Hannah Foley on Illustrating Books for Children

Hannah Foley portrait
Category: Writing

Freelance illustrator Hannah Foley recently worked on illustraing her very first book for chidlren, How Billy Hippo Learned to Swim, with author Vivian French. She agreed to answer all of our burning questions about how she got into illustration, what working with a writer was like and what advice she has for anyone hoping to get into the field.


Tell us a little bit about your journey as an illustrator so far.

I am part of a great illustration community where I live

I graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 2013. Leaving art college felt a bit like falling of a cliff! Suddenly all my support and structure were gone! I thought I’d prepared well for graduating but I don’t think anything can prepare you properly. It took me a while to feel my way towards building up my own structure and to find other opportunities for feedback and support.

Initially I did a lot of branding and design work. One of the best decisions I made was to volunteer for a charity as an informal ‘Illustrator in Residence’. Through these experiences I got to try out lots of different projects, which gave me a chance to develop my own voice, and work on my business and technical skills.

Gradually, over time, I’ve built up a good client base who come back to me me regularly. My agent, Lindsey Fraser, is hugely supportive, and I am part of a great illustration community where I live.


What was it like illustrating your first picture book? What kind of things did you need to think about? 

Billy Hippo book interior
It was daunting but very exciting! I started by focusing on the central character, Billy Hippo. I drew him over and over until I felt I’d got to know him really well.

There is a whole page in my sketchbook trying to work out his nostrils!

He went through several clothes changes too. I spent a lot of time thinking about his emotional journey through the story. Would he let on that he was scared straight away or would he pretend he just didn’t fancy swimming? This helped me with the pacing of the story across the book.


What was the process of working with Vivian like?

Viv is a very special person. She’s a writer but she also knows a lot about illustration. She teaches it! She has an incredible amount of experience with picture books and a great sense of design. This was brilliant for me because she can see the book as a whole. She was so supportive and so kind. Throughout the process of illustrating Billy Hippo she was available to give feedback. I’ve learned so much from her, particularly concerning character and pacing. She’s also brilliantly fun and positive, so being around her makes you feel you can take on the world!


What was it like working with Little Door Books?

Billy Hippo book interior
They were wonderful. Not having ever illustrated a picture book before I had no idea how the process would work.

I was worried about their expectations of me and that I wouldn’t be able to respond effectively to their feedback. I didn’t need to worry.

Little Door Books are keen to support new illustrators so they were clear, constructive and relentlessly positive! It was just what I needed. They work so hard and are passionate about children’s books. You can’t help but be carried along by their enthusiasm!


What advice would you give aspiring young illustrators?

  • Work hard.
  • Be nice.
  • Be professional.
  • Be consistent.
  • Search out good quality feedback and then listen to it.
  • Find a supportive creative community. It doesn’t have to be other illustrators.
  • Invest in yourself. Go on courses to try out new techniques and hear from other artists. The Picture Hooks conferences were really great for me.
  • Find your voice. The illustrator Mark Hearld made a deep impression on me when I heard him speak about ditching the idea of ‘style’ and instead pursuing your ‘voice’. I think he’s absolutely right. What is it that makes you tick? What do you love? What would you draw all day, every day for the rest of your life if you could? Use this knowledge to find your voice.
  • Be prepared that it will be tough. Most illustrators I know have a portfolio career where they have a few streams to their business, whether that is teaching, writing, or design work, alongside their illustration work.
  • Draw, draw, draw, and then draw some more!


Thanks to Little Door Books, we have five copies of How Billy Hippo Learned to Swim to give away. Just email chris.leslie@scottishbooktrust.com with the answer to the question below. The competition closes on Wednesday 20 June 2018 at 5pm. All entrants must reside in the UK.:

Hannah Foley is the illustrator of How Billy Hippo Learned to Swim. Who is the author of the book?

Hannah Foley

Billy Hippo book cover
Hannah Foley is a freelance illustrator who has worked for several years illustrating for children, young people and families in the educational and charitable sectors. How Billy Hippo Learned to Swim is her first children’s picture book. You can find out more about Hannah and see more of her beautiful illustrations at her website.