I first met Sarah Parkinson in our English language and literature class at college so it’s fitting that we both ended up having careers in writing! Being a children’s author takes a lot of creativity and so many people are interested in this field that I thought it would be great for the interview series.

Not only does Sarah write her own books but she also illustrates them so here she is talking all about how she changed careers and pivoted into her dream job with a little help from a wild cast of characters…

Author Sarah Parkinson with her characters the shoe foxes. Credit: Sarah Parkinson
Author Sarah Parkinson with her characters the shoe foxes. Credit: Sarah Parkinson

How would you describe what you do?

Drawing and daydreaming! In real terms, I write and illustrate children’s books. Sometimes for me and sometimes I do it for other people. I also love getting out from behind my desk and working with kids to inspire them to do the same!

What was your old job and how do you use the skills gained in that industry?

It took a few jobs for me to figure out what I wanted to do and I’ve had an eclectic mix of them that lead up to me becoming an author. My degree was in advertising, which sometimes helps me with stories, as writing a TV ad isn’t a million miles away from writing a children’s book (especially when coming up with good twists!) I also worked as a marketing coordinator which helped with the self-promotion all authors need to do, like websites and social media. As I am quite outgoing I was always put up for giving presentations and training for work, which was great practice for taking my writing and drawing classes into schools.

Extract from one of Sarah's books. Credit: Sarah Parkinson
Extract from one of Sarah’s books. Credit: Sarah Parkinson

What inspired you to change careers and how did you do it?

Having my daughter, Megan! Returning to work after maternity leave proved difficult as a pre-agreed plan to return part-time was taken away. As with many women who are in this situation, I was faced with the horrible reality of going to work pretty much purely to pay for childcare, which meant paying someone else to look after my daughter for nothing. I mulled over various ideas of what I could do to earn money and when I thought about publishing children’s books it suddenly became obvious what my dream was all along.

Luckily, I have a very supportive husband who saw my passion and understood that we needed to live on one wage for a while. So I shopped thriftily, wrote, illustrated, planned and storyboarded every moment that our baby was asleep and kept working until I had my book.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to change careers?

If you know the path you want to take, you need to dedicate time and planning to make it happen. You need to tell yourself that you will do what it takes. Break down any mammoth tasks into manageable chunks and work your way down the list towards a deadline date. Find that fire in your belly and use it as the power to get the job done!

What books have you written and what are you working on now?

‘The Shoe Foxes’, ‘Dragonfly Pie’ and ‘Noisy Nora’ are the three I’ve written and illustrated so far in my ‘Tales of Willow Park’ children’s book series. I’m currently working on a Christmas book to be released at the end of November 2021 and I’m also illustrating books for other authors, which has been a real change this year! I’ve also been working on a private commission for someone who lost their wife to cancer a couple of years ago and wanted a children’s book memory of her life to pass to her niece. A sad project but a very fulfilling one!

How do you go about starting a new book?

I write down LOTS of ideas as I go along…these ideas come at the most random times of day and I have to write them down when I have them otherwise they will be lost forever. I usually use a notepad app on my phone as I know I won’t lose it! When I have time to work on a new book I will sit down and scroll through these ideas with a cup of tea and see if anything excites me. My books are inspired by facts in nature so sometimes I will get the perspective of my husband who has a zoology degree and is now a scientist. He’s a great sounding board!

What advice do you have about pursuing illustration as a career?

It sounds obvious but carve out time every day to draw. Keep sketchpads everywhere. You can do singular standout images but you should also show that you can do a story. Do your own version of a common fairy-tale and put your own twist on it. Maybe even write your own stories and self-publish like me!

Are there any negatives to working for yourself and how do you manage your time?

I have the happy combination of working for myself while also working for Team Author – a company that works specifically with authors to help them self-publish. I’m always managing my own time, but I also have the support of the network of fantastic authors and illustrators there to talk through any difficult weeks. I use a sort of Kanban board to organise my tasks and break everything down into manageable chunks to reduce the overwhelm.

What impact does nature have on you as both an illustrator and an author?

Nature never fails to relax and inspire me. Getting out with my 3-year-old, Megan can be difficult at times but right from that initial step out of my front door to some fresh cool air I am instantly feeling in a better state of mind. I love the endless nuggets of juicy facts about plants and animals that I know the kids will enjoy hearing and find ways to interweave them into my stories.

What are your predictions for the future of the children’s book world and what would you like to see?

I think that following Covid there will be a boom of self-published authors who always wanted to release a book that are taking the steps to make that dream come true. I also hope that this removal of barriers of getting through agents and traditional publishers will help more ethnicities, cultures and different family setups to get onto bookshelves! This puts huge power in the hands of all the parents, guardians and teachers – what books will you show your kids? This is an opportunity to create a rich tapestry of reading material on our bookshelves to enjoy every night along with our most loved classics from when we were young.

What new children’s authors do you really admire at the moment?

We love reading about the female space engineer who had to fix an old ship to go to the ball (Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood). I also like the real-life story of a British rugby star who started at school not doing so well in other sports, but when he kept trying he finally found what he was good at. It’s called ‘Bounce Back Jack’ by Sarah Griffiths.

What books do you really love from childhood and why?

My love of stationery and getting post meant the Jolly Postman was a firm favourite with me! We also had a lot of the old traditional ladybird books from my parent’s childhood but when re-reading some of them now I think they need a modern twist (as many authors have done already!). I also always have a place in my heart for the Brambly Hedge stories and illustrations by Jill Barklem – a huge inspiration for the secret underground tunnels in ‘Noisy Nora’!

Follow Sarah on Facebook, Twitter, watch her on YouTube and visit her website and bookshop.

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