This month's Featured Illustrator is Emily House. She is originally from England and is now based in Cape Town, South Africa. Emily has three traditionally published author-illustrated children's books and is the Illustrator Coordinator of SCBWI in South Africa.

During my childhood I spent many an hour cocooned in my bedroom using dried-out felt-tips, crayons and coloured pencils to concoct penny-sweet-fuelled creations on scrap paper my dad had brought back from his office. Quite often they were birthday cards for family, (I have five siblings so that alone kept me busy), and sometimes they were mini-illustrated stories which I folded, hole-punched and secured with treasury tags, (more supplies sponsored by Dad’s office!).   


Dummy book drawn with coloured pencils

There was a bookcase in the hallway outside my bedroom door stuffed with picture books and some of my favourites were Peepo! By Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Dogger by Shirley Hughes and The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr – mainly because Sophie got to go out for supper in her PJs! I remember having dreams of being a children’s book illustrator.

 An illustration I made on work experience with a local artist at 14 years of age

However, when I finished school, my practical brain just couldn’t envisage how I would go about earning a reliable income from my art! So, after completing my A-levels, I jumped straight into the world of broadcasting, learning on the job and working my way up to become a video editor for television. 

Over the years I became freelance and branched out into graphic design, branding and copy writing. I even did a few seasons as the creative producer for an outdoor music venue. Along the way I met my husband, had two kids and, when they were both toddlers, we moved out to South Africa for a year. That was 14 years ago, and we are still here!

Looking back, I can see that all my career choices have been driven by a passion for storytelling and a need to express my creativity – but it wasn’t until an epiphany moment just a few years ago that I remembered my childhood publishing dreams. 

By then my children were teenagers and I had a bit more time on my hands so I decided to start experimenting with both writing and drawing. I borrowed my husband’s iPad, invested in an Apple Pencil and began messing around with Procreate. I loved Procreate’s versatility and the fact it felt close to creating in an analogue fashion but with the digital benefits of the ‘undo’ button.

Working on iPad

Once I’d created a few sample illustrations to accompany my first story I began to research what my next steps should be. SCBWI popped up at the top of my Google search and it didn’t take me long to discover that the South African chapter was meeting just 10 minutes down the road that coming Saturday. 

I went to that meeting and I am so glad I did because that’s where I found my tribe – a welcoming group of fellow creatives and picture book geeks at various stages in their careers. I signed up to become a member immediately and from then on had access to the support and resources I needed to pursue publication. Thanks, SCBWI!

The first illustration I made for Bonbon and Blanket

Bonbon and Blanket, (also known as Bailey and Blanket), was the very first story I wrote and my first story signed by a publisher but another book, Earth Takes a Break, pipped it to the post in terms of being published first. As with many things we have the pandemic to thank for that! Bonbon and Blanket was already in development before Covid 19 arrived, however, the story for Earth Takes a Break was lockdown inspired. 

The story came to me during one of my many sleepless nights. Two weeks later I’d drawn all the illustrations, (I don’t recommend this if you want to take care of your wrist or your sanity), and I decided self-publishing would get the story out into the world whilst it was most pertinent. Originally I was just going to publish the story as an e-book but my friend encouraged me to crowdfund enough for a print run and I am so glad she pushed me into it! 

It was an amazing but intense time. I self-published the book in South Africa and the UK but since then the title has gone on to be traditionally published in both the USA and Korea. Proof that, although it’s not common, self-published titles can become traditionally published too.

Receiving the first print run of Earth Takes a Break

I now have three traditionally author-illustrated picture books published in various countries and another one in development slated for 2024. I love the thought of little readers across the globe enjoying a story that I dreamt up at my desk in Cape Town and I can’t quite believe I have the privilege of realising my childhood dream.

My three book babies!

Aside from my own titles I illustrate for other authors too – both in the traditional and self-publishing space. Each project offers something unique and I enjoy the variety. I especially like the collaborative effort of bringing a book together. Working as an illustrator can be very lonely at times and there is something magical that happens when the visions of author, illustrator, editor and art director combine.

Although my path to publishing was indirect to say the least, I believe all the skills I’ve picked up along the way have equipped me and informed how I create. I’ve found my graphic design knowledge particularly beneficial and all-in-all I am grateful to have taken the ‘scenic route’. 

Of course when it comes to illustration I still feel very much like a newbie. I’ve only been illustrating professionally for a few years and feel like I still have so much to learn. Luckily I love learning! Every day’s a school day – right?! 

I love getting feedback, taking workshops, trying out new things and hope that I am improving a little as I go. I am trying to teach myself to spend more time playing and experimenting before attempting to execute anything final. Although I draw digitally I am a big fan of texture and try to keep my illustrations looking organic wherever possible.

My workspace isn’t anything fancy, (sorry Instagram). It’s mainly lots of bookshelves and storage but I do have two desks – one for drawing at and an electric standing desk for my computer. It was quite a splurge but so worth it! The flexibility of drawing on an iPad means I tend to work wherever the mood takes me and often follow the sun around the house, (like my cat!). If I ever have creative block I find that nature is the best tonic.

The stunning beauty of the Table Mountain National Park never fails to inspire me and I am lucky enough to have it right on my doorstep.

Gallery of illustrations

*All images: Emily House


See Emily's Portfolio

Follow Emily on Instagram


Ell Rose is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures.
Find their work at fourfooteleven.com 
Follow them on Instagram and Twitter
Contact them at illustrators@britishscbwi.org


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