In Amal Karzai’s My Key, a child’s boring afternoon transforms into an adventure via a magical ball presented by a neighborhood raven and an excursion to the library. Karzai’s story was the Gold Medal Winner of the 2020 Key Colors Illustrators Competition. Founded by Clavis Publishing in Belgium in 1996, the contest is designed to encourage unpublished authors and illustrators to create children’s books; the competition expanded to the U.S. last year. The Gold Medal Winner of the competition is presented with both a cash prize and a publishing contract with Clavis. The Silver Medal Winner and Runner-up for the 2020 competition were Susie Oh’s Soomi's Sweater and Emma Ward’s Doris’s Dear Delinquents. Both Oh and Ward also received publishing contracts.

My Key, which will be published by Clavis in November, earned a rave review from PW, which praised Karzai’s sepia-toned art and called the book an “exhilarating outing.” Karzai spoke to PW about the impact of winning the award, her path toward becoming a picture book creator, and finding inspiration.

Did you always know you would become an artist?

I’ve always painted. There was a space for me in the basement lair where I remember using a toothbrush to paint sunsets and sunrises on paper towels and newspapers. I was in ballet from age 8, and my intention was to become a dancer. But after an ankle injury, I began drawing the other dancers. I was attending the Baltimore School for the Arts and the rule was, injury or no, you needed to be in the studio and watch everything. At some point I began drawing my classmates and fell in love with the line quality created with only a few strokes of a partially chewed pencil. I think it was those drawings—and hanging around the Walters Art Gallery, now the Walters Art Museum—that fueled my fingers.

What was the inspiration behind My Key?

The inspiration for My Key was triggered by the word ‘maybe.’ I hated it. There was this one day when I was about the same age as the kid in this story and so bored I was in physical pain. I figured, if I couldn’t travel to Timbuktu, at least I could go to the library. The person in charge responded with “maybe.” In the end, I found my own route to my library.

How does it feel to have won the 2020 Key Colors Illustrators Competition for My Key?

Marvelous and weird. I was a thoroughly imperfect fit for the Clavis catalog and, against my better judgement, submitted anyway. When I got the email that said I’d been longlisted, I first assumed it was a gag or an advertiser trying to rope me in. Then it hit me: I had just read the name Clavis, hadn’t I? Throughout the ceremony last year, I got to meet author-illustrators whose work was really excellent. Viewing their projects, I chose the ones I thought would come in one, two, and three. I was totally stunned when I heard my name!

You have such a broad range of work from portraiture to children’s book illustration. How would you say your art has evolved throughout your career?

Much of my art has always leaned in the direction of illustration and art for children. I focus a lot on figurative work, no matter what it’s going to be used for, and when I feel that it’s getting too tight or finicky, I draw with a paint brush only. Illustration and fine art have always worked in tandem for me. Some of my favorite picture books can’t be categorized as illustration or fine art, because they’re clearly both. I think if I could get away with doing an entire children’s book where the bulk of the illustrations are portraits, I would!

My Key beautifully captures a child’s vivid imagination and sense of wonder. How do you find that space as you are working on your children’s books?

Imagination and wonder are the real keys here. Somewhere between the thumbnail sketches and the final drawings, I list the emotions and mood I hope a viewer will feel when looking at a particular page. It takes nothing at all for me to deviate from my original intention to disaster, so I actually write down a list of words with a large pen and stick them right in front of me.

Talk about your experience as a writer. Do words and stories come as organically to you as images, or is that a challenge?

Believe it or not, the words arrive far more organically for me than the illustrations, which need to be drawn, redrawn, tossed out, repainted, etc. The art process can take ten times as long.

My Key was originally designed to be wordless, but the main character had a few things to say, so out they came. Because the character was chatting away at me from beginning to end, I was just taking dictation. I don’t usually see the need to illustrate the literal text or write what’s already been said in a picture, so the text for My Key is intended as another layer, not to add depth to the images, but to give literal voice to the character that can’t be accomplished with paint.

What’s next for you?

At the moment, I’m drawing the covers for a series of international folk tales for a Swiss publisher and storyboarding the illustrations for another one of my own projects.