Children’s author Sophy Henn on her winning formula

Sophy Henn

Sophy Henn - Credit: Archant

For children’s author Sophy Henn the combination of her characterful illustration skills and positive storytelling has proven to be a winning formula, as Simone Hellyer discovers

Everyone has a book in them, or so the saying goes, and creating a picture book for children might seem like the easiest way to get yourself published. But, like most things in life, it is not as easy as it seems, as children's author and illustrator Sophy Henn found out when she started writing stories for her young daughter.

Sophy's skills as a talented illustrator have certainly given her an advantage over most aspiring children's authors and she worked hard to combine her art skills with warm and witty writing by doing an MA at the University of Brighton. That hard work has paid off and Sophy has now written and illustrated several award-winning and much-loved books for children.

"There's a particular tutor of mine from when I was doing my BA in fashion at Central Saint Martins that would probably spit his coffee out if he heard me being described as an author," says Sophy.

"It's still a surprise and delight to me when people describe me as an author and illustrator."

After her fashion degree, Sophy embarked on what she describes as an "accidental" career in advertising. She later dipped her toe back into the world of illustration by setting up her own children's greeting card business. The idea for her first book Where Bear came to her while studying for her MA in Brighton and was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize in 2015. She was also chosen as the World Book Day Illustrator for 2015 and 2016. Her most recent book Almost Anything was nominated for the Oscar's Book Prize - an award that recognises the best in under-five's literature published in the past year. When the winner was announced in May she lost out to Ed Vere's How To Be A Lion.

Almost Anything aims to teach children that they are capable of more than they believe and was inspired by Sophy's daughter's birthday parties, as she explains: "There were always little children around the edge who were too nervous to have a go in case they got it wrong. It was the memory of those children and possibly being one of them myself that inspired the story. We all have our moments of bring nervous or anxious of getting things wrong, but often the fun is in the doing and not the end result."

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George, a shy white rabbit, is the star of the book, and was brought to life in Sophy's home studio in Sussex. Her illustrations are all created by hand and then scanned on to her computer to be coloured in and arranged on page. Despite the influx of digital tools that are available to illustrators nowadays, for Sophy it is important that her drawings still retain a handmade feel. "There's something about feeling the catch of the pencil on paper that I still really like, so I don't think I will be going fully digital any time soon," she says.

On the judging panel for the Oscar's Book Prize was Children's Laureate Lauren Child and it was her Charlie and Lola books that helped inspire Sophy's writing ambitions. "I found the language she used and the way she put text and image together really influential," she says. "With picture books there's nowhere to hide and every word has to count and sit within the other words comfortably or it will stick out like a sore thumb. You've got 15 spreads to try and tell a satisfying story and often you are trying to fit quite a lot into that. I think my previous career in advertising has probably helped me with that a bit as well because it taught me to keep stripping things back."

Sophy's imagination for stories and desire to share positive messages with children shows no signs of stopping. Her latest book Super Duper You was published in early May and is described as an inclusive story about celebrating the full rainbow of different personalities and character traits that make each of us unique.

The main inspiration for Sophy's writing career - her daughter - is now all grown up but has proven herself to be an "excellent proof reader", her mum says. One of the greatest rewards of her career nowadays, Sophy says, is seeing her young readers enjoying her books in person: "It came as a huge surprise to me when I started this career that I would be travelling the county and around the world talking about my books. And when you do the events with kids you get a very honest audience and can tell when they are connecting with the stories. There's just no better feeling than that."

She also loves hearing about how children have been helped by her books, including one little girl in America who found the courage to take part in her class' show and tell after her dad read her Almost Anything. Something that Sophy confesses brought rather a few tears to her eyes.

Good to know: Almost Anything is published by Penguin and is available to buy on Amazon from £5.75. Super Duper You, also published by Penguin, retails from £6.99.


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