Rachel Ignotofsky is a Los Angeles-based designer and illustrator with a passion for making information accessible and fun. Her work is inspired by history and science. Rachel believes that illustration is a powerful tool that can make learning exciting and she hopes to use her work to spread her message about women in science and also in sport.
“…‘Normal’ is just something we create with our culture. Artists have a lot of control of what ‘normal’ is by creating accessible material like movies, comic books, cartoons, radio podcasts – all of these things. When these stories become accessible, all of a sudden, they become expected…”
An illustrated odyssey
I have been drawing since I was a little kid, but what made me want to create the books that I do today is the fact that when I was young I struggled a lot with reading and it was so bad that I was tested for having learning disorders. I was put on slow track for reading and a lot of it had to do with the fact that as a kid I had exotropia, which is a fancy way of saying I had a lazy eye, and it made it actually physically hurt to read big pieces of text.
Then I discovered cartoons, as well as heavily illustrated books and comic books. I started to connect with material and reading books with content that was way higher than elementary school but was all illustrated. I got all the classics illustrated, as well as books about science and history. It was an illustrated odyssey!
So, now as an adult I try to create books that are as illustrated and whimsical and packed full of information as the books that inspired my level of learning as a child.
Time management is key
I am like the queen of calendars because with these large projects you could just feel like you are swimming in a big ocean, especially when your deadlines may be nine months away. So, to manage my time I have three different paper calendars on my wall. I figure out exactly what I need to get done every month, every week, every day to stay on schedule.
Right now, I am in the thick of drawing and illustrating my new book which is all about Planet Earth. The way that my typical day goes is, because I’m a night owl, I wake up in the afternoon, do my stretches, go for a run if I am feeling like being good. At the moment I am in the hard-core drawing stage, so basically, I’m drawing about 12 hours a day to complete the book.
With such large projects the rhythm changes throughout the year. The first half of my year I will be writing and getting my ideas together and then the last three months of the year it is a mad dash to the finish line. It is what I love to do and is completely worth it. I am so happy that I have had a chance to create these beautiful books for everyone.
Celebrating awesome women in science
I have a lot of friends in education and back in 2014, I was talking to a friend who was a maths teacher and he said: “How do I get these young girls in my class interested in maths?”
At this time – around 2014 – all the news in the US was coming out about the US census showing a gender gap that existed within the STEM field. For the first time, people had the statistics and hard evidence to talk about this stuff. The gender gap was – and still is – enormous, especially in engineering.
I complained to my friend that the reason it is so hard to have these young girls see that could go on and become mathematicians and scientists in their careers is there are a lot of girls who want to do it but they have absolutely no female role models, except maybe for Marie Curie. We don’t learn about these stories in school – we don’t learn about them in history class, we don’t learn about them in science class and we don’t have any real accessible material about them.
If they just have more stories, more people that they can see themselves in and even just a better idea of all the different fields that exist earlier on in life, then when it comes to breaking down the gender barriers it becomes much easier because they have cultural stories to lean on.
Why it is vital for boys to read books about the achievement of women, as well as girls
If young boys expect to see more women in the room, they will give more women space to be leaders in that room. It is all about changing expectations through stories and through illustration. That is really what I wanted to do with this book.
I just started doing research and I was overwhelmed with the amount of women who had contributed just as much as Einstein and Tesla, if not more, but for some reason they are not in our culture and they are not who we think of when we think of famous scientists throughout history.
I am hoping books like mine can help change that for young kids so they never know a world does not have these women at their fingertips. ‘Normal’ is just something we create with our culture. Artists have a lot of control of what ‘normal’ is by creating accessible material like movies, comic books, cartoons, radio podcasts – all of these things. When these stories become accessible, all of a sudden, they become expected. That is what we are trying to do for these young kids.
Spreading this message around the world
This is not just something in America or the UK. It is something that we need to talk about globally – women being able to have roles within leadership, roles within careers that help solve our world’s biggest problems.
We are facing tremendous problems in this world. Women make up 50% of the population. We need to make sure that every single young person out there knows that they could be part of the solution and that they could be leaders in creating their solutions.
So far, the book has been translated into 18 different languages, and that includes languages like Farsi and Russian. It has been published in places all over the world where I believe that the fight for gender equality is incredibly important, so I am very excited that these stories are getting out there. I think globally mothers and fathers want these stories to be shared with their children.
My greatest hope for the children who read my books
My biggest hope is that these kids grow up knowing that they can become whatever they want, their gender has no limitation. Also, I think this is especially important for both young girls and boys to be celebrated for the way they learn.
Like I said before, these books are heavily illustrated. Information like this is usually incredibly dense. When the information is broken down and there are kids as young as seven eating it up and talking about complicated subjects like astrophysics and marine biology, the workings of our world.
If you can get kids at a young age to shed that fear of approaching dense science and dense information, that is something that they are going to carry with them for the rest of their life. So, I want to celebrate the way that children learn and make it so young girls and boys feel confident approaching hard topics and learning about our world.
I get so many emails and people come up to me at events saying: “I got this for my child but I ended up learning way more than I thought too!” What is incredibly interesting is that for a lot of parents and kids they merely will read a story at night together. When they read my book, they end up – the kids and the parents – end up having all these questions about the women, about what was going on during history during that time.
They will start looking it up online and end up learning way more about science, but also the suffrage movement, the civil rights movement and World War II, alongside learning about chemistry and biology, so it is very exciting.
From science to sport – celebrating the achievements of women in sport in my second book
I think one of the most basic stereotypes that exists about women is that our bodies are physically inherently weak and what happens when 50% of the population is seen that way.
Throughout history it has given society an excuse not to educate women properly, to not give them roles in leadership, so it is a stereotype that I think is very important that we break down.
We need to give young girls the confidence to know that their bodies are capable and strong and that they themselves are capable and strong. So, what better way to do that than by sharing stories throughout history of women who have climbed Mount Everest, who have bench pressed over 300 pounds, who have won world records, who were told no and refused to be told no and then changed the world through their victories, on a public, national and global stage.
What was really interesting for me as I was researching it was to realise that these women did much more than just win in sport. A lot of these women would go on to gain a global platform and then use that platform for global change, so there are not just athletes in this book: There are athletes / members of parliament; athletes / civil rights leaders; athletes / champions for LGBTQ equality.
So, it is an exciting book that talks about women’s bodies, spaces that they are allowed to inhabit and just the history of sports which I think is fun and interesting in itself.
My new project – super illustrated and super fun
I have a new book coming out, a science book called The Wonders of Working for Planet Earth, and in it we talk about ecosystems all over the world. We talk about their biggest benefits, the greatest threats that endanger those ecosystems and we break down the world of ecology. We talk about the cycling of matter and the flow of energy into our world and what our place in it is for protecting it.
It is all done super illustrated, super fun and just like my other science book – it takes a lot of dense information and breaks it down in a way for kids and adults to learn and understand our planet. There is a Jane Goodall quote that inspired me for this book: “Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, we will help. Only if we help, we shall be saved.” That is what I hope this book does.