Holly Hatam: Living her dream

Holly Hatam is living her dream by bringing children’s books to life through magical illustrations that centre people of colour and celebrate diversity. This year, Hatam, a local KW artist, has illustrated five incredible children’s books, including HAIR TWINS by Raakhee Mirchandani.

“I remember as early as four, I was always drawing. So it was something that I always loved to do. I still have books that I created from when I was eight years old,” Hatam said. 

Hatam always knew she wanted to pursue a career in illustration, but she lost confidence in her art, and began to explore other avenues. This included working in graphic design and owning her own wedding invitation business called Teardrop, but she was still unsatisfied. 

“I didn’t particularly love it…[but] I was still living paycheque to paycheque all through those years,” Hatam said. 

Hatam’s turning point was when she got pregnant with her son in 2013 and decided to finally give her passion a chance. She went from posting her illustrations on her website in 2013 to working full-time and becoming a New York Times bestselling illustrator.  

“[I thought] if I don’t do it while I’m pregnant, I’m never going to do it when the baby comes,” she said. “Throughout these years, I was always drawing. I just put [them] up on a website and I started emailing publishers. And not soon after I got my first little book job that way.”

Hatam is often inspired by nature and spirituality, which she turns to when she feels blocked. 

“I’ll usually just take a break from my computer. I’ll go for a walk, and honestly, I hug trees. I sit and I’ll hug a tree and I’ll talk to the tree and I get a lot of answers that way,” she said. 

“I get a lot of my ideas from music and lyrics and animations. And my little boy, he’s seven, he gives me a ton of hilarious ideas for numerous characters.” 

Hatam is Iranian and noticed that she was different from the other children early on. She also noticed the lack of representation of people like her in the media and experienced racism even as a child. Hatam had a strong desire to fit in—when she was 13, she learned that rubbing lemon juice in hair and sitting in the sun could turn it blonde, so she did it. 

“[Not] only did I feel invisible at school, but also, while reading books and watching TV, there was never another character that looked like me. That made me feel even more unimportant. I felt so ugly [and] I was always wishing I could change the way I look,” she said. 

“I was always hiding. And I never talked about where I came from. I was so ashamed to be Iranian—so much so that I changed my name to Holly. That’s not even my real name. But [I changed it] because no one could pronounce my first name. I’ve been Holly since I was eight years old,” Hatam said.

Contributing to multicultural representation in children’s books is important to Hatam so that her son, who is biracial, and other children of colour, can see themselves in the characters rather than feeling different or alone. 

“I don’t want my son to go through [what I did] at all. And it’s great that we’re seeing more and more diverse characters in all sorts of media, but I still feel it’s really hard for him to be able to relate just because he is biracial. But as long as he can see aspects [of himself], like Chinese characters or Arabian characters, anything that he can relate to, is just wonderful,” Hatam said. 

Although media has come a long way in terms of diversity, Hatam pointed out that many non-white characters are secondary or background characters.This is why whenever possible she ensures that the heroes and stars of her stories are people of colour. 

HAIR TWINS is a heartwarming picture book of a Sikh father and daughter with a special hair bond. It highlights and celebrates family tradition that is not mainstream in North America but is still important. Hatam and Mirchandani felt an instant connection. 

“[Mirchandani] is so amazing. [Due to the pandemic] we’ve never met in person, but it feels like we’ve known each other for years. We just instantly became friends, and she’s just the kindest, brightest heart of anyone that I’ve met,” Hatam said. 

Hatam is also a talented and established author. She has a love for unicorns and mythical creatures, with many unicorns hidden in her illustrations.

Hatam is living proof that you can live your childhood dream and use your success as a platform to make a difference in the world. Be sure to check out HAIR TWINS, the Unicorns Are Real series, and CRANKY RIGHT NOW written by Julie Berry which was released May 11.