iranian theme. Which is not all that surprising when you consider that Noruzi is a design/illustration professor at Pratt Institute and has a host of other accolades to her name.
I first saw this book and met Charlotte at Mehregan last year, where my friend and I bought her book even though she wasn’t at her booth at the time – we left our money with the sweet Iranian ladies in the adjacent booth and came back to chat her up later. After keeping it to myself for so long, fi-i-i-i-nally (as she writes in her book), here’s a Q&A with Charlotte Noruzi. You can buy the book here.
Pars Arts: Grow, Watermelon Grow is about a little girl’s (your) desire to grow her own watermelon. Why did you choose this particular story for your book?
Charlotte Noruzi: I never thought much about this event in my young life until I mentioned it to my friend, Ronnie Lawlor, three years ago. She was so taken by it and it was after her suggestion that I seriously took into consideration bringing this story to life. Little did I know that I would be starting on a journey of reconnection with my childhood, sometimes painful and sad and sometimes funny and joyful. In a way this book is about sharing myself with the world, bringing to light something kept hidden. On the cover, the girl’s face is half-hidden by the watermelon slice. The desire to plant the seeds, to have them sprout up out of the earth, is the desire to be seen, heard, to feel validated, and also, to see the “fruits” of perseverance, belief and determination. It was very important to prove to my parents that I could grow something too. I realize now the great significance of this simple desire to grow something of one’s own. It’s my hope that these messages come through in the story.
PA: The illustrations in this book really make it quite sophisticated… did the illustrations come first, or the words?
CN: Thank you. I started making one or two line drawings of myself as a child. I was taken aback by how natural this process was, of drawing myself and my family as we once were. The resemblance was shocking. The drawings flowed out as if it had been waiting for a very long time. After that I started writing. Somehow
words create an anchor from which the illustrations can flow. They create the imagery. I remember working this way even as a kid, always illustrating words.
PA: Do Iranian themes or motifs, either classical or contemporary, influence your other work? How about in the classroom, where you work with students as a professor at Pratt?
CN: Iranian themes and motifs influence my work quite often. I love hand-lettering and calligraphy and this comes right out of my Persian roots. The book is very much based on the patterns, colors and designs in Persian art and I was also inspired by Persian children’s books I grew up reading. I often introduce Persian and Middle-Eastern design and calligraphy in the classroom. There is a freedom of expression and strength of language that students seem to respond very effectively to and their work, in turn, becomes freer and more expressive, more unusual. The mix of Western and Middle-Eastern mark-making and graphics always creates rich and unusual results, in my opinion. I guess you can say that about people as well, who are a combination of those “graphics.”
PA: What’s been the response to your book from Iranians? What about non-Iranians? Do they recognize the Iranian elements in the story?
CN: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. I think people, both Iranian and non-Iranian, are truly touched by this story. I never imagined such a heartfelt response. There have been numerous moments of recognition/relating to the story when a person will exclaim after reading the first page: “My mother also told me never to eat seeds… I remember that!” or “I tried growing my own seeds once, too.” It’s so great.
Non-Iranians are more curious about the writings in Farsi that I’ve integrated into the illustrations. One person impressed me so much by recognizing the Farsi interwoven into the earth, leaves and worms of the illustration where the little girl is watering the seeds. I think I had an unconscious motivation to “secretly” place Farsi into the art. I did not think anyone would notice so much, which reflects the way I thought growing up, keeping my intrinsic identity a secret so that I was not criticized or looked down upon because of it. But now, people are open to, curious and impressed by my heritage and that is a good feeling. Iranians ask if the story is written in Farsi as well, and that has got me thinking about doing a Farsi version.
PA: Can you describe the process of illustrating this book? I read that you used actual watermelons for some of it…
CN: Yes, I dipped watermelon slices into pink ink and created mono-prints from it. I was curious to see the impressions that the watermelon surface made, the texture and the areas that remained white (where the seeds once were). There’s one print that contains a small “heart” shape, purely by coincidence. I also used the watermelon rind and intertwined my drawings in with them, to make the end pages.
The illustrations are a combination of pen and ink drawings and watercolors. All the art was done by hand. Then I experimented with them on the computer, where I layered patterns creating different visual effects, like batik or silk screen, for example.
PA: You’ve self-published this book; what was that process like, and is it something you’d recommend to others who are looking to enter the children’s book market?
CN: The process of self-publishing was challenging, fun and extremely rewarding. I had initially priced the printing of the book in New York/the States, which at first discouraged me by being exorbitantly expensive. But then I googled printers overseas, choosing one in Hong Kong whose reputation, quality of work and service I was confident with.
I visited Book Expo America (BEA), a publishing event held in New York last summer that brings large mainstream publishers and indie publishers to one place, along with distributors, wholesalers and printers. Luckily, the printer I was going with had a booth there and I was able to talk about my project with their New York rep, who put my mind at ease. It was a little nerve-wracking to think of my book being produced somewhere so far away, where I had little control and no way of going on press to check the outcome! I had to trust it and there was much releasing (of control) I had to do in the process.
The whole process is pretty magical: you send a PDF across the world and a get a bound book in return. And the end result was better than I ever expected.
I would definitely recommend self-publishing as a viable alternative. Attending BEA was an encouraging experience as it gave me the opportunity to talk to several people that had taken that route successfully.
Initially, I wanted my book to be published by one of the big publishers and had it looked at by a few. Although
I received very positive feedback, they wanted me to change the story line and, having several colleagues that
published their work traditionally, I was well aware of the compromising I’d have to do with my artwork and
writing. I was not interested in doing that. I wanted full control. It is important that people also realize that a
publisher will give a nice advance when they agree to publish the book, but you’re book is one of many, and
most of the marketing responsibilities and initiatives fall on the artist/author. So it’s up to them to keep promoting it, not the publisher.
Self-publishing is a harder road, in a way, and there are times where I get discouraged and lose momentum and motivation. But you have to just keep going with it. This book so far had put me in contact with such a diverse group of people. It’s about connecting to others through your art and letting it take you where it will.
PA: Who are your artistic inspirations?
CN: Picasso has probably been the most influential artist in my life. His endless experimentation, curiosity and sense of play is something I have been very inspired by. For this book, I looked at Picasso, Paul Klee and of course, my own culture: Persian miniatures, calligraphy and children’s books, mainly an old one from the ’70s called My Room’s Lizard.
PA: Any plans for other books, either for children or otherwise?
CN: Yes, I have a couple of other books that are in the works and next on my list to be published but for now I am focusing on Grow, Watermelon and seeing where it takes me. I am interested in expanding the book into an animation, teaming up with watermelon farms, and even creating a clothing line, but all that is very much in the future and it’s one step at a time…I have to remind myself of that.
[Image: Grow, Watermelon, Grow book cover, Charlotte Noruzi]