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Illustrating Kids’ Books with Suzanne Houghton

If you’re illustrating picture books, you’re responsible for telling half the story – without words. It’s a tough gig but one that Suzanne Houghton does with style, and a grand dose of humour.

“I walk around with a head full of ideas and a sketchbook full of characters. And I spend most of my time colouring in.”

Apart from illustrating kids’ books, Suzanne also creates gorgeous watercolour prints and keeps busy with multiple exciting projects, including writing her own picture books.

Suzanne has generously shared her illustrating process and the places she finds inspiration for her beautiful artwork.

Where do you get your inspiration and ideas, for your illustrations?

When I am illustrating for other people, the ideas come largely from the words I’m given, but I always try to think of what else I can add to the story and especially what jokes I can add. (Even if only I’m the only one who thinks they are funny.)

You may be presented with a simple sentence:

The elephant was driving a car.

The fun comes in deciding what sort of car.

Maybe it’s a tiny mini with the elephant squeezed in super tight. His arms are sticking out the windows and he’s almost making the tyres burst.

Or – is he driving a super shiny sports car with the top down, making his ears and trunk wave about in the wind?

This is the part of my job I love the most.

When it comes to my own work, I can get ideas from anywhere. Often it’s something I see or hear. Or something my kids say. Sometimes, a story begins as an image. Or it might start with words or just an idea. Even a book title can bring inspiration.

Sometimes I write the story first. Other times I will draw my characters first and discover a story when I get to know them a little better. It never happens the same way twice.

Do you have any tips for students who might be struggling with the blank page?

When I am truly stuck, I find it always helps to start with a character first. Ask yourself some questions:

  • Am I a human or animal?
  • Where do I live?
  • Do I live on earth? Where?
  • How old am I?
  • Do I have a job?

Once you start thinking about your character, you will find your imagination will take you in all kinds of directions.

Then, when you know your character, you can decide what season it is, what sort of clothes she wears (if any)…the list is endless. 

As you start asking questions, your page doesn’t stay blank for long.

This is exactly how I begin a book written by someone else. I get to know the main character by drawing up some test sketches until I feel that I’ve captured them just right. Once I have that, it’s a lot easier to place them into the different scenes throughout the book. I do the same process with secondary characters in a story as well.

Which of your books is your absolute favourite? Why?

My favourite is always the one I am working on at the moment. Maybe that’s because I am so involved with the characters and all the fun of bringing them to life.

Though, I do have a soft spot for my new book, There’s a Shark in the Loo. I think it’s super funny.

Which of your characters is your favourite? Why?

Definitely the shark from There’s a Shark in the Loo.

One of my favourite movies is Little Shop of Horrors. The whole time I was drawing Seymour, as I call him, I was just thinking about the people-eating plant from that movie. Also, I was constantly humming the Jaws theme. The whole process of making that book was a hoot.

When you think about children reading your books, how does this make you feel? What do you want their ‘take-aways’ to be?

I just love the idea of kids reading my books. Knowing I have played a small part in someone else’s life is wonderful.

There’s only one thing I want kids to take away from my books ~ I want them to laugh. Humour is the most important thing to me and if kids aren’t finding me funny, I haven’t done my job properly.

Find out more about Suzanne by visiting her website – make sure you check out her illustration portfolio while you’re there, and get in touch with her if you’d like to book her for a school visit. You can also find Suzanne on Facebook and Instagram.

Picture books aren’t just for the early years of school – in fact, older students are likely to be more engaged and more capable of investigating the story told by illustration. If you’d like to know more, or want to organise a workshop to explore this with your students, contact Kellie to see how she can help.

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