‘Your most important asset is your voice’: In conversation with Ashwin Chacko, illustrator of Free To Be Me: The Diversity, Inclusion and Representation Reading Guide.

September 2021
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In September 2021, Children's Books Ireland launched Free To Be Me: The Diversity, Inclusion and Representation Reading Guide.  

Containing over 360 book recommendations for young readers of all ages, Free To Be Me was created to ensure that all children see themselves reflected and celebrated in the books they read and in the stories and images they hear and see. 

To celebrate the launch of the guide, we caught up with Ashwin Chacko; storyteller, illustrator and the artist responsible for Free To Be Me's vibrant campaign artwork. 

Welcome, Ashwin. Tell us a bit about yourself!  

I am a husband and proud father of three. 

I grew up in India in the foothills of the Himalayas, then attended an international boarding school called Woodstock. Suddenly, I was living in a little melting pot of people from 50 different nationalities, each sharing their own experiences of the world, and their own unique perspectives and cultures, but in our coming together we created a new, collective culture. 

For most of my life, I lived in this global culture but when I went home for my holidays, I encountered a completely different one: the culture I was born into. I wasn’t fully an Indian, nor was I fully an outsider. As a third culture kid, I can relate to many cultures and adapt to fit in accordingly, but I never fully feel a part of any.  

This ability to adapt has had a huge influence on how I work and has driven my capability to merge different practices into a fusion that works. An example of this would be my use of hand lettered type together with my illustration, which you can see in nearly all of my work. 

Like many creatives, I've jumped across many roles in my pursuit of a career driven by passion; designer, art director, hand letterer, illustrator. Now, I refer to myself most often as a storyteller, a title that I believe encompasses all of these.  

Your artistic style is so distinctive, with a playful use of characters and colour often expressing complex or serious themes. How has it evolved since you began illustrating? 

‘As far back as I can remember, I've always been drawing. My mother recently told me a story from when I was five or six and I was asking her why I couldn't make drawing my job. Now, in many ways, I've made that dream a reality.  

One of the largest challenges I have faced was my obsession to find a style. There is a huge emphasis on illustrators having their own very specific and distinctive style. But as a designer and art director, I always adapted my work to suit the story being told.  

During this time of searching and experimentation, I had a realisation that shifted my whole approach: a creative's most important asset is their voice. You can change your style, you can change your medium but if you have a consistent voice your work is recognisable.  

Finding my voice and my current style came down to bridging that gap, by combining who I am with what I want to say. In many ways, the colours are a reflection of the upbeat messages I tend to have. I think some of the warmer tones I've chosen to work with are subconsciously derived from my Indian heritage.’ 

This year’s reading guide celebrates diversity, representation & inclusion, with the goal that all children can see themselves reflected in the stories they encounter. What does Free To Be Me mean to you?

‘Free To Be Me is such an important and personal message for me.

Growing up, I wanted to fit in. Being a 90's kid, it was the era of hip-hop and even though I had no real exposure or appreciation for the genre, at the encouragement of the cool kids in school, I took to shaving my head and stealing my Dad's t-shirts to look like 2Pac the rapper.

I was living someone else's idea of me, which left me insecure and ever-swayed by the words of others. Only when I went on exchange in Australia did I realise that unless I chose to embrace what was unique about me, I would always live in the shadow of other people's expectations.

When I returned to school I embraced my weird side and earned the nickname ‘Whacko Chacko’ for the quirky clothes I wore. Today, my brand's tag line is “Be True, Be You.” To me, it fits perfectly with the message of Free to Be Me.’

The Making of Free To Be Me: Ashwin Chacko shares his process

The artwork for Free To Be Me tells a story of finding joy and affirmation in our differences. Can you talk us a little through your creative process for the project?  

‘When it comes to any project, the storytelling aspect is the most important for me. Once I spoke with Children's Books Ireland about what they were looking for, I began to picture a narrative in my head that I translated into sketches. I then developed rough drafts of the characters I had imagined for this story and brought them to the team for approval. 

When they gave me the thumbs up, I was able to delve into colours and then it was just a matter of adding the finishing touches. Since the introduction of the iPad Pro, I now primarily work digitally, switching between use of the Procreate and Adobe creative suites.’ 

Where next for you and your brand? Tell us about your upcoming projects and plans!   

‘As for the future, I hope to continue to create more stories, told through many mediums. Books, t-shirts, murals, packaging – the list goes on. I also want to continue holding talks and workshops to encourage creatives on their own journey.  

My latest children book, A Little Book about Justice, was launched in August and I'm also working on a new book with The O'Brien Press, which will be announced soon.’  

Free To Be Me: The Diversity, Inclusion and Representation Reading Guide is available to download for free here

An accessible edition of the guide can be found here

Find more of Ashwin's work on his website www.whackochacko.com, or follow him on Instagram @whackochacko