Interview with Kimberly Andrews: Creating award-winning children’s books

Kimberly Andrews is a best selling author and illustrator who grew up in the Canadian Rockies, and has also lived and worked in New Zealand, Borneo and the UK.

In London, she worked for The House of Illustration, whose main ambassador is Quentin Blake. She also worked at the Natural History Museum, both in the live Butterfly House and also behind the scenes, assisting the curation of mammal specimens in the dry stores.

Kimberly currently lives in a tiny house in Wellington, where she illustrates and writes, and runs her business, Tumbleweed Tees, which features New Zealand birds and wildlife.

Her best selling picture book Puffin the Architect (2018) won the inaugural NZ Booklovers Best Children’s Book 2018, and was named a Storylines Notable Book 2019. It’s was nominated in two categories at this year’s New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, and took out the Russell Clark Award for Illustration last week.

Kimberly has also just illustrated a beautiful reissue of Joy Cowley’s timeless story Song of the River, bringing this wonderful tale to life for a new generation of young readers.

Song of the River

I chatted with Kimberly about the inspiration behind these new illustrations, life growing up in the Rocky Mountains, and what it's like to be an award winning illustrator.

Song of the River is a beautiful book! Joy Cowley’s words are so simple yet evocative, and your illustrations really bring the story to life! I really enjoyed reading this story of Cam the mountain boy and his journey to the sea, and I love your illustrations. I especially like all the little details in your drawings, the flowers and the little animals. What was your inspiration behind these beautiful artworks?

Thank you so much. My inspiration for the illustrations comes from my childhood memories of growing up in the small mountain town of Banff in Canada, where we spent lots of time exploring the woods and playing in rivers and lakes.

I thought Cam’s look was sort of magical, with his pixie hat and blond hair. I showed a fellow librarian the book, and she commented that it could have been her as a child, which I thought was wonderful, such a universal character. Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind Cam?

That is so great to hear! I spent a lot of time on Cam and his look. I wanted him to look almost gender neutral, which gives him more universality. I’ve been told he has a slight Scandinavian flair, which is nice! I think I drew on my memories of myself and my nephews for inspiration.

I hear you grew up in Canada, in the Rocky Mountains? I’m guessing that just like for Cam, seeing the sea would have been a “one day we will” kind of experience. Do you remember when you first saw the sea? Do you have any stories about the sea you can share with us?

Yes we were very much in the Rocky Mountains, surrounded by rivers and lakes - which are amazing both in summer and winter when they are frozen. We travelled a lot around North America, and we came down to NZ to visit family several times, so luckily for me, I was exposed to the ocean from a young age - so young I cannot remember the first time, unlike Cam!

Can you tell me more about your childhood in the Rockies? It must be a beautiful place to live.

It was magical - there were gorgeous mountains, moose, deers, buffalo and bears, a castle on a hill - it really was like a fairytale looking back. We had lots of great friends, and always seemed to be doing something fun!

What about brothers and sisters, do you have a big family?

I have two awesome older brothers - along with my Mum and Dad we had a wonderful time in Banff. We moved down here to NZ to be closer to my Mum’s family and that is when I got to spend proper time with my wonderful cousins, grandparents, aunties etc.

How long have you been living in New Zealand? How do you find living here compared to living in Canada?

I’ve lived here for ~ 25 years - so most of my life! Canada is an amazing country and has lots of similarities with NZ. I’m very happy and lucky to be living in beautiful Aotearoa.

You’ve lived in some interesting places! Can you tell us more about them? Where is your favourite place in the world?

Yes I have lived in Borneo, England and Canada. I worked as a conservation volunteer in Borneo, living in the jungles surrounded by the most amazing wildlife and biodiversity. Then I moved to London, UK, where I worked at the Natural History Museum, working in the Butterfly House, and volunteering in the mammal department. I was lucky enough to help clean and store taxidermy specimens. Then I lived back in Lake Louise, Canada where I worked in a bookshop in a fancy hotel in the ski town. This is where I immersed myself in picture books and really began drawing and writing.

I think just about every kid in New Zealand learnt to read by reading books by Joy Cowley. I’m curious, when did you first have the opportunity to read her books?

Again it’s probably similar to the ocean- although I wasn’t brought up with her books - I cannot remember not knowing them, so I suppose, they have always been a part of my literary past. She has such an incredible body of work and reputation.

Who was your favourite author growing up?

Jill Barklem who wrote the Brambley Hedge series. I loved everything to do with Brambly hedge, and was fascinated by the world she created. As I grew up, I read more about her process, and learnt that she researched hedgerow life in detail. This gives her tales a genuine feeling - it makes them ‘real’.

And what sort of books do you like reading now?

I love reading fiction, and largely mystery. My husband is currently in a community production of Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ which has stoked my love for Agatha and her plots. I often listen to audiobooks while I’m illustrating - last February when I was illustrating Puffin the Architect, I listened to 8 audiobooks in one week!

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator. In fact, when I was about eight, I actually began a project drawing illustrations for my favourite chapter book, The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye. My plan was a picture for every page, rather ambitious as it’s 112 pages long! (I think I maybe got as far as page 16). I drew my pictures in my loft bed, with watercolour pencils.

Do you have a favourite place to work on your illustrations? Do you have a dedicated studio?

I work downstairs in a shipping container that has been converted into a workshop for our business Tumbleweed Tees. During the day, my husband and I screenprint and do design work down there, then when I am illustrating we bring down the pulley operated desk and that becomes my studio. I work on a Wacom Cintiq with Photoshop. I’ve recently acquired an iPad Pro and I use Procreate on that.

What different sorts of media do you like working with?

Almost all in digital at the moment. I’ve become very happy and ‘at home’ with painting in photoshop.

When did you decide to be an illustrator? Can you tell us a bit about what lead you to this job?

I’m not sure there was one distinct moment, but I can remember when I was travelling, and I was filling out an immigration form and in the ‘occupation’ space I wrote ‘illustrator’ and I remember being so happy to see that! Finally I was an illustrator!

You’ve trained as a biologist and geologist, is that right? How does that relate to your work as an illustrator?

I think it is very important to have a scientific basis for all forms of creativity - if you understand something, then you will be more able to capture it, creatively.

Of all your different jobs, which have you enjoyed the most?

I think one of the best jobs was working in the small mountain town bookshop - I could spend hours each day looking through all the classic books, as well as new, best sellers, lol while snow was falling outside! This gave me a great education in the world of books.

I also enjoyed reading your previous book, Puffin the Architect. The illustrations are so detailed! In fact they remind me a little of the Brambley Hedge books, which I, too, enjoyed reading when I was young. Did you ever want to be an architect yourself? The houses in the story are all so clever! Where did the inspiration for them come from?

Puffin the Architect

Thank you! That is such high praise - I love Brambley Hedge! I never considered being an architect, but I think it would be an incredible job. My inspiration came from the planning and eventual building of my own Tiny Home. My husband and I, along with a team of building designers, built a tiny home out of a 40ft shipping container. I spent hours and hours looking at books, magazines and YouTube videos of tiny homes. That obsession meant that I really couldn’t think of much else, and when it came time to write a story, the advice is... write what you know!

I hear Puffin the Architect won the NZ Booklovers Award for Best Children’s Book, and just this week won the Russell Clark Award for Illustration. That must be really exciting! What does it feel like to have written and illustrated an award winning book?

It is amazing! I am so incredibly proud of this book and it’s achievements. I thought it was great enough just getting my very own book published, but to have it so well received and recognised is overwhelming. It also is amazing to meet so many kids who like the book - that is the highest praise!

Do you have any books on the go at the moment?

I am currently working on a book - revisiting the world of Puffin and her friends...

 I'll be sure to keep an eye out for that! I'm sure it'll be just as wonderful as the first one—I can't wait to see what Puffin and her Pufflings do next.

Further reading