You love books but you aren’t sure if working in the book industry is for you? You love writing but you wonder what other opportunities there are? Storyfest is kicking off a new content series: come and take a peek behind the making of a book, and hear from those in the industry first-hand. First up is an interview with an illustrator – or rather, two illustrators! Read on to find out how Kate Isobel Scott and James Foley got started in publishing.

Kate Isobel Scott works in animation and illustration. She grew up in New South Wales, but attended the Falmouth School of Art in England, studying illustration as a way to compensate for her dyslexia. It was here that she found her people and her calling in numerous creative professions. Over the years, she worked in everything from hospitality to more corporate jobs, from set design to animation. However, it wasn’t until Australian author Jacqueline Harvey, her old preschool teacher, reached out to her that she got her first job as a book illustrator. In the years since, the two have formed a dynamic partnership, and together they write and illustrate books published by Penguin Random House Australia.

James Foley
 is a man of many talents: he’s studied journalism, graphic design, primary teaching, and eventually completed a degree in behavioural science. Most recently, however, he’s a full-time writer and illustrator, but it took him years and a lot of practice to get to this point. He credits industry organisations such as the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators for helping him get a foot in the door. Since he first worked on a book in 2009, he has both written and illustrated numerous picture books, middle grade novels and comics for children. His latest picture book, Stellarphant, was shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s 2022 Picture Book of the Year.

Two successful, active book illustrators – two very different career paths. We sat down with Kate and James to pick their brains on what it was like to get started in the book publishing industry, who their inspirations are, and what tips they’d give others wanting to get started in similar roles. 

Let a love of books lead you

When asked what drew each of them to visual storytelling, their answers could not be any more different. James has always known that books as a whole – not just the writing, and not just the pictures – called to him.

“I had always wanted to get into illustrating books, ever since I was in primary school. I remember, we got to do a class project in grade 7 where we had to write and illustrate our own picture books. Ever since then, ever since I won a state award with that book in a competition, it was always something in the back of my head: I've got to do that one day. I’ve got to make books.”

Yet, by his own admission, he developed a weird bias against comics when he was a kid, and it took his friends some convincing to get him to read the Asterix comics that they were all raving about. He read one and he was instantly hooked.

“I never could’ve imagined at that point that I would be making my own graphic novels later in life.

“But it wasn't until 10 years out of high school that I got my first foot in the door. I went to a Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference in Perth, and it was there that I first met editors and published authors and illustrators. One of the authors there liked my samples and suggested we try and work on a picture book together. And we did. We submitted it to his publisher, Fremantle Press, in 2009, and they said, ‘yeah, we like the idea.’ So that was it. That was my foot in the door.”

TIP FROM JAMES: If you are starting out, it’s a great idea to research and join relevant organisations, whether they’re local or international. Making connections is really the first building block of any career!

While it may sound like overnight success, it was far from it. In the years between grade 7 and getting his illustrations into print, James worked tirelessly at perfecting his craft: first his illustrations, and then his writing. Even his studies into journalism, graphic design, and primary teaching taught him so much that he could then use in his subsequent career as a children's book writer and illustrator. Not least of which was his immersion in different forms of storytelling.

As James suggests, whether you want to get into writing or illustrating, you have to read a lot.

“You have to read all sorts of things – not just comics and graphic novels and picture books, but novels too. Then particularly with illustration, I find it's really inspiring to watch a lot of film and TV, because they are also visual narratives and you can learn so much about illustration from looking at film and TV. Things like layout and composition, costume design, lighting, camera techniques, pacing, all that sort of stuff. So read and watch TV – those two are really big, inspiring things.”

Over his career, James has developed his own style, but he still loves putting pen to paper.

“I love pen and ink, I love using watercolours and charcoal. Although these days, usually because of deadlines and for simplicity's sake, I'm mostly using digital. Like hand-drawing, it's still got that immediacy to it. However, if you're working digitally, there can be a temptation to make things too perfect. For me, there's nothing worse than seeing illustrations in a final picture book that look kind of shiny and too perfect. I don't think that that kind of perfection adds anything, so I try to steer clear of that style.”

Today, James works across a variety of projects, and he enjoys the process just as much as he did in grade 7. 

TIP FROM JAMES: Don't be in too much of a hurry to get published. Just make sure that you keep practising and improving your work as much as you can, and make sure that you're having fun with it. There's no point in bashing your head against a wall trying to improve, but not actually enjoying the process. 

From school drop-out to kids’ book illustrator

Kate had a very different experience, both in and out of school. She didn’t develop a love for books until much later in life, and her journey had taken her to a lot of other roles before she found herself an illustrator.

“I wasn’t very good at school, I really quite hated it. I have strong dyslexia, and because of that I was always typecast as the creative type instead: ‘she’s not very good with words, so she must be great at art.’ As a kid I was eager to impress and I fed off these compliments, so I spent a lot of my time in art class, always drawing, always making something.”

Moving to England at the age of 18 to study illustration at the Falmouth School of Art expanded on Kate’s creative interests. However, upon finishing university she found illustrating to be too isolating.

“I’m generalising here, but illustrators are usually quite introverted and like to stick to themselves. It's quite a solo sport, and I wasn’t ready to work by myself as a freelancer – I wanted to be part of a team, to be able to bounce ideas off of others and to be in a fast-paced environment.”

What followed was years filled with all types of work, most notably in set design: a role that sparked Kate’s interest in miniature stop-motion animation.

When Jacqueline Harvey reached out to Kate, still hadn’t worked as an illustrator, and never thought she would.

“Jacquie was actually my preschool teacher and we'd always kept in contact. I went to school in a small town, and even though she moved away, I watched her career evolve from being a teacher to becoming an amazing author. We caught up once when she was visiting London, but I was already living in the Netherlands with my now husband when she messaged me.

“She said that she was writing a picture book and wanted me to illustrate it. I was starstruck! But I said yes, and the rest is history: we’ve worked on four books together and there’s more to come.”

The first collaboration was That Cat, which then led to Kate illustrating another two titles: The Daring Tale of Gloria the Great, Kevin the Sheep, and a forthcoming fourth title. 

TIP FROM KATE: Be flexible, trust the process, and be open to feedback! Illustrating is not an easy job but it is incredibly rewarding. You have to back yourself, and take every opportunity you get. 

Kate finds working on books after a childhood of hating them a bittersweet experience.

“I hated anything to do with school, and unfortunately books and reading were part of that. On the other hand, I have always loved picture books because I appreciated images so much more as I found reading so difficult. In a way, visual storytelling was always meant for me. I remember so many childhood favourites not by their stories, but by their pictures. It feels like a lot of responsibility to give that same experience back to kids now.”

Favourite illustrators 

James: “In Australia, I love Terry Denton, Leigh Hobbs, Bruce Whatley, Craig Smith, Jan Ormerod, and Graeme Base. I came across Shaun Tan when I was in my teens. His career was just kicking off then and his stuff just completely blew me away. Internationally, I look up to Bill Watterson, who made the Calvin and Hobbes comics and who’s a huge, huge favourite of mine. Mike Mignola, who did the Hellboy series, and Tim Sale, who was an illustrator who did a lot of stuff for Marvel and DC. Some brilliant, brilliant, brilliant artists.”

Kate: “My favourite is definitely Babette Cole. Another person whose work I really admire is Liz Roland. I like the simplicity of a hand-drawn, hand-rendered illustration. I really admire anything that’s not done with a computer.”

The next Storyfest Writers’ Festival will be taking place in St George from Monday 26 to Wednesday 28 August 2024. Keep an eye on the details here!