top of page
  • Writer's picturePicture Book Snob

Hoda Hadadi speaks to Picture Book Snob

A Smile by Raoul Follereau, illustrated by Hoda Hadadi, Pikku Publishing
Hoda Hadi

We were delighted to chat to Hoda Hadadi as part of the blog tour for A Smile. This is a gorgeous new edition of Raoul Follereau's classic poem, with spectacular illustrations by Hoda. Learn more about Hoda's collage technique and discover why this project was particularly meaningful. Read Hoda's advice for aspiring illustrators, find out what makes her smile and how she feels about centipedes...

When and how did you first become familiar with the work of Raoul Follereau?

I first discovered Follereau when approached by Pikku Publishing to collaborate on this book. Then I found out that my favorite poet in Iran, Forough Farrokhzad, may have been influenced by Follereau’s poems. To satisfy my curiosity, I did more research on Follereau, and that made me more familiar with different aspects of his life and work.

I love how even the sun and the flowers are smiling in this book! Smiling is so powerful and something that is easily taken for granted or forgotten. Is smiling very important to you and do you make a particular effort to smile in your everyday life? Do you have any personal experience(s) of, or anecdotes about, a smile having an impact on you or those around you?

I take myself as a person who smiles a lot, since there are numerous small things in life that make me smile. As you pointed out, smiling is powerful enough to overcome the small bad things that happen in life. In particular, I believe that nature is always smiling at us and when the nature smiles, I smile. My experience of the power of smiling is that it has a calming influence and helps people form friendships.

What, if anything, did you find most challenging about this project?

The trickiest part was building a narrative as the poem itself does not possess one. Through teamwork and many revisions, the publisher Elena Mannion, art director Rachel Lawston and myself, created a visual story that reflected Follereau’s vision. The end result is highly satisfactory, despite the creative challenges along the way.

Do you have a favourite spread or scene from this book?

I certainly do! It’s the scene showing the children on their way to school, as their parents bid them farewell, and a neighbour sweeps her shop’s front door. Another is the bakery where all the loaves of bread are baked in the morning. To me, bread itself is full of life and a vital start to the day.

A Smile by Raoul Follereau and Hoda Hadadi, Pikku Publishing
One of Hoda's favourite spreads from A Smile

How long were you working on this book and how long does a project typically take?

It took me almost one year, and it typically takes the same amount of time to finish any illustration project. I have to add that the duration depends on the amount of research required, and the extent to which it demands certain environments be created.

Do you do much research or any other preparation before beginning to illustrate a book, and if so, what does this process involve?

Certainly, research has to be done based on the individual story told by each book.

Most importantly, there is the consideration of the location where the action takes place. Then comes the culture in which the narrative is rooted. Capturing the identity, appearance and the philosophy of the people and places comes next. Stories based on real characters or events require more research. Poetic and fantasy stories draw on the illustrator’s inner feelings and emotions.

There’s a very strong sense of joy that springs from each page of this book. Is this something that you strive to create when you’re working on an illustration or does it just appear naturally because you enjoy what you are doing?

Allow me to say that I smiled throughout every moment I spent illustrating this book. I’m grateful to Follereau and Pikku Publishing for every smile that landed on my face. While working on this, I was undergoing tough treatment for cancer, and this book helped me smile under those difficult moments. I believe this book itself was a miracle and the joy that radiates from every page is authentic and a reflection of my own smiles.

A Smile by Raoul Follereau, illustrated by Hoda Hadadi, Pikku Publishing

How did you develop your distinct style? Have you always loved collage?

I’ve been using this technique for many years as my own personal style, and I draw great joy from it. It’s an intense technique, and it takes a lot of time to stick the small pieces of paper together. But it has a distinct characteristic which is of great interest to me - the unpredictable shapes and features that sometimes appear on paper cuts. In a way, these have their own influence on the direction each work takes.

Before you get to work on a collage, do you make a sketch first or use another technique to design how the illustration will look?

It depends on the topic. In the books solely incorporating poems, I start collage directly, without any prior sketch or any pencil outline. In books such as A Smile, which is concerned with story and character, the sketch and the storyboard are of great importance to me.

What materials do you use in your collage? Some of the paper looks like it has a different texture to the rest. Do you collect and re-use things like wrapping paper for future projects? The bedspreads in the children’s room look very delicate but also as though you may have made them by drawing onto very thin paper - do you make your own patterned papers?

For a couple of years, I’ve been using transparent papers, called silk or tissue paper. If I wish to apply a colour which is unavailable, I paint a white tissue paper with Ecoline, until I reach the desired colour. You guessed correctly; I created the texture of the bedspreads with rollerball pen. I do incorporate recycled papers, such as chocolate wrappers, wrapping paper, old notebook pages etc.

Do you make images of your collages and work on them digitally too, to apply things like the lettering on the wall of the bakery?

90% of my work is manual and the rest is digital, which includes, letters, shop signs, editing colours, and at times, small changes in composition. All of these digital works are done after scanning the work done manually and transferring them to a computer.

Iranian illustrator Hoda Hadadi
Hoda at work

I’ve never been to Iran, but I’ve read a few books set there and it strikes me as a very vibrant place, from the types of food to the plants and flowers. Has Iran had an influence on how colourful and vibrant your work is? And/or where do you find inspiration?

Iran’s art has had more of an influence on me than Iran itself as a whole. The Iranian miniatures from which I take inspiration, use colour in its pure and original form. Moreover, Iranian literature is filled with celebrations of nature and wildlife. Tehran, the city I live in, may not be filled with greenery, but living with the Iranian art and literature, keeps me green.

Nature appears to be a driving force in your illustrations, do you have a favourite flower or plant?

Well, I can never find an end to my curiosity about herbs. The more I look at them, the more wonderful they become in my eyes. I find herbs with thinner stems, and more delicate components, increasingly more mysterious and intriguing.

Have you always wanted to be a children’s book illustrator and/or how did you become a children’s book illustrator?

I loved to read and the illustrations in the books used to mesmerise me. I always wanted to be someone who painted the pictures in books, without being aware of what this profession is technically known as. Time went by, and I realised that this is called illustrating. I was certain that I would become a children’s book illustrator since I was a teenager. I attended an art university and have been illustrating for 22 years.

Are you working on anything at the moment and if so, can you tell us anything about it?

I’m currently working on poems by Sohrab Sepehri, a contemporary Iranian poet and painter, whose work combines simple literature with profound messages. He’s a poet I’ve loved since childhood, and his poems always feel fresh. Although his work is primarily read by adults, I’d like to introduce Sepehri to children. His focus on nature will speak to children, and help them interpret the deeper layers of meaning in his poems when they’re older.

What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you during your children’s book career?

I’ve always been afraid of centipedes, but then I found myself working on a project, whose central character was a centipede. The story comes in three volumes and I had to draw this character for something close to a hundred times. What’s interesting is that this book is a favourite of Iranian children! For years, they’ve painted the centipede in that book, made puppets modelled after the main character, and they constantly tell me they love the centipede. They ask me how much I love centipedes, since I created this character, and I have no answer for them! This character’s name is Kooti Kooti. The books were written by Farhad Hasanzadeh, published in Iran by Kanoon Publications, and have been translated into many languages.

Move the World Kooti Kooti illustrated by Hoda Hadadi

What’s the best review you have ever gotten from a child about your own work?

I receive the best reviews for my young adult novel The Clown. Most of the readers say they would like to be the character in the book. One of the most interesting comments I received from a young person was the one saying, “Hey I know that you yourself are the clown and you’re trying to hide that from us.”

What were your favourite books when you were younger? Are there any authors and/or illustrators who have had a particular influence on you?

As already mentioned, I’m heavily influenced by Iranian miniatures, but concerning my technique, I may be a follower of Eric Carle. When I was younger, in addition to children’s books, I was a great fan of mystery books and thrillers. A book I used to read when I was ten, called Shahnameh, or the book of kings, inspired me to write myself.

What do you love most about being a children’s book illustrator?

Constantly recalling my own childhood, reliving every moment of all the games I used to play, and seeing the world through the eyes of a kid.

Do you have any advice for aspiring children’s book illustrators?

I want them to know that they themselves are the first audience of their work, but not at their current age. I mean at the time when they were their target audience’s age. They should therefore assess their own work by asking themselves whether they would have enjoyed seeing this creation when they were young. If the answer is yes, then their work is suitable for children.

How would you describe your work?

In general, I’m an illustrator who’s a fan of nature, transparency and femininity.

A Smile by Raoul Follereau, illustrated by Hoda Hadadi, Pikku Publishing
One of Hoda's illustrations for A Smile

A huge thanks to Hoda for answering all of our questions and to Pikku publishing for our review copy, and for having us on the Instagram tour for A Smile. All opinions expressed are our own. Don't forget to visit the other tour stops to learn more about this beautiful book:


bottom of page