London-based illustrator and Coventry University graduate Hazel Mead is no stranger to tackling the peculiarities of life that often leave people confused. Her beautiful and viral illustrations have already tackled the taboos surrounding periods, the sex education we all should have had much earlier in life, and the realities of making out that aren't usually touched upon by mainstream porn.
For her latest project, an inclusive, illustrated guide to life titled Why Aren't We Talking About This?!, Hazel has broadened out her scope to answer over 100 questions similarly informative and humorously. Filled with the style of illustrations that have earned her over one hundred thousand followers on Instagram, the book has been something of a lifelong ambition for Hazel.
"I first had an idea for this book when I was 17," Hazel tells Creative Boom. Noticing that she wasn't being taught the life lessons she felt she needed in school, Hazel decided to try and write her own guide to ensure she was well-equipped for modern life. "Back then, it was more about how to change a tyre or a light bulb and how to cook. When I wrote about all the different ways to cook broccoli, I knew that perhaps this wasn't the book."
Between then and now, Hazel went to university, attended many feminist events and panel talks, and gradually started to feel empowered by the energy and warmth radiating off their handling of taboo topics. "Those spaces felt like an affirming hug," she explains.
"I realised that I kept thinking, 'Why didn't I know this earlier?', 'Why did no one tell me this before?', 'Why aren't we talking about this?' Those rooms and that passion inspired the direction of my illustrative work going forward. I wanted to be making work around topics that meant something to people."
Described by Hazel as an extension of these thoughts and conversations, Why Aren't We Talking About This?! tackles everything from sex and health to self-defence and philosophy. "I wanted to create a book that could be a conversation starter for many useful topics for anyone coming-of-age!"
These were big topics, though, and Hazel only had 214 pages to play with, so narrowing down what she should talk about was quite daunting when she was starting out. "Luckily, my editor Marianne Tatepo is just great at her job and helped form a structure of three sections: Relationships and sex, health and wellbeing, and the self and society," Hazel reveals.
"There are a lot of topics I knew I wanted to explore, that I thought were important, such as navigating grief, recognising abusive relationships and accessible self-defence, which doesn't require you to be a martial artist," she adds.
"I also turned to Google's top searches for inspiration to see what questions people secretly search for. 'How to be happy', 'How to have sex', 'How to maintain mental health', 'How to love yourself', and 'Can you get pregnant on your period?' were a few of the top searches, and made it clear to me that there was a lot of insecurity and curiosity, and that people were seeking affirmation and practical knowledge."
When illustrating the book, Hazel says that her editor put a lot of trust in her to get on and do what she does best. This freedom allowed her to play with her drawing style and self-direct the outcomes. "Each question has its own title page, so there I knew I wanted to add something beautiful and decorative that worked with the theme to surround the titular question," she says.
"Other illustrations don't follow any particular structure; I simply created what I thought the text needed. Where there was a lot of information, I knew I could make it more memorable and enjoyable by doing something playful or creative with the illustration – for example, there's a cycle of discharge changes, and I decided to show the texture, colour and consistency by presenting it as a paint palette."
Inclusivity is at the heart of Hazel's work, and her book is no exception. She is keenly aware of the significance that picture books play in a young reader's mind, so she was eager to correct the imbalance of representation she experienced while growing up. "I remember in a biology book we had at school, all of the anatomies were white – like many other areas of life – and this visual messaging that white is the norm always made me wish I was white when I was younger," she says.
"So when I decided to draw a diagram of a vulva in the book, I intentionally made it brown as an ode to my younger self so I would have appreciated feeling included. I really want to do that with my drawings where and when I can and consider as many people as possible. It's also why I wanted to draw a load of vulvas and penises for the decorative title page – all shapes, sizes, and colours! It's something we don't talk about or get to see as we are British and can be a bit prudish, so here's a load to remind you how everyone is different!"
As for the book's layout, this was more of a collaborative process. Hazel explains that the book's designer, Sophie Yamamoto, pitched the idea of including visual references to make it even more accessible. "She had worked on some cookery books before, and sometimes they will have a coloured strip at the side of the page to help you navigate whether you're in soups, mains, desserts, etc.," says Hazel.
"That was an idea she brought to this book; at first, I wasn't sure. But now, seeing the book in the flesh, I love the side where you can clearly see the three different sections, which have been colour coded throughout. And she was right – you can definitely navigate the book much easier."
As well as the pages, everything else about the book has been carefully considered. Even its size is significant. "We wanted to create a book to fit in a handbag," says Hazel. "The page size would be a bit thinner, but I wrote far too much, more than was commissioned! So the solution to fit it all in was to make the pages slightly wider – 170mm x 190mm."
And while Why Aren't We Talking About This?! promises to be educational for its readers, Hazel also learnt a lot while making it. "A book is such an intense thing and requires resilience!" she says. "I learnt I was capable of a big project – usually, I do one-off illustrations for myself or clients, and then I'm onto the next thing! This was one project containing over 160 illustrations."
The process of making the book also surprised Hazel with how it evolved. "I hated the book's first draft when I got it back from the designer and had to be assured this was the ugly version and was just to show roughly where things would go. The final version, I think, is so beautiful! I didn't realise it wasn't meant to be the perfect article straight away. It needed working, moulding, and re-working, like dough or clay, to form something beautiful.
"It was fascinating to see the process from how we started with refining a proposal, to me going away and writing and writing, to the structural edit where a lot had to be cut, to the copy edit where parts were rewritten, rephrased, parts added, other parts cut, then proof-read."
All the hard work was worth it, though, as Hazel has created a unique, must-have guide for anyone navigating life. It's also one-of-a-kind because she does not take many visual influences from other picture books.
"This makes me question myself sometimes, in that maybe I could change my style to be more commercial, more stylistic," she concludes. "Perhaps all artists go through this self-doubt. But also, maybe that's what makes me unique, and I should embrace that."