Robert’s Snow…Meet Illustrator Sara Kahn!

“Please pick me! Please pick me!” said the snowflake…one of more than a hundred being auctioned off for the Robert’s Snow: For Cancer’s Cure Fundraiser

Today, we feature this colorful creation by illustrator Sara Kahn and offer blog readers a chance to win one of her books and a signed Giclee print of a painting from On My Block.

Blogger’s Note:  I’m a children’s author and a middle school English teacher, so my students are collaborating on our series of illustrator profiles! Today’s feature is courtesy of the Global Citizens in 4th period English class.  (The pleading snowflake at the beginning of this post was their brainchild…. Clearly, they were listening when I talked about leads that try to grab a reader’s attention!)

When Robert Mercer was diagnosed with bone cancer, he and his wife, Grace Lin, wanted to do something about it, so they came up with the idea for Robert’s Snow. Robert’s Snow is a fundraiser where children’s book illustrators are invited to create snowflakes, which will be auctioned off to raise money for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Robert is no longer with us, but his spirit lives on in this year’s magical collection of snowflakes.

Sara Kahn is one of the illustrators who made a snowflake for the 2007 fundraiser, and we’re interviewing her today.

Sara grew up in Iran and has illustrated American and Iranian children’s books.  She has illustrated for both Cricket and Cicada magazines.  When she was three, she painted on the kitchen floor, and the entire family was kicked out of the house.  In school, she got in trouble for her art as well because she drew a caricature of one of the teachers she didn’t like very much.  When the teacher found the caricature, she removed Sara from class, and her parents had to come in the next day. 

Since then, Sara Kahn’s illustrations have appeared in many books in both Persian and English, such as On My Block and The Best Children’s Books in the World.

Sara has won many awards and scholarships from around the world.  To see some of her work, click here or here.  She has been painting and drawing for 35 years. Her work has been shown in Spain, Japan, the Slovak Republic, Italy, the United States, and Iran. 

Welcome, Sara! First of all, we love your snowflake! How did you come up with the design for it?

 Being a cat person, I never suspected I might like goldfish until my husband and I installed a fish pond as part of a yard project last year. Very soon I found myself quite attached to the fish–they are now so tame they nibble on my hands and toes when I wade into the pond to remove algae! The fish gather underneath our lily pads on sunny days, like we might sit under umbrellas.

I was fascinated when I found out that both water lilies and fish are considered lucky in Chinese culture. One item is in the water and the other one over it, one lucky item protects the other. I found this relationship interesting and decided to incorporate both lucky items into this year’s snowflake. 

What made me think of goldfish for the snowflake–besides the new pond–was the similarity of the corners of the snowflake to the shape of fish tails. I then thought about if I wanted to paint three fish (one on every other arm); five, leaving the hanging arm of the snowflake free; or six, one on each arm. I found from further research that six is a lucky number in Chinese culture, so I made this a “Triple Luck” snowflake by including six fish and their lily pads.

We enjoyed reading about you and your background on your website, especially since you lived in Iran, and we hear so much about that country in the news now. You lived there during another tumultuous time. What was it like to be in Iran in 1979?

I lived in Iran during revolution and war.

I was thirteen at the time of the revolution. It was amazing to see how friendly people became and the sense of caring for each other was so immense in the first days of revolution. It was the amazing feeling of the promise that everything will be the way you always wanted it to be and that hope is so intoxicating. Also–there was no school for almost five months!! That may have been my favorite part.

War: the first days were scary, but after one month then it became part of the daily routine. Every morning at 10, Iraq sent five ground to ground missiles to Tehran. I recall going to the rooftops with my friends to look at them. They flew parallel to each other and made this sound swshweeeee and fell thump on the ground. Then according to where it fell, we would start calling the people in that neighborhood to make sure they were ok. They also set air raids at night. One of the bombs that they dropped from the plane hit a birthday party. The dad had gone out to buy dinner for everybody. When he came back home, he found that the bomb had hit his house, all the guests and the family were killed. That was a horrific incident. I made a painting of it, at that time I was in the university studying art. I cried for a good portion of the painting, I think my tears got mixed with the colors.

So living in Iran has influenced your ideas for painting?

Yes. I also love Persian miniatures. There is no perspective in them. The painter paints what he knows, not what he sees. Perspective is just the limitation of the eyesight. Sometimes the painter depicts the scene inside a house behind a wall where one would normally not see. I try to use these qualities in my art.

Persian Painting and literature always used symbolic language. I try to do that in my books and paintings too. In the river and sun book, the girl is small when she is withdrawn from the environment and as soon as she notices that how she feels is totally in her power, she suddenly becomes much bigger in the page.



In the Tale of the Goat and the Date Palm  you see 12 goats running around the earth.

That is not mentioned in the text, but I chose to make them 12, to reflect the number of the months in the year and hours in half a day. I also included the motif that looks like a star…that is the symbol of goat horns in four directions, the goat’s horn was a symbol of the moon and moon was the symbol of the goddess of the moon, Anahita.

What would you like to tell kids through your books?

Well, each illustration or each painting has a different visual message.

The illustrator Dusan Kallay, says: “Illustrating a story is like making sketches, you walk in the imaginary world of the writer and you whatever you illustrate is what you see in this imaginary world.” Of course each person’s imaginary world of the writer’s text is different. As Tatiana Mavrina says, it is as if you pick up a colored glass and look through it to see the world in a different light, what we as illustrators do is to share our visual experience with others.

In my speech for the IBBY conference in 1994 where I was included in the honor list for the illustration of the book Tale of the Goat and the Date Palm   I said: “Every illustration is born each time a kid looks at it”. I would love for my illustrations to be born again and again. Each time one looks at a painting or an illustration they will look at it in a different light, one’s experiences change from moment to moment and one’s acquaintance with the illustration and the painting increases every time one looks at it.

Are you working on any new paintings? If so, what are they called?

Yes, I am painting a dreamscape called “Sea, sky and land” and illustrating a book about the life of a dog who moves to San Francisco.

Do you mostly draw or paint your illustrations?

I paint them, I even paint my sketches. Most artists start from a sketch but I start directly from the paint on the paper. Recently, because most American publishers want to see the sketch, I started the reverse work of sketching after I made the painting! Now I am trying to convince myself to make sketches but honestly the sketches do nothing for me, I already have sketched the illustration or painting in my mind.

For my books in Iran, I used to put some toothpaste on my toothbrush and start pacing the room and imagining the illustration. Sometimes I paced the room so many times that my toothpaste had a thin dry surface on it! I thought of the book and how I wanted it to look like–I think of a book as a whole, not single images. Then I decided which illustration was to be the highlight and I started from that and then worked the ending and the beginning from that illustration…then I set it to words…unlike the process here, in America the process is almost completely reversed, one starts from breaking down the text and the pencil sketches.

The print that our drawing winners will receive is “The Garden of 32 Cats” from your book On My Block, inspired by your grandmother’s cats.  Of all your grandmother’s cats in that picture, do you have a favorite?

The one that is reaching for a fish–she was the only litter from a wild cat. I rescued her and she became my kitten. This kitten ran to me in joy every afternoon and greeted me dearly. She once sneaked in the bedroom and slept at my foot.

Now the rapid-fire questions…thing that kids (and adults who think like them) need to know!

What’s your most embarrassing moment ever (that you’re willing to share)?

I have so many of them; it is hard to pick one out! And I should say this is very embarrassing in itself!

What’s your favorite dessert?

Naan Pangeree, a Persian specialty; it is paper thin deep fried pastry.
It is very similar to Norwegian Rosettes.

If you could be any animal, what would you be and why?

This reminds me of the character test I heard about in high-school. You ask the person to name three animals they like and say why they like them, the first one is who they want people to think about what they are, their public image, the second one is what people really think you are and the third one is what you really are. Now, this makes it hard for me to answer, without thinking I am exposing my innermost feelings of how I like to be introduced to the public! Despite all that, I’d like to be a tiger; she is a big cat, kind to her cubs but fierce to the enemy. What fascinates me about a tiger–which is what also I wish to be able to do–is to have the ability to be fierce and then to be kind, when I need to be so.

What’s your favorite TV show?

I do not watch TV at all, occasionally my husband watches “Law and Order” and I’ll check it out with him. Both of us are simply too busy to watch TV.

Favorite dinner?

Any dinner I make that turns out the way it should! I love to cook but some experiments fail tragically.

Favorite sport?

Swimming. I have to admit that I am not a very sportive person, but I like swimming, hiking, and rock climbing.

Thanks so much for joining us, Sara, and for sharing  your time and talent for Robert’s Snow!

For a special Robert’s Snow giveaway, Sara Kahn is donating copies of On My Block and signed Giclee prints of “The Garden of 32 Cats”  for three lucky winners of our drawing.  To enter the drawing, visit the Robert’s Snow auction site (feel free to place a nice fat bid while you’re there!) and then come back here and leave a comment about any snowflake that you especially like.  Winners will be drawn and announced on Kate’s Book Blog in early December, after the auction. 

In the mean time, LET IT SNOW!!

11 Replies on “Robert’s Snow…Meet Illustrator Sara Kahn!

  1. Kate, this was fascinating to read. I loved reading about her process and I really like this: “Every illustration is born each time a kid looks at it.” I want to go back and read it again. I love these features that give us a glimpse into an illustrator’s process.

    Will you please thank your students for these informative features? They are so well-done.

    Jules, 7-Imp

  2. Hi Kate,

    This was so interesting! Thanks! A few months ago, I found myself browing a website of Iranian pictures books, and found it hard to stop–there were so many that were fascinating.

    I went to the auction site as directed, and the snowflake that caught my eye is Melanie Watt’s Scardy Squirrel.

    Thanks again to you and your students and to Sara,

  3. Kris/Paradise Found says

    Wow. What an interesting interview, and again, I’m just thrilled for the students who get to be part of this!

  4. Loved reading about Sara! It’s interesting that she doesn’t sketch before painting. She’s right about how a picture is reborn every time a person views it, how each moment we bring something different to the piece, thereby increasing our appreciation and understanding of it.

    One of my favorite snowflakes from this week is Judith Moffatt’s cut paper hedgehog!

    Thanks to you and your students for another fascinating feature!!

  5. Wonderful post

    This was such a great post for Robert’s Snow – thank you for doing this!! I would love to be entered int he drawing!! Since I am featuring Nancy Wallace tomorrow – I will say that that is one of my NEW favorites!!

  6. Love the interview! Every time I visit the Robert’s Snmow site I find a different “favorite”! Today it’s “A Cozy Night for Cuddling Up” by Juli Kangas.


  7. That is awesome. I love the idea of the subnivian world. Think of the story possibilities!

    (although I must confess–when I first read the blog entry, I kept reading “subnivian” as “sub-ni-VAN.” Like “mini-van”. Do you think that’s what the wee mice drive their wee families around in? Subnivans?) Clearly, I am tired.

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  9. You are one of my favorite authors because you appeal to such a wide audience. I have recommended you to my 13 year old niece and to my 66 year old father.