V&A Illustration Awards: In Conversation with Yasmeen Ismail (Book Illustrator of the Year 2014)

November 26, 2019

Yasmeen Ismail is an award winning illustrator & animator who won ‘V&A Book Illustrator of the year 2014’ for her book ‘Time for bed, Fred’. Her illustrations are bold and playful, and the traditional media which she employs in creating her illustrations imbues her imagery with a sensitive touch. With the V&A Illustration Awards 2020 in full swing, I wanted to catch up with Yasmeen to find out more about her drive to carve a successful career as an illustrator and what the awards mean to her.

‘Would you like a banana?’

What made you want to become an illustrator? 

When I was working in animation I met an illustrator. And it seems so silly now, but at the time I thought “Wow! People can do that as a job?!”

My world was so narrow that I never realised that illustration was something that I could pursue. It was like someone said, “Your dream career exists, now you just have to find a way to do it.”

What does Illustration mean to you?

To me it’s the most fun thing ever. My work can be challenging and there’s lots in terms of running a business (managing time, publicity, people, negotiations and blah blah, all the stuff that comes with life and having a job), but actually drawing and painting and pushing how I make art every day, and meeting new people, working in teams, solving problems and creating stories is just the most fulfilling thing I can do.

Being given the opportunity to paint and draw and to do it the way I want to do it is incredible. Literally, incredible. I can’t believe my luck.

Have you ever felt discouraged, if so, how did you overcome that feeling?

I have felt discouraged plenty of times. And I have felt like I am not good enough and that other people are much better and that I am a big fraud. I have felt angry and annoyed and I have complained a lot (mostly in private). But then I talk to other people, friends, and I hear about their jobs as doctors and nurses, working with children in distress and poverty, teachers fighting against cuts and being worked to the bone, activists and campaigners fighting for the climate, Animal and Human rights.

My working day is charmed. I know comparing isn’t necessarily helpful, because there is always someone worse off, but it does make me snap out of it. “You’ve won the job lottery,” I tell myself, “buck up and don’t let it slip through your fingers.” Then I get back to it, find solutions, act polite and work hard. I don’t want to take my position for granted, although I often do.

How did it feel to win the V&A Illustration Awards? 

I felt amazing. I was on a high in general (I had just changed career, my first book was published and I was about to make more), but winning the V&A made me feel like I could do anything. It sounds so cheesy when I say it like that, but I was very excited. The ceremony was so beautiful and the catering… OMG the catering! I have never had such delicious canapés. The actual award itself was so hefty and smooth. It had gravity, clout. I felt powerful. I felt validated. It was a great big nod of acceptance. I really was very grateful.

What projects and commissions have you been working on recently? 

‘On a Plate’

I have recently finished a book for Walker Publishing called “Would you like a Banana?” It’s a story about a gorilla who won’t eat a banana… I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s out on the 2nd of Jan. And personally I am dead proud of it.

I am now working on my second picture book for Walker, but I should keep quiet about that one. It’s in the early stages. Other than that I have been writing a lot. I wrote “Joy” (Walker books) and Jenni Desmond did a wonderful job of illustrating it. It’s available now. I have written a whole load more picture books, and I am hoping that some of these will get picked up.

I also was part of a great team of illustrators brought together to create a book called “How Will Santa Find Us?” A story about a young family made homeless in Dublin and with nowhere to go for Christmas. This book’s aim is to highlight the growing problem of homelessness and child poverty in Ireland, and to hopefully to raise some funds to help provide vital homeless services.

“How will Santa find us?”

In addition to all that I have been working with the British Council. The last Children’s Laureate, Lauren Child, curated an exhibition (Drawing Words Exhibition) of 10 illustrators and I was chosen as one of them. It will be touring for two years around the world. I will be flying to Kuwait with the exhibition to talk to students and have story telling and craft sessions with the children.

And on top of all that I will be a teacher and mentor for Pathways. Pathways is a new program from Pop Up Projects with an aim to give 30 students the opportunity to learn about Children’s Publishing and Illustration. This innovative course will take place in some of the best art schools in the UK over two years. 30 lucky students have worked very hard to earn their place, and I am delighted to have been invited to teach with Rachael Ball (Illustrator/artist/Graphic Novelist) for 5 days at the Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge this December.

I am sure there is plenty more that I have been doing, but it’s hard to keep track!

How do you overcome creative blocks?

The best way for me is to take a walk, do some exercise, draw (a lot and just keep going), do some Life drawing, got to yoga, take myself out and do something different. Moving and exercise are great ways to stimulate the brain. And even better to walk with just music, or your thoughts. It’s like meditation. Getting your brain clear and allowing the ideas to come rather than panicking or fighting yourself over it. Sitting in and crying doesn’t help. Do something else and come back refreshed.

I used to think I had to crack everything out as fast as I could, but ideas take time. Give them the proper time.

You’ll come up with great ideas if you just allow yourself to be calm and to think.

Which of your projects has been an important factor in developing your personal style?

‘Time for bed, Fred’


My very first book, Time for Bed, Fred (Bloomsbury), was extremely important. When I was designing it (before it was ever commissioned and when it was a completely different story), I was only just learning about illustration. Being given the opportunity to just play with paint and materials and to see where it took me allowed me to try new things that I would never have tried before. I was in an evening class for Children’s Illustration at the City Lit and it forced me to take the time to try new things. When I came up with my watercolour paintings of Fred I was pretty happy with how it looked. Then an agent was very positive about it, and then the Publishers were really into it. It was validating to have the interest, and I built on that style with more confidence as a result.

Why should illustrators enter the V&A Illustration Awards?

Why not? You might win!

I see no earthly reason why you would not enter a competition. If you don’t win, then you’ve made some nice work and you get to feel good about it. And if you win, well, then you win! And it’s fun!

Don’t think that you can’t, or you shouldn’t, or you’re no good, or you might not win. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I love entering competitions. That was part of my strategy when I started out. I was going to approach publishers, agents, educate myself and enter all the competitions. That way I am working to a brief and there’s a chance something could come out of it. It’s a great motivator, you are working towards something.

AND… the canapés and the cachet of course!

What is the most poignant piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

There were two things I’ve been told. And both of them came from my family.

On his deathbed my Dad said, “Don’t waste your life like I did.”

It’s really sad. And that was a really sad time. I felt so awful for him. I hope it isn’t true that he felt that way, and for many reasons I feel conflicted over what he said, but I took it on board. I don’t want to regret my life like he did. I don’t want to have to say that to my son. I don’t want to let myself down.

So I am doing my best to allow myself to be happy.

The second piece of advice came from my sister. When I was messing about and had no direction, and was mentally and emotionally all over the place she was there for me. I felt like a failure for so long and didn’t know how to be or what to do with my life. I used to be so focussed on art, but I was falling out of it and didn’t know how to apply myself and I was on the brink of just giving it all up and she told me, “You have a gift, don’t waste it.”

And I’m not special or anything. I don’t think I do anything particularly special. But she pointed out that drawing and painting is something that I have been allowed to do, that I love to do and that I am good at. And why would I not do it? Why would I waste that? Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

Whatever your ability or talent, use it.

Don’t throw it away.


See more of Yasmeen’s work at: www.yasmeenismail.co.uk


The V&A Illustration Awards are open to entries until Monday 16 December at 14:00. Published and student illustrators can enter for free at https://vam.awardsplatform.com  

A short history of the V&A Illustration Awards and a complete list of past winners can be found on our website at https://www.vam.ac.uk/info/va-illustration-awards 

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