In this interview, Bethan Woollvin discusses her latest picture book, Bo the Brave. She is a recent graduate of the Cambridge School of Art, where she won the prestigious Macmillan Children’s Book Competition with her version of Little Red Riding Hood. It was her first picture book.
Welcome to the Children’s Book Review! We’re so excited to learn more about your hilarious picture books and your writing process, with a focus on your latest book, BO THE BRAVE. First, can you tell us about BO THE BRAVE?
Bethan Woolvin: A little medieval explorer, Bo is told by her brothers that she’s too small to join them on their quest to catch a fearsome monster! But Bo has other ideas, so she sets off to catch a beast of her own. While exploring the kingdom, Bo makes lots of new friends who help her on her quest to find a horrid beast (or two)!
Bo the Brave is a story about bravery, kindness, and standing up for yourself and your friends.
How is Bo similar to your other charmingly zesty protagonists? How is she different?
I consider Bo to be quite unique from my other characters. Her personality shines throughout the story, showing her love and interest for creatures and how to better understand them. Bo wasn’t given her title “Bo the Brave” for nothing! She’s courageous and stands up for what’s right, even if that means accepting that she could be wrong about something, too.
Bo certainly also shares some qualities with my other female protagonists. She’s feisty, determined, and clever—qualities I hope to continue portraying in all of my protagonists. All children need and deserve to see great female role models in books, and seeing as there’s a million and one ways to be smart, brave, and strong, I don’t think I’m going to run out of new characters to write about!
Where do you get your ideas for stories?
The ideas for my stories come from all sorts of unlikely places, so it’s quite hard to say! A lot of my inspiration comes from researching traditional folklore, mythology, and fairytales. I’m also a visual thinker, so I find inspiration by closely observing my surroundings. If I’m ever stuck for inspiration, I’ll take myself to a fun exhibition, museum, or gallery. I find it the best remedy for a creative block!
The path that led me to the idea for Bo the Brave began after I had spent a few weeks researching mythological beasts and medieval myths in England. I thought about creating a children’s book based on the medieval era and found myself thinking about the types of activities and/or mischief medieval children might get themselves into. Beast hunting seemed most likely, seeing as much of England’s wildlife was hunted to extinction during the Middle Ages. (I know. Yikes!).
This got me thinking about the creatures that were believed to once inhabit the earth and how awesome it would be if dragons, griffins, and maybe even the Kraken really did exist! And if they did exist, maybe they would still be here if only a brave little explorer was ready and willing to defend them!
Can you tell us about your unique (and gorgeous!) illustrations? How do you craft them, what’s your medium, etc.?
All of my illustrations begin as small, rough doodles and storyboards full of mistakes and smudges! But that doesn’t matter because the main purpose of these doodles is to help me quickly plot out my story. I then build upon these sketches, forming more refined drawings, which become my “rough artwork.” Next, I progress onto creating the final artwork, which I sketch and paint over a lightbox. I paint all of my artwork in my preferred medium—gouache paint, which is a type of paint that dries flat and opaque. I think I am happiest when I’m painting, as it’s a process that I really enjoy and feel confident with. Plus, you can do it all while listening to a good audiobook!
Tell us about your background and how it led you to write and illustrate such fun picture books!
At school, my strengths didn’t align with academic subjects; I was always better at the more practical and creative subjects. Leaving school with a small amount of qualifications—mainly in the arts—it seemed a natural path to take. So I went to study fine art at sixth form for a few years and then went on to study a degree in illustration at the Cambridge School of Art.
Although I went to university not quite knowing what I wanted from a job within the arts, the course really nurtured my creativity and helped me define the type of artist I wanted to be. I soon discovered that I really enjoyed telling stories with my illustrations and experimenting with character design. This led me to enter the Macmillan Children’s Book Competition in 2014 with a narrative project I had worked on. The project was actually a bit of an experiment, being my first ever attempt at writing and illustrating for children and the first book I had ever created. The story was an alternative retelling of the traditional tale, “Little Red Riding Hood,” which I retold to feature a feisty feminist Little Red and absolutely no woodcutter in sight! Miraculously, I somehow ended up winning the competition (which still blows my mind!), and it later became my debut picture book Little Red published in 2016.
I’ve been writing and illustrating books ever since, including a further two alternative fairytales, Rapunzel and Hansel & Gretel. More recently, I worked on my own original tale, Bo the Brave. It is such a joy and privilege to work as an author/illustrator; I absolutely love it. Every day brings a different set of creative challenges to overcome, and it’s also very rewarding to work for and with children.
What children’s books did you love growing up? Which has most influenced your work?
Ever since I was a very young child, I’ve always had a great relationship with books. My parents were always encouraging me to read, so my nose was forever stuck inside a book. I have a very strong connection with children’s books even now, and all credit goes to my family. As the eldest of ten children, I was lucky to have had a prolonged time to enjoy children’s books. I got to enjoy books as a child and enjoy reading them to my siblings as they were growing up, too.
Some of my favourite books I remember from childhood include Funnybones by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, the Meg & Mog series by Helen Nicholl & Jan Pieńkowski, and Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy by Lynley Dodd.
I also have fond memories of howling with laughter with my brothers and sisters at both The Stinky Cheese Man & Other Fairly Stupid Stories and The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs created by witty duo Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith.
As I got a little older, I discovered The Moomins by Tove Jannson, which, along with other fairytales and folklore, have always inspired me to create my own tales.
What are you working on next? Do you always write and illustrate, or do you sometimes do just one or the other?
Currently, I’m working on my next original tale, which has certainly kept me busy over the last few months. I’m painting the final artwork as we speak, which I hope to finish in the new year. I’d love to reveal more, but I’m sworn to secrecy…
I like having a healthy mixture of projects on my plate to keep my creativity flowing and to continue feeling inspired. I spend a lot of time working on my own titles as an author/illustrator, and so sometimes it can be a nice change of pace to switch between my own titles and illustrating titles for other authors. Working in a creative job is really a bit of a balancing act, finding just the right amount of elements to keep that inspirational fire burning.
What are some of your favorite non-writing hobbies?
Outside of writing and illustrating, I like to find other ways to be creative. I’m currently teaching myself to sew, which I’m finding a lot of enjoyment in! I also love to garden and spend time walking in the Peak District National Park with my best friend, Podrick.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Bethan!
For more information, visit http://www.bethanwoollvin.com/.
Bo the Brave
Written and Illustrated by Bethan Woollvin
Ages 3-7 | 32 Pages
Publisher: Peachtree Publishing Company | ISBN-13: 978-1682631829
Publisher’s Synopsis: A brave little girl learns who the real monsters are in this brilliantly funny original fairy tale from New York Times Best Illustrated Book-winner Bethan Woollvin.
Bo wants to be just like her brothers and capture a fearsome monster, but Bo is small―too small to catch a monster. Or so her brothers say. Luckily, Bo isn’t one to take no for an answer, and so she sets off on a quest to catch a monster of her own. Can she defeat the furious griffin, conquer the hideous kraken, and triumph over the monstrous dragon? Or has Bo got the wrong idea about who the real monsters are?
Author-illustrator Bethan Woollvin, creator of the New York Times Best Illustrated Book Little Red, delivers an original fairy tale with a spirited female protagonist, a vibrant medieval backdrop, and a clever twist ending.
“A fun read for a class during storytime or at home during playtime, BO THE BRAVE will delight young readers with its message of empowerment. You’ll laugh, you’ll think, you’ll love BO THE BRAVE!” —The Children’s Book Review
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This interview—Author-Illustrator Bethan Woollvin Discusses Bo the Brave—was conducted between Bethan Woollvin and Denise Mealy. For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with Bethan Woollvin, Bravery, Fairy Tales, Medieval times, Picture Book, and Strong Female Characters.