Behind Sami, the Syrian skyline is full of smoke. The boy follows his family and all his neighbours in a long line, as they trudge through the sands and hills to escape the bombs that have destroyed their homes. But all Sami can think of is his pet pigeons—will they escape too?
One day a canary, a dove, and a rose finch fly into the camp. They flutter around Sami and settle on his outstretched arms. For Sami it is one step in a long healing process at last.
What inspired you to write My Beautiful Birds?
The Syrian civil war has just entered its sixth year. My school-aged children had been asking about the conflict, so I went online to search up some child-friendly resources to share with them.
|Ontario Library Services book signing|
I came across some good articles and information including a short article featuring a young boy who was raising a variety of wild birds in the Za’atari refugee camp. I thought to myself how important it was to have picture books that act as windows into the world, providing a safe opportunity for children to learn about other children’s circumstances and issues.
My Beautiful Birds was inspired by that little boy, his struggle with displacement and the universality I think all children have with their affinity to animals.
Once you wrote the story how did your writing group help you?
|BAM! (Burlington Authors Mafia): Jennifer Mook-Sang,
Deborah Serravalle, Gisela Sherman, Jennifer Maruno, Sylvia McNicoll.
Seated: Suzanne and Rebecca Bender. Not pictured: Lana Button,
Gillian Chan, Wendy Whittingham, Judith Robinson.
My writers group meets up about two times per month. They are a great group of talented ladies with diverse and extensive writing backgrounds and interests.
What was the editorial process like?
|Managing editor Erin Alladin and Suzanne|
Ann Featherstone, senior editor at Pajama Press, was my editor for this project. She lives in British Columbia, so although weren’t able to meet in person we talked over the phone or via email to discuss the manuscript.
What are the similarities/differences in working with an editor versus an art director?
I found the experience to have more similarities than differences actually.
What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life?
I wanted this book to not only depict beautiful and thought-provoking illustrations but I wanted to ensure that the artwork accurately and respectfully portrayed the Syrian people living in refugee camps.
|Work-in-progress photo of Syrian landscape – note research photo, upper right|
Although I didn’t have to opportunity to travel to a camp myself, I did my best to research as much as I could from as many sources as possible to ensure I was informed and educated before beginning my illustrations.
|Work-in-progress of family fleeing their village|
Artistically, because many aspects of the book speak to the main character’s connection with the sky and his birds, I chose to illustrate in a more painterly style to evoke this emotional connection on a subconscious level.
|Work-in-progress illustrations – note Sami’s blue hoodie|
Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from beginner level to publishable?
I suppose my illustration apprenticeship could be best described as unconventional and “immersive.”
I still can’t believe how the stars aligned…only a few months after sending out my first postcard mailers (with fun bookmarks), I received a call and eventual offer from publisher and children’s editor, Christie Harkin at Fitzhenry & Whiteside to illustrate my first picture book, Skink on the Brink, written by Lisa Dalrymple (Fitzhenry & Whiteside 2013).
How has your style evolved over time?
One thing that I greatly enjoy about each picture book project is exploring and finding just the right mix of mediums to best illustrate that particular project.
|Polymer clay colors
used in My Beautiful Birds
With Gerbil Uncurled, by Alison Hughes ( Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2015) since the book centered around a family of gerbils, I used real wood chips and nibbled papers along with plasticine in my illustrations.
|Work-in-progress photo of rose finch|
For this project I created my illustrations in polymer clay, baked them in the oven to harden them, then added paint or glaze treatments overtop to create depth, and simulate the dusty conditions of the Jordanian desert.
|Close-up of rose finch feathers|
|Work-in-progress photo of children painting|
I also incorporated hand-painted art from my children and their friends for the mural illustration near the end of the book. I set them up at the kitchen table with their art supplies and gave them the prompt: “how would you feel if you had to leave your home and all that you love?”
|Suzanne’s children painting the mural images|
These fabulous painting are also featured on the endpapers of the book. I scanned each painting then worked out the overall mural image in Photoshop, next I printed it out on t-shirt transfer paper, pressed it onto raw, thin sheet of polymer clay and baked the whole thing to transfer the image.
Suzanne Del Rizzo began her career in picture books as the illustrator of Skink on the Brink, written by Lisa Dalrymple. It won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for Canada and was shortlisted for the 2014 Rainforest of Reading Award.
The Horn Book said, “Del Rizzo uses polymer clay and acrylic paint to create vibrant pictures of Sami, his family, the refugee camp, and the swirling pink-and-purple sky. Most of all, she creates birds for which every feather and color looks real. Beauty and sorrow sit side by side in this compassionate and age-appropriate depiction of contemporary refugee life.”
Suzanne lives with her four children and husband in Oakville, Ontario.