Author and illustrator Sophy Henn gives us a fascinating insight into her inspiration and the process of putting together a picture book. She also tells us about a few of her favourite things, including pandas, poster art and pink
My most vivid childhood memory is the Christmas I got a peppermint scented hula-hoop. It had pink and white stripes and I had wanted one for ages. Santa used to leave quite fantastic displays of presents in the corner of my bedroom and I remember waking up in the middle of the night and seeing it all glistening there. I could hardly bear it and tried and tried to get back to sleep, to no avail. I think I went into my Mum and Dad’s room in the end. The next day I only stopped hula-ing to eat dinner. I was pretty good!
The first book I remember really loving was Cops and Robbers by Janet and Allen Ahlberg. I loved all the detail in the illustrations and the little visual gags tucked away for readers to hunt out. The maisophy henn sophy henn at n characters scandalous behaviour was very exciting! I also think the rhyme and repetition really added to the fun of it, “Ho! Ho!”
After that it was Milly Molly Mandy which is like a lovely, cosy, hand knitted (probably by Muvver) blanket. I dreamed of having days like hers, surrounded by her nearest and dearest. And there was a map at the front of the book. Who doesn’t love a map at the front of book? After that, it was detective stories all the way. I longed to stumble across some smugglers or a stolen race horse like the Secret Seven always seemed to. Sadly not!
Inspiration for my books can come from anywhere. Pom Pom was inspired by real-life events!!! A very lovely and sweet little girl was having a bit of a moment and stomping around the house, telling everyone to “Go away!” She was very persistent and eventually everyone did. As soon as she realised she had succeeded, she got a bit worried and a bit sad.
I found this incredibly endearing and a little bit funny, and the idea of Pom Pom Gets the Grumps came from that. It really reminded me how tough it is to be a toddler, with all those new emotions and situations you have to try and fathom out all the time. And if I’m honest, I want to hurl myself on the floor and yell after twenty minutes in the supermarket, but as a ‘grown up’ I mask it and carry on to the biscuit aisle!
Sometimes characters pop out of my head and into my sketchbook with the hint of a story about them and it’s up to me to try and winkle it out of them
That’s what happened with Where Bear? I absentmindedly painted a polar bear in a dark wood and he looked a bit lost. Suddenly, I began to wonder: where was he supposed to be?
My books so far have all depicted animals rather than humans Where Bear? had to feature a bear really or I’m sure there would have been complaints! Pom Pom became a panda as I didn’t want to give these toddler moments a specific gender, so everyone can relate. Although it transpires Pom Pom is a boy, I don’t know why, he just is! But as he is more obviously a panda, I think you look past the gender and focus on what he is doing, feeling and saying, which was my aim.
I love animals, all of them To the point where my friends tease me about it. I have a dog and have had all kinds of pets in the past. I would really like some guinea pigs. They are so sweet, funny and I love their slightly goofy teeth. And then I wouldn’t need to google ‘guinea pig in a sombrero’ any more as I could have my own ( do it, they are joyous).
I loves pandas. I have been known to watch pandas on a slide and love the way they just keep slipping down the slide into each other, rolling around and not being bothered about it at all. They just seem so docile and chilled out. The opposite of the little character I was considering for my book and that contradiction struck me as funny so Pom Pom the Panda was born. Plus I really like drawing them. The monotone is fun to use with lots of nice colours around it, so that’s a bonus!
My favourite colour changes all the time. At the moment it is a warm, pale pink largely inspired by my recent favourite purchase, a pink coat. Which was in turn inspired by a pink coat that a wonderful designer I was working with wore to a meeting. My favourite colour before that was a lovely mustard yellow and I have no idea what that was inspired by, certainly not any clothing I own as I can’t wear yellow. But I really enjoyed using it in illustrations, maybe with a bit of pink alongside it.
I’m a fan of American graphic designer and film-maker Saul Bass. He was a genius at leaving stuff out and that is something I am really interested in. Paring back design, words and imagery but losing none of the detail is such an art and Saul Bass was a master at it. People often make the mistake of looking at something very simple and making the assumption it was just slung together in no time, but really that can be the hardest thing to achieve. There is nowhere to hide when there is very little on the page, so what’s there had better be right.
I also love Wes Anderson, who has to be described as an artist. The worlds he creates and the way he shows them to us is done in such a meticulous, detailed and unique way. And I love his colour palettes! I am not alone, there is a tumblr account dedicated to Wes Anderson colour palettes. Whenever I redecorate I fully intend to refer to them!
I admire so many picture book artists. It seems to me that at the moment picture books are being illustrated by such a wonderfully diverse mix of artists, the resulting range of picture books on the shelves are making for a very exciting time. Though I try not to look too carefully at those shelves as there are so many treasures out there it can be rather disconcerting when you are trying to find your spot in amongst it all.
I try to be very disciplined when writing a book. Once I have the idea and key characters, I write the book spread by spread, before I let myself sketch it out. Once everything (or almost everything) is tied down and in place then I start illustrating each spread.
I draw every element by hand and then scan it so I can colour it in and place it digitally. Personally, I find this a good way to work as I can go back into illustrations and alter them if I need to. The down side is I can end up tinkering with a spread for hours, and no one but me would know it had changed in any way!
When your new book is still an idea it is potentially perfect and bursting with possibilities. The best idea you’ve ever had, unrestricted by page numbers, word count and the less glamorous reality of making it actually happen. Marvellous!
I have a real soft spot for Pom Pom I have been asked by a few children if Pom Pom is going to be made into a cuddly toy and the honest answer is I have no idea, but I really, really hope so! I had planned on crocheting one, to tide me over, but I haven’t got round to it yet. I really enjoy designing his home in the books and love vintage dolls’ houses so a Pom Pom play house with mini mid-century furniture would also be a dream come true!
This job is wonderful, I still have to pinch myself that I get to write and illustrate for a living. There have been many unexpected aspects of it, such as the events and festivals, which I now love, although it was initially nerve-wracking sharing a podium with the likes of Allan Ahlberg, Lauren Child and Jeremy Strong.
Working with amazing art directors and editors is a joy. Seeing your work out there, receiving lovely reviews, being World Book Day Illustrator two years running – all AMAZING things to have happened. Unbelievable. But honestly, the very best thing is seeing or hearing that a child likes your book. A mother told me a few weeks ago that her little girl loved Pom Pom so much she tried to climb inside the book. It doesn’t get better than that!
Sophy Henn will be appearing at Bath Children’s Literature Festival on October 2 2015 performing interactive storytelling and make-and-do crafts featuring Pom Pom Panda.