This month's Featured Illustrator is Sophie GilmoreSophie is a half-kiwi-half-Scottish author and illustrator of picture books who lives on a "rather narrow" boat in London. Her beautiful watercolour and pen illustrations usually include a handful of friends generally getting up to some mischief or other.

I had two very different childhoods — one happily grubbing around barefoot in King Country, New Zealand and the other in Scotland, where there were duffle coats and midnight masses and cans of Irn-Bru. Books featured heavily in both places and I’d revisit my favourites over and over again; later on, it was often to the detriment of schoolwork. I remember loving, and still do love, Jules Feiffer’s scratchy and expressive pen work for The Phantom Tollbooth; and Arnold Lobel’s beautiful illustrations for his clever and funny Owl at Home book of stories. I wanted to illustrate books way before I learned the term ‘illustration’ and never really strayed too far from that path. 

In New Zealand we had an ever-rotating menagerie and were generally surrounded by critters. If mum was reading to us and came across something like ‘and along came the horrible spider’, she would change it to ‘the lovely spider’ or ‘the clever spider’. I loved to stalk and catch cicadas and was shocked when a mouse I’d trapped climbed up its own tail to bite me on the hand! I’d been so sure our next step was firm friendship. 

I’ve lived on a boat in London for over 10 years now and one of the things I love most about the life is how it delivers more little menagerie moments; there is an elegant grey heron who frequents the mooring and a family of swans who float menacingly outside our side-hatch, judging us while we cook. Sometimes terrapins sun themselves on the ropes. 

High school wasn’t my favourite and Art as a subject had left me indifferent, so once it was all over I felt pretty aimless. After a couple of lost years I did a foundation year at a college to build a portfolio and applied to Edinburgh College of Art. At ECA I got into etching and drypoint after seeing some of Kiki Smith’s work in a show. There was an uncertainty to the entire process that was thrilling, but by the end I had settled into watercolour and pen, they were just more accessible as materials, and I still use them.

I came out the other side of college with a style that felt enough like my own and rolled with that for a few years; drawing by day, doing hospitality jobs by night. I started to write the beginnings of stories. There were small commissions here and there, occasional print and card sales and, as ever, dreams of illustrating books without ever taking the step of actually showing anyone my work, (I'm still very bad at this).

Eventually I knocked on the door of some UK-based illustration agencies but didn’t hear anything. About a year or so later someone put me in touch with Jen Rofé at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency in the US — and we signed! I sent her the story and some pages for Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast, which I’d been working on, and we put together a dummy to send out.

This is one of the pages I initially sent to Jen. 

There followed a flurry of gentle rejections that nevertheless had me crying into my tea, before the wonderful Owlkids came in with a ‘yes’. They were terrific to work with – encouraging and kind – and together we made a book we could be really proud of. Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast was inspired by my zoologist brother-in-law and his tales from North Queensland where he was tracking and recording big saltwater crocs. He even took a copy to them once it was published. I hope they feel I treated them with sufficient respect. 

Since then I’ve made Freda and the Blue Beetle (Owlkids 2020), Terrific! (Greenwillow 2021) and The Sea in the Way, also Greenwillow, publishes later this year. I hope that each book has something out-of-the-ordinary about it. A woman once reached out to say her daughter enjoyed my books and described her as a ‘delightful oddball’. That felt precisely who I make books for.


This feels like such a golden age for picture books! Or perhaps we’ve been in one long golden age since picture books began? There are just too too many good ones to highlight here. Books that are outrageously beautiful, or wry, or that confront tricky subjects or push boundaries. Book Island, Gecko Press and Owlkids have been publishing some brilliant stuff of late: The Garden of Inside-Outside by Chiara Mezzalama, The Sour Cherry Tree by Naseem Hrab and Nahid Kazemi and The Kiosk by Anete Melece have been recent highlights. Anything by Clothilde Perrin, Beatrice Alemagna, Oge Mora or Rahele Jomepour Bell is exciting to me. Each new work of theirs is so joyful, or playful or mysterious and strange. The O’Hara sisters are making books that feel like a frost-nipped, folk-tale renaissance. Oh, and Qin Leng, whose illustrations are so full of mischief and movement! 

I'm not sure I'm qualified to give any advice, I truly still feel as though I'm winging it. But I would say, don't beat yourself up over paths taken that didn't lead anywhere. It's all part of your own rich tapestry. Oh, and show people your work!

*All images: Sophie Gilmore

See more of Sophie's work here. Follow her on Instagram and on Twitter.

See previous Featured Illustrators on our Showcase Gallery


Tita Berredo is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures. You can contact her at illustrators@britishscbwi.org. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter or find her work at www.titaberredo.com

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely article about the wonderful Sophie Gilmore. I love her work and it's great to see it being showcased. Thanks wordsandpics.


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