Alison Padley-Woods asks author and illustrator, Tessa Yates, about her Happy Book Company and invites her to share her top tips on drawing animals. 

Author and illustrator Tessa Yates makes beautiful children's books that show young people how to be happy with themselves in today's world. Her work is playful and colourful and full of energy, and she’s at her happiest, she says, ‘when she's outside drawing from life with her magic box of mixed media tricks.’ So, who is this lady who is so happy? 

I asked Tessa to tell us about her work, The Happy Book Company and to share with us some of her top tips on drawing animals.

Alison: Can you tell us about how you got into illustration?

Tessa: I’ve always enjoyed drawing and crafting things out of paper. When I was 7, I made comics for my Dad to photocopy at work so I could share them with my friends. But I was very academic at school so I left the art behind and became an accountant(!), and then a school teacher. Although I enjoyed teaching, I yearned for that creativity I enjoyed as a child, so, 4 years ago, I decided to start making children’s books instead.

Alison: How did The Happy Book Company come about?

Tessa: My Dad died, and I needed some help dealing with it so I went to a happiness workshop in Peru. It was at this workshop that I decided to start living my life with my happiness as the priority. The teacher asked what I liked doing when I was young, and I lit up when I remembered about the comics and little paper projects. The Happy Book Company was born a few months later when I was looking for an identity as an illustrator. I knew I wanted to make books about my own experiences in choosing happiness, and, calling myself a company, proved a great way to feel legitimate as a creative business.

Alison: During lockdown, you created a lovely book about a giraffe, Geoffrey Finds a Bike. Do animals inspire your work and why do you think animals work so well in children’s stories?

Tessa: I started making  Geoffrey Finds A Bike, in my first year as an illustrator. In a class, run by Sean Julian, he invited us to draw animals on vehicles. I tried a few different ones (dogs on roller skates, penguins driving cars) but Sean pointed at the bicycle mounted giraffe in my sketchbook and said, ‘That’s funny.’ So I ran (or cycled?) with it.

Geoffrey Rides a Bike
by Tessa Yates

Illustrating animals is more fun because there are no rules or social norms, and this creates instant humour. Jon Klassen is the master of this. My husband does amazing animal impressions. They make me laugh so much because they’re so expressive and over the top, and I think that’s what makes a great picture book character. And using animals allows me to deal with heavier human emotions in a light-hearted way that's suitable and relatable to children.

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen,
 published by Candlewick Press, 2011

Alison: I see you run illustration workshops. Can you tell us about them?

Tessa: I LOVE running workshops! It’s hands down my favourite thing to do because it’s so wonderful to share my creative joy with other picture-making enthusiasts. Illustration can be a lone profession, so it’s really great to get out into the world and create things together with others.

I run workshops for kids and for adults. Working with children is fantastic as they’re not self-conscious about their art. They’re very bold and imaginative and it’s so inspiring to see what they come up with. I’ve seen kids draw lunchboxes that come to life, bird dolphins, and people that live in rabbit warrens. I love how they don’t have a filter on what is possible. People are definitely at their most creative at 5 or 6 years old.

I am also launching a Drink and Draw (for grown-ups) in Bath next month, which will be super fun! We’ll be playing silly drawing games based on the work of a different famous artist each month – drawing and learning, whilst drinking. I’m very excited.

Teaching other people how to convey their ideas and stories with pictures also shows me how much I’ve learned about creative processes. I see how so much of creativity is trusting the process, which is such a great metaphor for life and really helps me in choosing happiness when embarking on new adventures, like being a children’s book illustrator.

Alison: What tools/medium do you particularly like working with and what practical tips and guidance on drawing animals can you share with us?

Tessa: Most animals move a lot, so I like working with media that allows me to capture their animated nature. When I made Squirrel And The Three Bears, I used chalk pastels as they allowed me to show the swooshing of squirrel and bear fur very nicely. 

Illustrations from Squirrel and the Three Bears, 
by Tessa Yates

For Geoffrey Finds A Bike, I used gouache paint as showing the brush marks on the giraffes gave them an added sense of movement on their bikes. 

Spread from Geoffrey Rides A Bike,
by Tessa Yates

My top tip for drawing animal characters is to go to the zoo and spend a day drawing them from observation. You really pick up on their characteristics, how they hold themselves, and how they react in different situations. It’s also wonderfully entertaining, and the zoo is an absolute treasure trove for new story ideas. 

Alison:  Finally, what projects are you currently working on and is there anything you’d like to share with us?

Tessa: I’m currently taking a MA in Children’s Book Illustration at the Cambridge School of Art so am really enjoying a period of learning and exploration. I’m diving into printmaking for the first time, with a project about wild swimming (another one of my passions). 

I’m also getting ready for some great events, like the Bath Children’s Literature Festival in September 2022, and some summer workshops at The Art Cohort in Bath. And watch this space for the new evolution of The Happy Book Company coming this summer. Get ready for…The Happy Book Lady!

Alison: Thank you Tessa for sharing your work with us and for such an inspiring and positive insight into your world. I'm feeling happier already. 

*Header image, from Geoffrey Rides a Bike by Tessa Yates


Above, Tessa Yates. Find her at: The Happy Book Company  Twitter Instagram


Alison Padley-Woods is Words & Pictures Deputy Illustration Features Editor. Find her at Twitter.  

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