Aysha Tengiz on her first picture book, working with Lliana Bird, and seeing the world like a bug

Illustrator Aysha Tengiz has made her picture book debut with Baboo the Unusual Bee. Written by radio presenter Lliana Bird, it tells the story of a pink bee struggling to find its place in the world. We caught up with Aysha to discover more about how it was made.

Ever felt like you don't belong? As if there's something fundamentally different between you and everyone else around you? If so, then Baboo the Unusual Bee is sure to resonate. Written by Lliana Bird, it tells the story of a pink bee named Baboo struggling to come to terms with his identity in a world that seems poised to reject him.

It's not all doom and gloom for Baboo, though. And that's partly because his story has been illustrated by the bright and brilliant Aysha Tengiz. Representing her debut as a picture book illustrator, Baboo the Unusual Bee is an exquisite showcase of Aysha's talents, which we already saw in her previous project about a lonely elephant called Fil.

Speaking to Creative Boom, Aysha reveals that she became involved with the project after being contacted by publisher Libby Hamilton after she had seen her work online. "She sent over the first draft of Baboo's story, written by the incredibly talented Lliana Bird, and asked if I would be interested in creating the artwork," Aysha explains. "I decided I would illustrate it before finishing that first read!"

Whereas before Aysha had illustrated her own stories, this was her first experience creating imagery for a tale written by someone else. This led to some initial uncertainty about how open Aysha felt she could be with her interpretation, as it was important to her to create a visual character that Lliana was happy with. Luckily, after testing a few versions, they settled on a design for Baboo that looked just right.

"There was a lot of play and freedom working on the book," she adds. "Outside of the obvious, like spread layouts, I also had so much fun playing with the colour palette, book dimensions and working with designer Camille Pichon on making my own font.

"What I discovered is the beauty in collaborating not just with a writer but also the publisher and designer on the book. The finished piece is a little bit of all of us, and it's so exciting to see something produced that I would never have achieved by myself."

The themes of Baboo the Unusual Bee and Aysha's art style might seem slightly at odds with one another at first, but once you reach the end (no spoilers!), you'll see why they're a perfect match. "I think they sit together nicely as the story is so playful and vibrant, much like my artwork!" says Aysha. "However, I also appreciated the sadder undertones the story carries. Feelings of loneliness and not fitting in, these are really interesting to interpret without the artwork and energy feeling too low."

These elements all come together in the nighttime spread, which was Aysha's favourite piece to illustrate. In it, the two main characters of the story have come together, found joy in their individuality, and celebrated it through a shared love of dance. "I particularly love the contrast of the black background against the vibrant colours. Can you tell I'm a Funny Bones fan?"

She adds: "I also had a lot of fun working on the front and back cover. Re-designing book covers for fun was something I used to do a lot as a kid, lying on the floor with old printer paper and felt tip pens. Finally, working on my own definitely felt like something special."

As well as telling a lovely story and containing a valuable message, Baboo the Unusual Bee is also bursting with interesting bee facts. This involved a research process that overloaded Aysha's Google history with bee-related terms. "I also started to see them everywhere," she adds. "I particularly enjoyed finding the bee hive at the Horniman museum, which allows you to see how bees work together."

Getting up close and personal with insects was especially useful as the book contains a wide cast of bug characters. Something Aysha found hard to draw, especially when making them look like they were dancing. "They have a lot of legs and makeup, lots of different strange shapes," she says.

"As they are also so small, their world is giant. The flowers, trees, and landscapes that I normally draw further away would be zoomed in so they tower around the little buggies. I did at one point lie underneath a bush to try and visualise what it would be like to be that small."

Google once again helped Aysha clear this obstacle, as well as plant books and rigorous practice. "I drew bugs for weeks to get an idea of their shapes and colours," she says. "I particularly enjoyed the book Smithsonian Handbook of Interesting Insects, which has a fantastic collection of funky-looking insects."

Compared to Fil, which Aysha wrote and worked on alone, Baboo the Unusual Bee was a different experience overall. "It was very personal to my feelings at that time," she says. "In contrast, Baboo was written for me, and it was really interesting to interpret a character who didn't originate from my own manifestation.

"I enjoyed working in a comic format on that book, which I brought through slightly to this picture book," Aysha concludes. "However, the age group for Baboo the Unusual Bee is much younger, so I had to learn to restrain my urge to create busy illustrations and work with a design that younger children could read easier."

Baboo the Unusual Bee is published by Barrington Stoke Ltd and goes on sale on 14 September. You can pre-order your copy today via Waterstones.


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