Illustrator Envisions Series of Children’s Books in Armenian


An illustration from Tunjur! Tunjur! Tunjur!

By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — “I am an illustrator, not an artist or a painter,” said Alik Arzoumanian firmly, as she settled her 4-month-old daughter, Aiki into her chair. “I do abstract art sometimes, but I need to have a story to inspire me.”

Arzoumanian, who was born in 1973 in Beirut, said it was her childhood books that made her want to be an illustrator.

“My aunt, who lived in America, would visit and bring all the Caldecott Award books for me to read. When I go back to Beirut, I still search out the books I read as a child,” she said.

Although Lebanon was torn by war during her childhood, Arzoumanian said she felt very little sense of disruption growing up there.

“Honestly, during the war, as children, we really didn’t know what was going on. We would be happy if the war disrupted our going to school, and we used to play in the bunkers,” Arzoumanian said.

Now launched into a developing career as a successful illustrator of children’s books, Arzoumanian began her working life in a very different milieu. A graduate of the American University of Beirut, she studied engineering and landed a job in Dubai, where she worked on irrigation designs for hotels.

Alik Arzoumanian

“I was terribly bored, and I knew this was not for me. I had a friend who was a photographer for Gulf News. I was going to explore an opportunity there, but then I met [her husband] Sevag, who was then living in England, and I moved there.”

Sevag Arzoumanian, who studied physics and mechanical engineering at Harvard, completed his PhD recently while living in England. The couple married and moved to the US where they now live in Cambridge. Sevag Arzoumanian works as an acoustical engineer in the Boston area.

“When we moved to the US, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it here, but I discovered there was a big difference between the government and the people. I love the people here, they are so optimistic,” said Arzoumanian.

Upon arrival in the US, Arzoumanian enrolled in the Massachusetts College of Art, from which she graduated in 2007. “I was 27 when I enrolled there, older than most of the students, but there was a woman in her 60s who was just beginning her studies. That’s what I like about America. You are not fixed, doomed to a certain way of life. There is so much freedom, you can begin again,” she said.

In addition to her illustrative work, Arzoumanian has taught art to young children at St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School in Watertown and classes in color at her alma mater, Massachusetts College of Art. She hopes to return to some teaching when her daughter is a little older.

Arzoumanian has taken a somewhat novel approach to contacting publishers, sending them postcards of her work; this strategy has been successful. Her work has now been published by a number of different publishers. Her first book, Tunjur! Tunjur! TunJur!, with text by Margaret Read MacDonald, is the retelling of a Palestinian folk tale and was published in 2006 by Marshall Cavendish press in New York. It is the story of a Palestinian woman who prays for children but is rewarded, instead, with a little pot, that displays surprising human attributes.

The illustrations for this first book exhibit has become Arzoumanian’s identifiable style, a reliance often on circular shapes that portray both people and things, and a use of strong, densely-saturated color. Both attributes would seem to make her work irresistible to children. There is a simplicity and directness about her style that communicates instantly. Her most recent book, Children of God, illustrates a Biblical text, written by the South African Most Rev. Dr. Desmond Tutu.

A scene from Rev. Dr. Desmond Tutu’s Children of God Storybook Bible

Arzoumanian recently attended the Bologna Book Fair, which is entirely devoted to displaying children’s books, and hopes to see her work published in other countries than the US. Already, one title has been published in Lebanon.

Until now, Arzoumanian has illustrated work by other writers, but her new ambition is to write and publish Armenian stories for Armenian-speaking children.

“There is so little that is good that is written in Armenian for children. I want to write for these young readers so that the language will live on,” she said.

To that purpose, she has developed her own imprint, Kirk-Mirk, which, roughly translated, means “book fruit.” Her first title, Dzirani Anoush, is not about apricot jam, which is the literal translation of the title, but portrays twin sisters who make up new names for each other. While it is an entertaining story in and of itself, it also introduces new words and new ideas to the young reader, therefore the story functions as a teaching tool as well.

She has also illustrated So Many Houses, written by Hester Bass (Scholastic Library Publishing), Grateful Animals by Sona Zeitlian and Where Are You, Little Frog? By Kayleigh Rhatigan and published by Lark books.

Both Alik and Sevag Arzmoumanian have been active politically, and worked for Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, in 2004. They were also deeply involved in helping to expunge the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) program from schools and towns when it became clear that the ADL did not acknowledge the Armenian Genocide.

Arzoumanian is the recipient of American Library Association Award (2007) and is a member of the Graphic Artists Guild and the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators.

“What I want to concentrate on now is the writing and illustrating of children’s books in Armenian. There isn’t a wide selection of books in Armenian for children or indeed in any category. We need all kinds of books in Armenian.” To learn more about Arzoumanian’s work, visit her website at www.alikart.com