The Importance of the first draft and my top five podcasts

I am currently illustrating a huge book of Fairy Tales, nine stories in total. It's almost as much work as illustrating nine individual picture books. It is something I have always wanted to do, and therefore I have to fight a pressure for this to be perfect. As soon as I feel pressure to do an extra specially good job, I freeze up and the work suffers. So I am being practical and just getting on with it. JUST GETTING ON is half the battle. Nine Fairy Tales is a huge mountain to climb, but I have to start somewhere and KEEP GOING.



Slowly, slowly they are taking shape... I make my way through step by step and even if I am not happy with bits and pieces I keep going. Once I have the first set of roughs done, I have something to work with, I can fine tune things and work out how to fix the problem pages later. It has made me remember again, that starting is the most important part. Especially true if you are writing or illustrating your first book. You have no idea where it is going, or if it will be good, or if anyone will read it. But get that first draft on paper, then you have something to work with.

Whilst I illustrate I often listen to podcasts on my earphones. I thought you might like to know my current faves:

1. The Adam Buxton podcast, especially this episode where Louis Theroux sings 'Yes Sir I Can Boogie'.
2. Your Dreams My Nightmares 'Internet Famous'. It is long and could do with some editing, but I enjoyed the part about Instagram and how copying is viewed amongst illustrators these days.
3. I went through a huge This American Life phase, and overdid it I think. But if you haven't been there yet I thoroughly recommend it. One of my favourites is this one about car salesmen, called Cars, probably because my dad was a cars salesman when I was a child.
4. Elizabeth Gilbert Magic Lessons
5. Death in Ice Valley

So many more I could tell you about, I will get to those soon. Let me know if you have any favourites I should listen to.

Picturehooks Mentoring

@KirstiBeautyman and I have been on an adventure together. I mentor, she mentee for the Picturehooks Mentoring Programme. Last night at the private view, we were delighted to find out she was chosen as Picturehooks Illustrator 2017! We each wrote a little about the process:

During our first meeting Kirsti showed me some beautiful, magical ideas she had for picture books, one stood out as having lots of potential: ‘Penny and the Mist Monsters’. She already had a title, and an almost fully formed story. Kirsti said she had never drawn children before, so that was the main focus of our work together. She struggled to show her rough drawings at first, but I think we conquered that without any serious long term scarring! I love how Kirsti has retained the mysterious, magical, strange qualities of her work, whilst finding her picture book voice.
— Helen
Penny and the Mist Monsters Kirsti Beautyman

Penny and the Mist Monsters
Kirsti Beautyman

Working with Helen over this past year has been an invaluable experience. The guidance she has given me throughout the mentoring scheme has been eye opening as she has guided me and helped me to adapt my illustrations to visually fit the market of children’s books. During this journey I have grown and gained confidence, but also I feel very lucky to have gained a supportive and inspiring friend.
— Kirsti

Isn't Kirsti's work beautiful? The exhibition opened yesterday and she has already been approached by a number of agents and publishers. The Bookseller, which is the magazine read by all the publishing types, bookshops, authors and illustrators (basically the best place to be featured as a new illustrator), wrote a piece about Kirsti. If you are recent graduate, wanting to illustrate picturebooks, the Picturehooks Programme is open to you. If you are in Edinburgh, go and see the exhibition:  So much new talent, and not-so-new talent (me, Patrick Benson, Ross Collins, Steven Antony and Debi Gliory).


How to Hide a Lion Helen Stephens

How to Hide a Lion
Helen Stephens

Yearly Doorstep Picture

It's just over 7 years since we left London, our home for 17 years, and moved up to the windy Northumberland coast. In the first few days here Gerry (my partner and fellow illustrator) took a photo of me and Pie on the doorstep. We did the same a couple of years later, and made plans to do it every year after that. Sometimes life got busy and we forgot...

but we remembered this year!

I love looking at these pictures, seeing the change in us as the years have gone by. Pie has grown from a brave, funny, adventure loving toddler who once dressed up as a knight in shining armour (naked bum peeking out under the breastplate which was on her back) and told us she was a 'shite in armour', into a confident, inquisitive 'big-girl' (as she calls herself) full of beans and cheekiness. She has just moved school and told us she likes it because the canteen is like the cafe in Ikea (I think she means you get a tray!)


And for Gerry and I, moving here has influenced our work in all sorts of ways. For me the silvery sea mists inspired me to write How to Hide a Lion (I'll tell you all about that in another blog post), and for Gerry the local wildlife, particularly a beached whale we drew at Beadnell Bay a few years ago have inspired his series of whale prints. You can see Gerry's whale prints and signed copies of How to Hide a Lion, and lots of other exciting goodies in our shop here.


Fleabag on CBeebies Bedtime Stories

Over the years most lots of my books have been read on CBeebies Bedtime stories, but perhaps the most exciting one was this: Fleabag read by Tom Hardy.

It was shown on National Dog Day and was the final appearance for Tom's dog, Woody, who passed away after the episode was filmed.

I love his 'WOOF! WOOF! woof!' bit!

Fleabag has appeared on Bedtime Stories before, it was read by Jake Wood. I love how Jake says 'Fleabag', he has a proper cockney accent and makes Fleabag sound hard as nails!

Don't use an open jar of ink as a paper weight

Shortly after making this film I spilled my grey ink all over my sketchbook. I used a bit of tissue to rub the grey in and ended up with a different type of drawing. I think I prefer the quality of the line drawing before the spill! Oh well, some you win, some you lose.


Below is a drawing I did earlier that day. I spilled my ink on this one too. Lesson learned: don't forget your masking tape and use an open jar of ink as a paper weight instead.


Actually, I don't mind accidents like this. Sometimes these mishaps can become something interesting, they can set me off on a new line of exploration.

And anyway Dave Shelton said,
'Stephens's "Oil Slick in the Harbour" is a devastating commentary on humanity's blithe disregard for the fragility of nature...'
Ha! Finally, someone who totally GETS my work! That's what I meant all along!

We are opening a shop! (fanfare please)

Ding-ding! Our (virtual) shop doors open soon and we thought we'd give you a sneaky peek.

There will be:

  • screenprints
  • signed picture books
  • sketchbookzines (that's a word now)
  • bookshelf owls
  • night iceberg posters
  • and various other random but amazing things.
Gerry's whale prints onto vintage sea maps, used at sea and annotated by navigators.

Gerry's whale prints onto vintage sea maps, used at sea and annotated by navigators.

Do you like our shop header? Those little blue waves are the doodles that Gerry makes while he's contemplating the bigger issues in life (or procrastinating). As we live and work on the windy Northumberland coast they seemed fitting. What do you think? We'd love to hear from you.
(Oh and MOST EXCITING OF ALL, I had a stamp made of the shop logo.)

Things you should never say to someone drawing.

I often draw from life in public places. I've had some great conversations with people while I'm drawing, it's a bit like being a dog owner, people love a chat and it's an opener I suppose. If I am in full work mode and I'm not in the mood to chat I have my 'don't talk to me' body language which usually works a treat.

But sometimes people can say the most annoying things, like this time: I was drawing at an open air museum, a man stood nearby watching for a while...

'Self trained are you?'
Me, ' Erm, no.'
'Why don't you take a photo?'
Me, 'I like to draw because...' (interupted mid sentence.)
'You should get yourself a camera like mine. Get yourself a spare battery though, you don't want to be caught without a spare battery.'
A bit of a pause, then,
'You've chosen a difficult vantage point for yourself.'
After a while he wandered off and I relaxed back into work. But then he was back,
'I won't bother you any more, just to say there's a better vantage point round the corner. '

Then there's this approach, I've lost count how many times this has happened:
A man approaches and says,
'You should be a professional!'
Or in a very suprised voice, eyebrows in the air,
'That's really very good!'
Or just a shout from over the road, 'Draw me!'

Oh well, there are many, many wonderful conversations that make up for these. And as anecdotes these are a treat!


Book Festivals - coughs and hiccups

I love a good book festival because I get to do my bit, then go and see what everyone else is up to. I think my favourite festival was Cheltenham a couple fo years ago, where I was drawing on stage, while Michael Morpurgo read from our book Mimi and the Mountain Dragon, it was so much fun!


Then that evening I went to see the artist Martin Creed perform. I don't know if you know him, he is an artist and musician. His music reminds me of a mix between Spike Milligan and Ivor Cutler. You can see I'm feelin Blue here. This is a great film of him talking about his work here - so inspiring! Anyway his show was wonderful, I thoroughly recommend that if you get the chance, go and see him perform. But I got side tracked, I was talking about book festivals... Actually my sidetrack was kind of relevent, I like his humour and bizarre silliness, and hope to try to remember some of that in my shows.

I usually draw and chat at the same time, and read from my books, and get some children on stage to do silly stuff. I get such a thrill out of it when it goes well. It doesn't always go well, but over the years I have developed strategies to stop some of the hiccups happening. There was the time I had problems with adults coming on stage to photograph their children and stopping the whole show (I now request people stay seated unless I invite them up), and the time I had the WORST coughing fit you can imagine on stage, eyes watering, snot, the lot! (I have stopped shouting and straining my voice, I try to stay calm and this stops me shouting or getting too high pitched! And I keep a glass of water at hand).

I have performed at lots of festivals over the years, honing my show as I go. I absolutely love performing, whether it's a small crowd of 30, or a big audience of 500 over-excited children on a school outing. You can read some reviews of my shows at the end of this post.


These are some of the festivals I've performed at, some good experiences, some less so. (There was the time one festival forgot to put me on the program and didn't order any of my books, so after a six hour journey by plane and train, and an overnight stay I had a crowd of SIX children, and I didn't sell one book. I won't say which festival it was, I am too professional. Ok, it was Hay-on-Wye.)

So yes, some of the places I have performed include: Tate Britain, Seven Stories, The Cheltenham Book Festival, The Polka Theatre, Edinburgh Book Festival, Hay-on-Wye, The Foyles Summer of Fun, The Polka Theatre Sunday Story Session, The Northern Children's Book Festival, Beverley Book Festival, Niddfest, The Aye Write Festival in Glasgow, Alnwick Playhouse, Hexham Book Festival and many more.

If you would like to interview me, invite me to perform at your book festival or ask me to speak on stage please send an email to briefly outlining the details. I will get back to you within 3-5 business days.

Here are some reviews from book festivals, theatres, libraries and schools:

'Cheltenham Festival sent a total rave about you and the event. Even saying how great your family and dog were!!'
My publisher talking about Cheltenham Book Festival

'I’ve just been in to have a look at the window (I painted Iris and the Lion from 'How to Hide a Lion' on the theatre window) and it’s just lovely - thank you for taking the time to paint it and for such a lovely event on Saturday.  The feedback has been brilliant.'
Claire Newton, Alnwick Playhouse

Helen's event was fantastic! Children loved being involved in the story telling part, looking for the lion and exercising their creative minds by predicting various outcomes. Helen taught children how to draw a lion in easy to follow steps, allowing the children (and their parents) to have their own lion to hide. Helen also created us a bespoke window in September 2016. The large fully coloured lion adorned our window for longer than originally planned because we just LOVED it (and so did our customers). It was a striking window display that added colour and excitement as both adults and children stopped to admire it and visited the shop to buy a book. Helen's window and event left a long lasting buzz and is still mentioned by many of our customers.
Tereze, Tales On Moon Lane Bookshop, London

'Helen engaged wonderfully with our pupils, providing an entertaining, active workshop.  There was lots of fun and laughter and the opportunities for learning were always skilfully related back to her books.'
D Mackenzie, Principal Teacher, George Watson's College Junior School, Edinburgh

'Thank you so much for your visit today. The children were buzzing with enthusiasm afterwards and the staff were full of praise. They loved the rapport you had with the children and really enjoyed your books.'
Catherine Costigan, Appletree Gardens School, Whitley Bay

'Helen created a lovely window for us which none of us want to take out now. Pleased to say too that the book is selling really well on the back of it with people literally stopping as they drive past to come in and buy a copy!'
Pickled Pepper Books, Crouch End, London - after I painted their shop window.

'It was a great pleasure for us to welcome Helen to Seven Stories, the audience were enthralled with her interactive way of telling the story. The children (and some adults) loved the opportunity to get to draw with her too. We hope to see Helen back at Seven Stories very soon!'
Paul Black, Events Officer, Seven Stories, Newcastle

'Fantastic visit to school today from the author / illustrator Helen Stephens!'
Red House School, Norton

'Helen's workshops at The Bowes Museum were fantastic! Not only did she engage the children and their parents with her storytelling, she also sketched her storybook characters in seconds, before the children created their own masterpiece. Brilliant sessions – thank you!'
Amy Bainbridge, Education Co-ordinator, Bowes Museum

'To have an author come and read her book to an assembly of children and work with individual classes was an absolute treat! Helen brought her books to life by allowing the children to participate through dressing up as characters and giving the children the opportunity to create a pop up lion. She willingly answered questions by children, demonstrated how she created her characters and explained her process in writing a book - all extremely helpful for possible future authors! The children felt that they had a celebrity in school for the day! Thank you, Helen.'
M Reilly, Class Teacher, St Bridget's Primary School, Glasgow

'This was a great opportunity for a real author to come to our school and talk to us at assembly. Helen also went from class to class to talk to lots of children and I was her photographer.'
Lewis K, Pupil Y9 St Bridget's Primary School, Glasgow

'I really enjoyed 'Fleabag' and the illustrations because they looked like they were moving and that was because Helen said that she didn't like her drawings to be perfect.'
Lucy J, Pupil Y10 St Bridget's Primary School, Glasgow

'It was really fun and creative when my class got to make pop-up lions with Helen.'
Lewis J, Pupil Y10 St Bridget's Primary School, Glasgow

'We were delighted to welcome author and illustrator Helen Stephens into school yesterday. Helen worked with all the children in school on a range of literacy skills from role play in reception to book making in y4. (We even got a sneak peak at her forthcoming children's book...lucky us!)'
Anne Rutherford, Head Teacher, Tweedmouth West School, Northumberland

'Helen's combination of interactive storytelling and engaging craft inspired the children (and their adults) to make some splendid popup lions based on 'How to Hide a Lion.' The group really enjoyed guessing what Helen was drawing on the flipchart and her ability to switch between activities meant that short attention spans were well-catered for. Thanks Helen, we all had great fun.'
 Jill Chambers, Spellbound Project Manager, Northumberland

'The children really enjoyed being involved with telling the story and were really motivated to write their own stories. From a teacher point of view I loved the way you took them through the full planning process and the bubbles worked very well.'
Mrs Summerson, Y4 Teacher, Etherley Lane Primary, Bishop Aukland

'The children really enjoyed the story and we followed it up with a big write about the snowman adventures we had made our picture books about. Some really pleasing results, children very enthusiastic.'
Mrs Jeavons, Y3 Teacher, Etherley Lane Primary, Bishop Aukland

'An inspirational illustrator.'
Hay-on-Wye Festival

'Helen has an obvious rapport with children and with her gentle encouragement, the children attending the session produced some outstanding and original contributions to the pop-up book. I think the key was getting the children to draw their own versions of the story, and develop it in their own way, thus giving their imaginations free rein. The pop-up book will have pride of place in the library. We look forward to having Helen back at a future date.'
Kim Herring, Team Librarian, Newbiggin

'Helen's workshops have been truly inspirational for children and their parents. The workshops captured the magic of creating a story and characters and then bringing it all alive imaginatively. What was wonderful is that Helen's calm, clear instruction enabled everyone to actually 'learn' how to draw and to take a work away with them they could all be very proud of. Everyone involved thoroughly enjoyed themselves and the workshops booked-up early. I couldn't recommend Helen more highly. She's also a joy to meet and work with.'
Lara Goodband, Co-Director Beverley Literature Festival

'Thank you, the children and staff enjoyed your visit very much!!'
Sarah Egan, Teacher, West View Primary School, Hartlepool

'Helen was a real inspiration to the children who were all keen to show her their own drawings. Watching Helen draw really brought the books to life and we are all looking forward to her return visit. '
Carol Haughton, Cockerton Library, Darlington

'I thorougly enjoyed your session at the library, the children were mesmerised when you hand drew Fleabag!'
Suzy Youldon, Crown Street Library