Meet the Author: A Further Conversation with Sophy Henn

Welcome to Elephant Notes . . . our periodic take on some of the ideas, issues, and news impacting parents, children, and reading. This week, further conversation with Pom Pom Panda Gets the Grumps and Where Bear author, Sophy Henn.

We love hearing from our subscribers and last July we heard from a lot of you about the book, “Pom Pom Panda Gets the Grumps”. We jumped at the chance to include another wonderful book by one of our favorite authors, Sophy Henn for this month’s book box. “Where Bear” was Sophy’s very first book and it is sure to be a favorite at your house. 

Sophy Henn lives and writes out of Sussex, England. She studied fashion at Central Saint Martins, accidentally had a London based career as an Art Director in advertising, then completed an MA in illustration at the University of Brighton. Sophy is the only two-time winner of the World Book Day Illustrator award in 2015 and 2016. She now writes and illustrates children’s books in her studio with a big cup of tea by her side.

“Where Bear” is a deceptively simply and exquisitely illustrated picture book about a little boy and his bear, and their journey to find a place called home.

“I think it’s time we found you a new place to live where you can be bearish and big,” said the boy. “But where, bear?” 

You can find our first conversation with Sophy back in July here. We caught up with her again this month, and she gave us a great look at her process in writing “Where Bear” as well as some interesting nuggets about the book.

Where Bear was your very first book, was creating it harder or easier than you expected?

As Where Bear was my first book, I didn’t have an agent, an editor, or any expectations of actually being published so it was much easier! The story started as a very poor acrylic painting I doodled sitting at the kitchen table with the usual Saturday chaos going on around me. It was of little white bear, who looked a bit worried, in a deep, dark forest. He didn’t seem to be where he was meant to be, and that got me thinking. I wrote it a few times, stripping it back each time – which I think is a hangover from working in advertising. And I was conscious I wanted some sort of rhythm to it as I preferred reading books with a rhythm to my daughter. When I finally got an agent, he advised me to add another couple of spreads to the end (it originally ended on the “Snow!” spread – perhaps a bit brutal!) and then sent it out to some publishers who were, to my utter surprise and delight, very lovely about it!

Where Bear is a sweet story about enduring friendships. It’s a great lesson for children — does the storyline have a special meaning or did it come to life based on something in particular?

It came about from watching my daughter and her friends pottering about, and it struck me that when they came up against a problem they were very pragmatic about solving it. They didn’t have all the baggage and social constructs that, as adults, we wrestle with when trying to get to an answer. The boy notices the bear is in the wrong place, so goes about sorting that out. He puts the bear first and trusts that their friendship will endure that, simple!

The deceptively simple illustrations truly make this a special children’s book. Did the story come after you first drew the characters or was it the other way around and you wrote the story first and then created the illustrations?

As I mentioned above a doodle of the bear initiated the whole story, and as for the rest of it, basically I made it up as I went along. I had the luxury of no deadlines or pressure as I was creating it alongside work and that gave me the time and space to explore all sorts of ideas. I had a vague idea of how I wanted the book to look and wrote with that in mind, but as the book got further down the line it became a question of locking down the words and then illustrating round them. That tends to be how I work now, though often one image or character will start the whole ball rolling.

Both of your books that we have sent to our subscribers, Where Bear and Pom Pom Panda Gets the Grumps, feature adorable bears. Is there something special for you about bears?

I do seem to love drawing bears, my sketchbooks are full of them! I think it’s because you can give them very expressive and human qualities quite easily. And they are instantly cuddly. Who wouldn’t want to cuddle a bear? I think using animals as characters in children’s books allows everyone to project themselves onto and into the character. You can create an ‘every person’ by using an animal and also put them in situations you wouldn’t put a child. I like to use all kinds of different characters in my books, but some stories seem to call for animals, whereas others work better with people. But I can’t ignore the fact that if left to doodle, I will most likely doodle a bear!

Does humanizing animals that interact with children help the creative process?

In Where Bear I liked that you had this giant but rather helpless bear who was being cared for and organised by a small, young boy. I hoped that would be very empowering for children. But also the giant bear allows us to take the boy to all these amazing different places because he feels safe and like a protector. So yes, humanising the bear allowed the story to go on the path it does.

Color seems to play an important role in your books. The soft, muted tones create a cozy mood for your books — is that purposeful?

YES! I do love to create a colour palette. The art director I work with calls them “Non-colour colours”, sort of like a colour but a bit off. I think it comes from the picture books I grew up with, those mid-century ones that were a bit murky. (I’d like to point out they had been around for a bit by then!) I also love the colour palettes of Wes Anderson films (there is a tumblr account dedicated to them and rightly so) and the palette of the new Mary Poppins film is a delight! But the Where Bear book was definitely created with bedtime reading in mind, warm and soothing but with a nod to mid-century loveliness.

 There’s a beautiful minimalism in your artwork — are there any specific artistic influencers to your style?

I am very easily distracted influence wise! I will certainly always lean towards minimalism, which I think comes from my advertising background where you have to create a striking image with minimal text to grab a person’s attention. And I think that plays to my drawing style. I love Saul Bass and Mary Blair who both had quite clean graphic styles. But I will happily poor over Jill Barkem’s Brambley Hedge books for hours, enjoying their intricate illustrations and all the tiny detail they contain.

Finally, as a children’s book author, your goal is to create a connection between your book and young children. Is there any advice you can give parents for ways to best connect with their own children while they read together?

I loved reading to my daughter. Even when I was initially reluctant (late bedtime, third book in!). Giving the characters different voices is fun and sound effects are always good! But I think the key is to try and read books you both enjoy (not always possible I know) and read the book for you as well as the child. If there is one thing doing book events has taught me it’s that when you read a story, and allow yourself to get carried away into the story too, everyone stops and listens.

Thanks as always to Sophy for sharing her time and talent with us. We look forward to her next creation! If you would like to learn more about Sophy Henn and her latest endeavors you can check out her website for the latest.

Will You Be Our Friend?