Map process: Amira and Hamza

Photo pinched from Samira Ahmed. Cover illustrated by Kim Ekdahl and designed by Karina Granda

Very soon I will be posting an interview with Samira Ahmed herself, author of (among other things!) Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds, and with Karina Granda, the wonderful art director. But first: the process behind this slightly unusual map.

You see, this was not a map of a small part of a world, or even just of one world. The adventures of Amira and Hamza take them not only from Chicago to the Himalayas, but then through many, many interconnected tiny worlds (tilisms), joined to each other by somewhat-metaphysical, but physically navigable, coils. And I had to fit this all on the usual double-page space allowed for a more traditional map.

I started by sketching through the book, drawing notes to myself of descriptions, geographies, references, creatures, beings, and dumpsters, and noting key descriptions, and testing out how to create certain effects (e.g. buildings of gold) when the final drawing would be in black lines.

But as I drew, I puzzled about the shape of the world — whether to draw the tilisms floating in space (but then what about Chicago?), or as a chart? Or a board game?

It was interesting to have to think about the purpose of a map like this. Not for traditional navigation, to be sure, but to create a physical representation of something that shouldn’t be possible, and to give a sense not only of the place(s) in which a story happens, and the beings you might meet along the way, but also the feeling of it: busy and ornate, full of life and wonder and danger and good advice. (Some previous thoughts on maps.)

However, as the book begins with a visit to an astronomy exhibition, and involves some significant lunar events, I started digging into beautiful old charts of the stars and planets (here are a few sketches), and that’s where I found the answer.

Down at the bottom is the tiniest drawing of a figure as a game piece — that was for one of the board-game approaches.

I suggested using an astrolabe as the base for the map’s design: the slightly offset rings could represent the different worlds, with clear boundaries between them, and plenty of room for decoration and the potential for movement. And the curving, vine-like overlays of an astrolabe would be a perfect guide for the coils connecting the worlds. (Also, I enjoy industrial fabulism.)

Here’s just one of the examples:

Mamluk-era astrolabe, 1282, Photo: Mustafa-trit20 CC CC BY-SA 4.0

So I sketched the layout accordingly, taking a rectangular slice of a hypothetical astrolabe. This created the rather rare situation of making it pretty clear where on the page just about everything needed to go. I did not have to consider, for example, the likely paths of watercourses, or the change in types of trees over an area, or puzzle out the relative distances alluded to in the novel.

And it was a lot of fun dealing with miniature geographies — both those requiring plausibly-deniable accuracy and those heavily invented (but still guided by existing imagery). I’ve written before about the appeal of miniature groves, and that fascination fed into the map, too.

Once this concept had been approved by all concerned (art director, author, editor), I then drew an arrangement of circles on the computer to use as guidelines.

I make no secret that I don’t do straight lines or accurate geometries in my art. But I’ll sometimes rule lines up to function as a template around which I can work. These usually are softened and obscured by layers of sketches and changes, and I don’t mind if my own drawings are inaccurate, but at least the suggestion of a nod in the direction of plausibility lingers.

Using those lines and the sketch as a a base, I then developed the more detailed pencils for the map. You can just see the greyed-out circle guidelines.

I hand-lettered the place names in my own loopy writing on a separate piece of paper. But this quick placement of lettering makes sure that I (a) allow enough room for the words and (b) don’t put important details in places that will be hidden by labels. (I drew the lettering and scrolls separately so that the publisher can easily move them around / edit text / translate it.)

The grey band down the centre of the page above is to stop me putting important details where they could vanish into the spine.

Then I scan the pencil sketch in again, darken it, print it out, put it under nice drawing paper (Canson illustration 250) on the light box, and start inking.

I used a dip pen and Winsor & Newton black ink.

Once I can trick myself into starting, I love this stage: turning those aspirational little pencil scribbles into final ink drawings, with shadows and movement and personality.

Playing with hatching and texture.

Filling the space between the stars.

Drawing the tiniest dumpsters.

Then I scan and clean the linework, layer in the text, and send it to Karina:

I will post the interviews soon. In the meantime, Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds has been published and is available through all good bookstores!

A few older map posts:

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account ( and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.

3 thoughts on “Map process: Amira and Hamza

  1. Pingback: Amira & Hamza — An interview with Samira Ahmed! | Kathleen Jennings

  2. Pingback: On getting maps into books: An interview with Karina Granda | Kathleen Jennings

  3. Pingback: October 2021 — round up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

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