Interview with Paddy Bouma

Interview Paddy Bouma

Tips, advice and Bertie

Celeste: Hi Paddy! Thank you for taking time out to answer our questions. Before we start, can you just tell us a little about yourself?

Paddy at her Studio
Paddy at her Studio

Paddy: I  always wanted to be an illustrator without having any idea how to go about it! So I studied Fine Art at UCT and was fortunate enough to win a bursary to study in Paris afterwards. While I was there, out of the blue I was asked by a SA publisher to illustrate my first book, in black and white. It was set in France, which is why they asked me, I suppose… Unfortunately it ended up so badly printed that I was put off illustration, I thought, forever!

Back in SA, I taught Printmaking at the Art School of Stellenbosch University. But my first love of picture books reasserted itself and in the late 70’s I wrote and illustrated my first picture book in colour. It lay on the shelf for 4 years before it was published…

Celeste: I think I’ve counted over twenty books that you were involved in, as either an illustrator or a writer, since 1984 (which was the year I was born in). Does anyone of those projects stood the test of time for you, and still remains your favorite?

Paddy: I think that would be the Bertie series (about a badly-behaved toy hippo) that I wrote and illustrated for the Bodley Head in London the 80’s. I was recently asked to do a book reading at our granddaughter’s school in Dubai. Confronted by a class of very bright 4-5 year olds, my old favourite came out! The stories seem as popular now as they were then – the teacher commented that she had never known the class to sit still for so long!

Mandela with Paddy's illustrations
Nelson Mandela with Paddy’s illustrations

Celeste: In 1987, you were shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway medal. Can you tell us a little about that?

Paddy: That was for Are we Nearly There by Louis Baum, the first book I illustrated for The Bodley Head. I was thrilled to have been chosen for this project. As I had just been  concerned  just with keeping my head above water, it was a huge and delightful surprise when I was shortlisted for this, the premier award for illustration in the UK.

Celeste: A lot of people are still drawing in their spare time, trying to break into the market. Do you have any advice/tips for them on the best way to get into illustrating? Or tips about portfolios?

Paddy:  My advice is firstly, to persist and secondly to be very, very brave and approach publishers! (The first comes naturally to me, the second not!) I’ve never really had a portfolio, just a manuscript or some published work under my arm – I have found this is somehow more convincing to editors, in my case anyway. One tip about portfolios – don’t put too much in them, just your very best work.

Bertie and the Hamsters
Bertie and the Hamsters

Celeste: You have also been heavily involved in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Can you tell our readers about the society?

Paddy:  The SCBWI is an international organisation that promotes the interests of writers and illustrators of children’s books. In SA, the great advantage it provides is access to publishers through the annual Publishers Day, when one can show one’s work to a range of SA editors/publishers. SCBWI also organizes talks, workshops, retreats and conferences on a variety of subjects of interest to writers and illustrators.

Celeste: A lot has changed over the years, in the industry. Can you tell us what has has been the most significant change for you?

Paddy:  I look back with nostalgia to the golden years of publishing in the UK – the 1980’s when small independent publishing houses had more time to spend with their authors and illustrators (and took one to tea at the Ritz!) before they were swallowed by huge conglomerates. Now they are frantically busy and under pressure from their marketing teams, circumstances that favour less innovation, I fear.

Paddy Bouma with Marjorie van Heerden at Cape Town Book Fair 2012
Paddy Bouma with Marjorie van Heerden at Cape Town Book Fair 2012

Celeste: Every time I see you, you seem to be busy with some project or other. Do you have any personal projects that you are working on currently that you can share with us?

Paddy: I have taken to painting again – tiny portraits, also small landscapes of our farm, in water-based oils. We’ve lived in the beautiful Jonkershoek Valley near Stellenbosch for 46 years. One of my passions is landscape gardening and it’s nice to realise that I actually planted every tree I painted!

Celeste: Thank you so much, Paddy, for sharing your wisdom with us today. Before you go, do you have any last words or advice you would like to share?

Paddy: Make a point of haunting the bookshops that stock good children’s books (e.g. the Book Lounge). Try to get a feel for what is current and see where your own work would fit in.  Make a note of the names and addresses of the publishers of your favourites.  These are the ones to approach eventually, preferably when you have had something published locally. It’s a very competitive world out there but with enthusiasm and perseverance, you can do it!


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