Anna Doherty is an author illustrator from Edinburgh, whose work grabbed the attention of publishers at her Children's Book Illustration MA graduation show from Cambridge School of Art. Her final year project on Ada Lovelace was picked up by Wren and Rook and was transformed into the successful Fantastically Feminist series. Since then, Anna has enjoyed working across a range of projects featuring illustrations that are full of warmth, humour and adorable characters.
Anna lives in Cambridge and has a new board book series due to be published by Little Tiger, UK and Tiger Tales, US in January 2022.
Having achieved great success so early in her career, we had a catch up with Anna about her experience in the publishing industry so far, her love of children’s books and any advice she would give to young illustrators.
How did you choose the women to feature in the 'Fantastically Feminist' series?
It was actually very difficult to choose who to feature because there are so many amazing people out there. It was a collaboration with my publishers Wren and Rook; we wanted to choose people who were well known so readers would be interested in the book, but also people who readers might not necessarily know the life story of, so that it was interesting and fresh.
We started with Ada Lovelace, because that was who I had featured in my Masters Degree project, and after that we explored people from different disciplines and subject areas.
It took a long time and I got to research a whole tonne of people before we settled on the ones we have, so now I have a list of other Fantastically Feminist people ready for more book projects...
The series was your first experience of publishing, how did you find the process?
I had a very lovely team at Wren and Rook who welcomed me into the book world and patiently explained every step of the way, and it couldn’t have been a nicer first experience of publishing a book.
We had to make a lot of decisions about the series which was exciting: what the overall style was (greyscale and one colour), what the covers would look like, we made a font of my handwriting, and worked out the format of the books (a picture book of the character’s life with two spreads at the end explaining in context why they are so amazing!)
I also really enjoyed the research and loved the attention to detail. For example, every single fact in the book had to have three reference sources, and I was forever researching things for the illustrations, like when pencils were invented, to see what should be in each picture.
Which book in the series did you enjoy working on the most?
I think The Brontës just pip the others at the post because not only were they the first in the series, but they were the first published book I worked on from scratch as both the author and illustrator, so I learnt so much doing it.
I actually hadn’t known very much at all about them before writing the book. As children they created an imaginary world, with a whole land and characters, and they made storylines that lasted years and created props for them. This was really interesting for me, because when I was growing up my sister and I did the exact same thing with our Sylvanian Families toys over a century later, so I loved that I could completely identify with that part of their story.
What do you hope readers take away from the Fantastically Feminist books?
Growing up, I had a lot of books that insinuated (or outright said) that boys were better than girls, so I hope that these books do the opposite and show that everyone and anyone can do anything they want.
All the featured women have done amazing things, they’ve pushed to pursue their dreams and made the world a better place by being in it, and I hope that inspires any readers to do the same.
Sometimes I will get a message or an email from a parent telling me how their child has been inspired or excited by the women in the series, and that’s the absolute best feeling ever.
As well as your non-fiction work, you have produced some beautiful picture books. Do you find it easy to switch between the two?
I do, and actually I love working on both at once. The picture books tend to be more colourful, whereas, so far my non-fiction work has been quite monotone, so having the two on at the same time is very fun. There’s often some downtime in making a picture book when you send things off to a publisher and wait for feedback, so it’s lovely to have another project to turn to whilst you are waiting.
I also find that if I get stuck on one illustration, working on another might give me an idea for the first. I don’t usually illustrate a picture book in sequential order, but instead work on whatever page takes my fancy at the time to keep it fresh, so having more than one book on the go helps that working style.
Your animal characters are filled with so much charm, how long does it take to create them?
Usually, I start off by drawing the real-life animal, so I can figure out what it really looks like, how it stands and what it’s movements are like. Then, I start adding more character, while using my original sketch as a guide. I’ll have an idea of the character’s personality in mind while I’m drawing them, like if they are shy or excitable or loud etc., so that I can get to know them a bit more and figure out how they look, stand and act.
The thing that usually takes the longest for me is what colour they should be – especially in relation to the other animals. For example, in Best Test, there is a shrew, a rat and a mouse. I drew them all separately as brown, but when I brought them together they were all too similar. So the mouse became grey and the rat became beige (and the shrew got to stay brown because he was my favourite.)
What were your favourite books as a child?
That’s so tricky to answer but the ones that stick out are The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Beatrix Potter’s books and Winnie the Pooh. I liked The Tiger Who Came to Tea because of the drawings of the Tiger, and I loved it when he drank all Daddy’s beer.
Beatrix Potter was a favourite because of the pocket-sized books and I loved the way the animals all walked around wearing clothes and acted like people. We went to the Lake District for holidays when I was younger and I loved that you could walk through the settings of the illustrations and feel like you were inside the book. Katie Morag and Maisie the Cat were exciting for those same reasons, being set in Scotland where I grew up. And Winnie the Pooh, I loved the writing style. I will stop there before I list every book I ever owned, ha!
What advice would you give to someone graduating now?
Have fun, don’t give up, if you want to illustrate books and you are rejected from a publisher, that doesn’t mean your work is bad, it just means it doesn’t suit what they are looking for right now. Keep trying and good luck!