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Image reads: Featuring Picture Book Illustrator Alea Marley. Image of illustrator and an illustration of Harpreet with a rainbow of colours following him in swirls.

Our Seeds of Knowledge Series hopes to amplify the voice of creators in children’s publishing and also, offer guidance to aspiring writers and illustrators. This kind of diverse community knowledge is what I wish had existed, when I was starting out with Saffron Press.

Here at the Pod, we advocate passionately for accurate diverse representation. Some wonderful creators have generously accepted an invitation to share knowledge. We will learn about their work and the work of representing the Sikh identity in their children’s books.

I would like to welcome picture book illustrator, Alea Marley.

Alea Marley loves creating whimsical scenes that are filled with plant life, texture, and bursts of colour! Her favourite mediums to work with are digital brushes, chunky pencils and watercolour crayons. Born in the UK with Barbadian roots, she is currently based by the sea side in England illustrating picture books.

Image from the book The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh showing Harpreet's mother kneeling down in front of him as they have a conversation by some trees.

Illustration from The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh ©Alea Marley

NAVJOT: Welcome Alea! Could you share your story –  when and how did you enter the world of children’s illustration?

ALEA: I went to the Arts University Bournemouth to do a BA Illustration degree. I wasn’t sure exactly what direction I wanted to take however I knew I wanted it to be illustration based. During the end of second year I discovered a love for children’s illustration, so I did a lot of research on how to get into the industry, spent the summer teaching myself photoshop, drawing every single day, and posting online. Then just before I was about to begin my final year an agent from Bright discovered my work and asked me to join the agency. I’ve happily been with them ever since!

NAVJOT: The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has created a groundswell around the world. The 2017 CLPE report uncovered only 1% of main characters featured in British children’s books represented characters who present as Black or minority ethnic (BAME). Do you feel like the global awareness around BLM will change the children’s book publishing industry in the U.K. in any way?

ALEA: I hope that diverse characters in children’s books becomes the new normal. Growing up I never saw any characters that looked like me in any way, so I’m very thankful that I get to be a part of showing that representation with my artwork now. Every child deserves to see someone who looks like themselves growing up.

Illustration from The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh showing Harpreet sat at a desk highlighted with a white outline. The remainder of the illustration is shaded in green with three children sat at individual desks. One girl wearing a winter hat is staring at Harpreet.

Illustration from The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh ©Alea Marley

NAVJOT: Many readers may be surprised to learn just how long it takes to illustrate a children’s picture book. Could you describe the process for The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh?

ALEA: Yes it’s quite a long process. I believe I started sketches in April 2018 and submitted final artwork in February 2019. When I first got sent the manuscript I fell in love with Supriya’s words straight away, so the imagery came to me with ease. You begin by sketching out each spread for the book and any other little ideas you have. From then on there’s lots of back and forth with the editors/art directors refining things, until the sketches are accepted and you can begin final art. After you submit the final art there are usually little tweaks you have to make here and there, so editing takes up a big portion of the time!

Image shows initial sketches of Harpreet and the patka (small head covering worn by members of the Sikh faith).

Initial sketches of Harpreet ©Alea Marley

NAVJOT: Given the growing awareness around diverse representation in children’s books, how did you work through the character study of Harpreet, especially his patka?

ALEA: Drawing sweet little Harpreet was quite easy, my concern was getting the positioning of the patka correct as I wanted to make sure it was as accurate as possible. I used references from books to help me draw it in the right position, however when I felt something didn’t look right the team at Sterling would always give me good direction and eventually I began drawing it with ease.

NAVJOT: Is there a story that has not yet been written that you would love to illustrate? (Who, what would it be about?)

ALEA: I’d love to illustrate a fantastical island adventure filled with lush landscapes, animals wearing cute clothes and strange creature encounters!

Image shows Harpreet sat on the floor wearing a white patka and a number of folded papers falling like leaves. Each piece has his name written in different spelling orders. Background is all pink.

Illustration from The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh ©Alea Marley

NAVJOT: If you could mentor an aspiring illustrator of children’s books, what is the most useful advice you would share?

ALEA: Practice drawing often, take your weekends off, and draw what you love not what you think other people will.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and process with us, Alea!

To learn more about Alea Marley’s creative work, please visit her website, her Bright profile and follow her on Instagram.

Our (in)visible faith identity may be viewed as an equalizer for some – a way for all of us to be defined in the same category – but as members of the broader Sikh community, we are aware that our cultural nuances differ widely. Once we build safe spaces where our stories can exist, without distortion or stereotypical portrayals, our little ones will learn to tell their own stories, without prejudice. Our stories will grow and these collections will include diverse perspectives and intersectional lived experiences. This is what I imagine for our future citizens of change – their dreams of hope soaring – seeing themselves in the world of books as protagonists and knowing that they too, belong.

Thank you for joining us at the Pod!

All images have been used with permission from Alea Marley.

Text reads: Join us in the movement to amplify marginalized voices in children's literature by sharing the work of independent creators. Please share this post with citizens of change and add your voice in the comments below. Image of author Navjot Kaur. Text beside image says thank you in English, signed letters and Panjabi.

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