Author and illustrator Vada Azeem releases his ode to women, 'The Ribbon in the Sky'

Joel Oliphint
Vada Azeem

When Vada Azeem was a kid, he used to go down to the basement, turn off all the lights and pray to God that a monster or a ghost or an alien would appear. Sometimes he'd sit there for hours in the dark, waiting to see some kind of fantastical creature.

“I wasn't scared of monsters. I wanted to see one. I would always look under the bed, hoping there was a monster there,” Azeem said.

The idea of strange things lurking in the dark was intriguing and exciting. The real world outside his bedroom window — that was the scary part. “The violence that I was seeing... I was afraid of that,” said Azeem, arapper,author and illustrator. “The fact that I was poor and my mom was on drugs, and being left alone in the house… I'm sure a lot of that played into it. Maybe I was looking for an escape.”

Azeem’s imagination didn’t fade as he got older, either. “I always have monsters in my head. There's constantly weird characters in my brain, 24 hours a day,” said Azeem, a father of two. A few of those furry creatures made their way into the new children’s book Azeem wrote and illustrated,The Ribbon in the Sky.

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The monsters in his head weren’t the original inspiration for this book, though. Azeem’s wife, Aba, provided that. “She’s been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis for about eight years now, and this book is really inspired by her journey,” Azeem said. “Whatever adversities came her way, she just kept going. … I would try to imagine myself in her shoes, dealing with all these things, and I honestly don't know if I would have been able to trek the way that she has trekked through it.”

An orange ribbon, which represents Multiple Sclerosis awareness, features prominently in the new book, which Azeem also described as an ode to all women. “The way that we're taught as men to look at women, it's sick, man. I can't even begin to fathom what women go through on a daily basis,” Azeem said, “and, quite frankly, women of color — especially in America. It's a double negative: You're a woman and you're Black. I wanted to do something specifically for them, and to encourage little girls, and for them to see themselves as the protagonist.”

The book’s title references aStevie Wonder song, as well as a line in the tune “Mural“ by Lupe Fiasco, one of Azeem’s favorite rappers. The lyrical snippet serves as the surprise kicker at the end of the book, so you’ll have to read it to find out, but suffice it to say, the moral of the story involves reaching higher to do the impossible — a theme that also appears in Azeem’sfirst children’s book,The Boy Who Tried to Touch the Sun. Although, to Azeem, that’s where the similarities between the two books begin and end.

“I want them to live on their own as distinct works of art with their own vision and purpose,” said Azeem, who employed a brighter, more fantastical color palette forThe Ribbon in the Sky. “This book was a lot of fun to work on because I got to use so much color. I love colors. … This style will probably be the style for all the books that come after.”

The style is also inspired by one of Azeem’s favorite illustrators, Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. Initially, because of Geisel’scheckered past when it comes to issues of race, Azeem felt conflicted about paying homage to Dr. Seuss in his own work. “Growing up, his illustrations stuck out so much to me, mainly because of the colors and the patterns. I was wrestling with that, and honestly was bothered that his illustrations have had such an impact on me,” he said. “But then I just wanted to own it and say, the irony of it is, a black illustrator has never reached the status of a Dr. Seuss. I want to be what Dr. Seuss was to kids … without the scandal.”

Late in the game, Azeem also became smitten with sci-fi TV series “Tales from the Loop,” based on the Swedish art book of the same name. “The show is crazy. It’s so weird. After watching it, I actually went back and changed some illustrations in the book,” he said.

Azeem again chose to self-publish his book, but he learned a lot about the publishing game in the last few years.The Ribbon in the Sky should be available to purchase just about anywhere books are sold, whereasThe Boy Who Tried to Touch the Sun was more of an underground release. Some of what he learned about book publishing was disheartening — particularly how white it still is — but the disparities also lit a fire underneath him.

“I'm actually fighting against the publishing industry right now until it starts to be fair when it comes to people of color, and specifically Black people. The discrepancy is still so immense,” he said. “It's important for people to support Black people who self-publish. … It doesn't have to be me. … I don't like tokenism. And don't just support me because I'm Black, either. I feel like you should support me because what I'm doing is actually quality, and just as much quality — if not better — than anybody else. I just happen to be Black. And I believe there's a whole lot of Black creatives who are that same caliber.”

Vada Azeem