IN CONVERSATION WITH SOPHY HENN
Sophy Henn is the amazing author and illustrator behind a whole host of beautifully designed children’s books. She was the first person to have been chosen as the World Book Day Illustrator back-to-back in 2015/16 and is just about to publish the second book in her Bad Nana series, All the Fun of the Fair.
I was given the opportunity to talk with the incredibly lovely Sophy ahead of her new release about her creative inspirations, designing processes and upcoming projects!
So, I guess we should probably start from the beginning and work our way up to what you’re working on now – So, what was it that first got you into illustration?
Well, my dad was an art teacher his whole life, so I’ve always been surrounded by a lot of imagery and image making. And during my degree – I did fashion and communication – my fashion skills were appalling, I was never headed in that direction, but I did some illustration when I was on the course and I really fell in love with it.
After that, I accidentally ended up working in advertising, working with illustrators and being very aware of the illustrating going on around me and how it was being used. So, I guess it’s always been there for me – then in the form of what I do now, it came from reading Lauren Child’s book, Charlie and Lola, and I just thought it was a really exciting use of illustration in children's books. Not that it hasn’t been exciting before, but it just struck me that the way she was using it was very fresh and new. It inspired me to dare to have a go.
In terms of progression, was there much of a bridge going from working in advertising to were you are now?
Well there was one pivotal moment – having my daughter, Missy! That was when I stopped working in advertising. And I had a greetings card company for a few years, working with places like Paperchase and Oliver Bonas, and it’s that that got me back into illustrating and drawing. It was creating the characters and imagery for the cards that really got me.
It was also a manageable thing that I could effectively run from the spare room and I could manage around being a mum. I loved it because it was such a great creative outlet where you can create a standalone image. As much as I love the sequential illustration, creating those powerful standalone images is such fun! So, I suppose that combined with reading Charlie and Lola with my daughter was what propelled me forwards into children’s writing and illustration.
From what I’ve seen, your illustrations look incredible. They’re so vibrant and colourful! What kind of things have influenced you when you’re creating?
Well, when I did my first book, Where Bear?, that was definitely influenced by those sort of mid-century picture books with muted palettes. Whereas, things like Bad Nana – I suppose it’s when you’re trying to convey a mood – she’s quite anarchic so the neon colours were influenced by things like the Sex Pistols album cover classic ‘Never Mind the Bollocks.’ Having that real anarchic feel with the really vibrant colours, and then the real punchy black and white.
Then when I was doing my MA in sequential illustration - just before I took the plunge into trying to be a children's book creator – I created a comic. Quite a lot of my characters have since come from that comic, Bad Nana being one of them.
So, there are so many influences, but the colours come from the sense of trying to convey a mood. Gentler stories have gentler colours whereas funnier, punchier stories have the punchier colours.
And how do you decide where to position things?
I guess it’s fairly instinctive as to the positioning of things. I’m one of those people where I try not to analyse too much, I’m worried that if I do, I’ll overthink it. And I do sometimes just have that moment where I think I need to stop and step back, otherwise you’re just going to carry on tinkering with it forever and probably ruin it.
I’m very lucky where I get to work with other people, like my exceptional Art Director, who I work with for nearly all my books. They are very good at telling me to stop!
What kind of creative process do you go through when you’re creating a book like Bad Nana?
I hand draw everything. I have different processes for my picture books and my non-fiction like Bad Nana. For Bad Nana, first I hand draw it all in ink and then – and apparently, I’m the last remaining person in publishing to do this – I use Adobe Illustrator to scan everything in before I do my version of separating the colours. I almost put it together like a silk screen, which I think is a nod to my dad whose heart is in printmaking.
I would love to hand print every single book, that would be the dream. Not that I'm good enough; I’d get my dad to help, but there’s no time for that. I feel like I have to create my own result digitally because of the changes needed after you get proofs back. I always find it too stressful to recreate that whole image again by hand. So, there’s a real mixture. The best description would probably be that I cobble it all together to get the result I want in the end.
Where do you do all your work? Do you have an ideal kind of environment to work in?
I do tend to do most of my work in my spare room. If I'm telling my children or if I feel fancy, I call it my studio. But when I’m feeling honest I’ll call it my spare room. I do most of my work there purely for practical reasons since I've got everything I need.
But it’s funny, when I'm writing I can't have anything like music or the radio on in the background, whereas when I'm drawing, if I don’t have something, I get so easily distracted. I go through a lot of audio books – I love an Agatha Christie murder mystery while I’m working away! But that’s kind of it, and good lighting of course. And lots of tea.
When it comes to creating a new book, which do you tend to start with out of the writing and illustration?
It’s such a mixture. I think with an established character like Bad Nana, it has to start with the writing. Although, I could start with an image that I want a story to contain, so I might write around that, but I will always be writing it first.
If it’s a whole new idea like a new picture book, I could start with the story, with the sentiment, or I could start with the character – there are no rules there. They’re so intertwined for me. But whenever I'm writing, I find it very odd if I don’t have a picture in my head.
Which of the two do you think is more challenging? Because I imagine writing for children might be a lot more difficult than people might think.
Having banged my head against a brick wall trying to do it a lot, I think it is – I hope I’m not alone there!
The thing with writing for children is, first, they’re nobody’s fools. They won't stick out of the end of a book they don’t like. You’ve got to really make that impact. No words can be wasted, and no words can be out of place. It will literally stick out like a sore thumb. And you’ve got such a short amount of time to convey a fulfilling story, which is more challenging than you might think.
It’s always a surprise to me when people describe me as an author since I come from the visual side of things. While I've always loved reading and writing, it’s one of those things where you just think – oh, are you talking about me there?
Where do you find inspiration for a story? Does it come from your own personal experiences or is it more just like a message you want to get across?
It comes back to my daughter; her and her friends when they come around for tea or birthday parties – things like that. I keep noticing little characteristics and I draw from those.
I think an empowering or reassuring message is often at the heart of everything I write. The main thing I want to do is empower children.
Bad Nana originally came from a comic that I made as an alternative for the Key Stage 1 / 2 girl. When I went comic shopping with my daughter, I found everything was pink and, while I love pink, it was all very based on how girls should look, what they should buy, things like that. I just thought it was fun and comforting to see an older woman who’s not sitting there meekly knitting, but to see her out there living life and doesn’t care what people think!
I think there's a big gap between girls being silly and older women being silly. There’s a lot of grandpas out there doing it, but not so many people out there that are for young girls to look up to. And that was the idea behind Bad Nana – that and my retirement plan!
You were the World Book Day Illustrator back-to-back for 2015/16, an incredible achievement! Could you tell us more about that? Did it open up any other opportunities for you?
I’m so grateful that I got to do that and work with their team, the reach and scope that it creates and generates is amazing. It got my work out there in every bookshop and school. I’m not sure outside of the industry how many people made the connection between my books and the illustrations on the poster, but that was not part of it for me. For me, it was about just being part of this amazing event that just gets bigger and bigger and connects so many kids with books.
As a children’s author and illustrator, what has been your most rewarding moment so far?
Illustrating and writing are quite solitary pursuits – just me, my audio books and the dogs snoring, that’s it. And then, suddenly, when a book comes out you’re thrust into this world of wonderful literary festivals and school events. And when you’re out there reading your stories to children and you know that everyone’s listening and they’re really connecting with it, I think that’s the most rewarding thing.
That and there have been lots of nanas who bring their grandchildren to book signings and, as I’m sitting there signing the books, they say, “you know… I’m a bad nana.” So, that’s pretty awesome! I’m quite happy that there’s an army of nanas slowly forming.
The second book in the Bad Nana series has only just released, but have you got anything else planned beyond that?
I’ve actually just finished book three! It’s called That’s Snow Business and should be coming out in October.
I’ve also been doing lots of other children’s books as well, and I’m about to go off and do lots of events for the next month or so, including heading to Dollywood which I’m very excited about!
The things you find yourself doing that you never imagined!
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us Sophy!