Emma Quay is an illustrator and writer of many award-winning picture books; her memorable characters for Rudie Nudie, Baby Bedtime, Shrieking Violet, Bear and Chook, Daddy’s Cheeky Monkey, Good Night, Me and Scarlett, Starlet are favourites on children's bookshelves all over Australia. Her brand-new title for very young children, My Sunbeam Baby has just been released.

Emma grew up in the English countryside, and has wanted to illustrate children's books for as long as she can remember. She works from a studio in her home and sometimes feels like she barely leaves it, but her illustrative work is held in collections around the world, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A Chat With Emma

How do you pronounce your surname?
I say "Emma Kway", but some people say "Emma Key", "Emma Kay" or "Emma Kwy” and I know they're talking to me when they say any of the above, so I don’t mind at all. When I tell people Quay is a Chinese surname, they understand why it’s pronounced that way.

When did you decide you wanted to illustrate children's books?
I have wanted to be a children's book illustrator for as long as I can remember; I’ve always loved to draw. When I was as young as two years old my mum used to find scraps of paper covered in little characters hidden under my pillow. I drew all the time — at the dinner table, whilst watching television, in the car... I still do, but I no longer hide the drawings in my bed!

Childhood drawing and photo, Emma Quay

Tell us about your family when you were growing up.
My mum was a music teacher, and on the stage in musicals. My dad was a psychologist and researched into human behaviour. I have a younger sister called Lucy. Lu and I had lots of picture books, and I'm ashamed to say that I often drew in them — I was so keen to be an illustrator, I must have decided to start already!

I had a very happy childhood, growing up in the English countryside and spending summer holidays in our caravan in Wales.

So are you English or Australian?
I'm both! I moved to Australia in 1993. I live with my Australian husband and our two daughters.

Did you study to become an illustrator?
Yes, I studied Graphic Design at Newcastle upon Tyne Polytechnic (now called the University of Northumbria) in the north of England, specialising in illustration and printmaking. I illustrated all sorts of texts, from Inuit poetry to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and it was an invaluable experience to have the chance to experiment with lots of different approaches and media.

How did you become an illustrator?
I had a portfolio (a big zip-up folder) full of my paintings, prints and drawings from college, which I showed to the publishers in London to see if they would like to commission me to illustrate a book. They didn’t! I then decided it might be better to get an agent to find the work for me, so I could spend more time drawing and less time carrying a portfolio. (You can read more about my early days looking for illustration work in this interview at Children’s Books Daily.)

Illustrations from BEAR AND CHOOK, written by Lisa Shanahan and illustrated by Emma Quay

Do you like being an illustrator?
Yes, I do! I think I'm lucky that my job has ended up being something I have always done for fun. If I weren't working as an illustrator I'd still be drawing whenever I could. However, it isn't fun all the time — nothing can be. Things do go wrong, and sometimes it can takes ages (and lots of paper in the recycling bin) to get part of a drawing right. One picture in Bear and Chook took me seventy goes to get right! That can be very frustrating, but when I get letters from children who tell me they feel like they are inside the book and friends with Bear and Chook, it makes it all worthwhile. 

Growing up reading RUDIE NUDIE, a picture book by Emma Quay (ABC Books) - many thanks to the families of Israel, Theo and Elsie for sharing these lovely moments with me

What do you love most about writing and illustrating for children? 
I spend months on my own in my studio working on each project, and get so attached to each set of characters it’s often hard to say goodbye. But it makes me happy when I’m reminded that a picture book has a life beyond its creators, and people tell me they see many of the small but significant moments of their own lives reflected the pages. I hear about children who request Good Night, Me every evening as their final book before falling asleep and mimic the little orang-utan’s actions, about exasperated mums finding solace in Shrieking Violet, about little girls who insist on wearing their red dancing shoes to read Scarlett, Starlet, and toddlers who know every word of Rudie Nudie off by heart even though they can’t read yet, because they’ve had it read to them since they were babies. This is the most rewarding element of my work — knowing my books are a small part of people’s lives, being shared by parents with their children and creating memories. 

NOT A CLOUD IN THE SKY, a picture book by Emma Quay (ABC Books)

Where do you get your ideas from?
The beginning of an idea might pop into my head when I'm waking up, walking or daydreaming. I don’t think any of them have come while I’ve been sitting at the desk in my studio; it’s when I leave work behind that the ideas start to flow — on holiday, or when my mind is a million miles away. Quite a few of my story ideas have come on public transport, when I’m gazing out of the window and my mind is wandering. I make a quick note in my sketch book and often scribble a little picture too, without worrying what it looks like. Then I leave it. Other ideas might pop into my head days or months later and stick to the first idea, thus building up a story. Or the first little idea might sit all alone in my sketch book for ever!

Emma Quay's art materials

What do you use to do your illustrations?
Lots of things — I try to vary the media between books. I’ve used graphite and coloured pencils, acrylic paints, watercolours, gouache, chalk pastels, leaf printing, charcoal, brush and ink, wax crayons, Biros, potato printing and Photoshop. I’ve painted and drawn with drinking straws, twigs, my fingers, chopsticks, lumps of polystyrene, felt-tipped pens, toothbrushes, strips of cardboard, feathers, corks, sponges, toilet rolls, rollers and palette knives. I hope to try more and more. I find similarities between the building up of layers in Photoshop and the separate inked plates or screens of some of my favourite printmaking techniques... but Photoshop is nowhere near as messy.

SCARLETT, STARLET, a picture book by Emma Quay (ABC Books)

Do your books reflect your real life?
Well, there’s one book that wouldn’t have happened if my girls hadn’t danced and I hadn’t spent many, many hours in audiences and dressing room at eisteddfods. However the book is more about my thoughts as I came away from dance competitions than about my daughters specifically. It’s called Scarlett, Starlet, and it’s a picture book about a little girl who starts to dance from the moment she hops out of bed in the morning. Scarlett leaps and twirls across the pages and her parents think she’s the bees knees, but she can’t help wondering what it would be like to perform on a real stage, for a real audience... not just Mummy and Daddy. I wrote Scarlett, Starlet for the child that dances all the time without knowing they’re doing so. The book is about doing something for the love of it, and I suppose it’s also my counter to all the films and books about reaching for the stars and getting them. Scarlett dreams of the stage but finds her true rhythm at home, dancing for her mum and dad, to the sound of her little dog’s paws tap-tap-tapping on the tiles. 

Illustrations by Emma Quay from RUDIE NUDIE, BABY BEDTIME and DADDY'S CHEEKY MONKEY

Which do you prefer — illustrating someone else's text or your own story?
I enjoy both; having the pictures and the words come at the same time is a wonderful way to create a picture book, but illustrating another author's words takes me to places I would never have thought of myself — it has its own delights. 

SHRIEKING VIOLET and RUDIE NUDIE - picture books by Emma Quay (ABC Books)

So, the words don’t come before the pictures?
When an idea pops into my head for the first time, it usually has some sort of image attached to it and either the title or a phrase too — so, both words and pictures, together. A bit further down the track, when my agent shows the proposed project to a publisher, the whole text will have been written and I’ll have done a couple of character sketches or a sample illustration, so the commissioning editor has an idea of how I’m envisaging the book will look. If the book is contracted, I’ll then complete all the illustrations — thirty-two pages of them, plus a cover. Then there’ll be a final text edit at the end, when we see the words alongside the pictures. It’s a constant juggle between the two! (You can get an insight into the processes involved in creating a picture book on the Illustrating page of this website.)

Reading MY SUNBEAM BABY by Emma Quay (ABC Books) — with many thanks to Vanessa and Ava Maroon

Can you tell us about your new book?
It’s a picture book about how much we love our babies, which I’ve both written and illustrated. It’s called My Sunbeam Baby, and has three hundred babies in it. I used every art material under the sun to pour lots of colour into the illustrations, and I have to admit I loved every minute of it! The book is out this month — exciting!

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m illustrating my first Christmas book!

What do you like doing when you're not working on children's books?
I love going to art galleries, eating, playing the flute, practising yoga, walking my dog, watching my daughters dance, travelling, and laughing with my family and friends. 

What are you bad at?
I have no sense of direction, and I absolutely cannot hit a squash ball with a squash racquet.

Do you think you’ll ever want to write a novel, or illustrate books for adults?
I don’t think so. I grew up surrounded by children’s books — I even tried to turn my bedroom into a children’s library by cataloguing them! I love the picture book medium with all its limitations and its possibilities. Picture books never fail to challenge and fascinate me, and I feel very lucky to spend every day with them. 

Illustrations and art materials in Emma Quay's studio