“Life is far too amazing and magical to play small”

Our Spring issue was illustrated by the brilliant and hugely talented Dorien Brouwers. NB’s Designer, Rob Garraway, was delighted to speak to Dorien about her inspiration, her latest book, and her recommended reads.

1) What inspired you to write SAIL?

Life, I suppose, and all it has to offer! But Sail is a funny one as I wasn’t even trying to write another book. The story dropped into my head during a quiet moment. It felt good, you know, that fire in the belly kind of feeling. So I jumped up and ran for a piece of paper and a pen. I wrote it down in one go, in rhyme, something which has never happened before – or since, unfortunately.

2) What was the artistic process like – what did you love the most? What were the greatest challenges?

I really enjoyed working with the people at Little, Brown Young Readers (LBYR). They are all so passionate about making books and come with a wealth of knowledge. My editor Andrea Spooner was brilliant at pointing out issues that needed resolving (both in text and illustrations) while simultaneously giving me the creative freedom to solve them. A real skill. The book still carries my voice, it’s still my creation, but it wouldn’t be what it is today without her input.

I really enjoyed painting the waves and the sea creatures. The manta rays, in particular, were a joy to draw. You can pretty much put one down without taking your pencil off the paper; their lines are stunning. Mother Nature truly is the best designer. Then, painting them was a lot of fun; I could let the black bleed into the water and do its thing.

What I love the most is when you’re creating something, and it’s going well, and you have some nice music on, and you’re in that flow state (pun intended). I love that. And it’s nice to see people respond to the end result. ‘Sail’ seems to resonate with a lot of people.

Writing Sail was easy and hard. That first draft was a gift, but it was far from perfect. Plus, LBYR added some extra pages to help with the story’s flow and make the pagination work for a 40-page picture book. So I had to find a place for those pages and think up additional text. The entire story went through countless editing rounds. It looks so simple, but writing for a young readership in rhyme can be tricky and limiting. Of course, you can’t let the rhyme lead the story. Otherwise, the boat ends up in the moat, and its captain is…oh!…a goat.

On top of that, there’s the number of beats each sentence has to have to think of too. For example, you can’t have a short sentence followed by a long one because there would be no rhythm to the story, and it would be awkward to read aloud. So there was a lot of syllable counting.

3) What was your journey to becoming an illustrator? Was this something you always wanted to do?

I have enjoyed drawing for as long as I can remember, but I chose to channel my artistic side into graphic design. I have designed for a whole range of clients (from Pearson Education to Tate Modern) and loved it. Sometimes I would illustrate for a project, and I always really enjoyed that. But I never really knew what to do with my love for drawing until my son was born. I started writing and illustrating my own books as a gift to him.

A visit to London Zoo inspired my first story: ‘The Remarkable Pigeon’, which is about a pigeon visiting the zoo and comparing himself to all the other birds. In the end, he realises he has his own things that make him unique. It’s a story about not comparing yourself to others and finding your own strengths. The story is followed by a glossary with facts about all the birds. It was published by Salariya Publishing. I then wrote some more stories and things snowballed from there.

4) What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?

I had to think about this a couple of years ago and still stand by this: “You are so much bigger than you think you are (and so is everyone else), don’t ever doubt it.” I’ve always done what feels right regardless of self-doubt; to be guided by curiosity rather than fear. Now that I’m a little older and know myself a bit better, I’ve come to realise that life is far too amazing and magical to play small.

5) The books which have gotten you through the past 12 months:

I’ve been re-reading passages from some of my favorite books: ‘Big Magic’ by Elizabeth Gilbert, ‘The Untethered Soul’ by Michael Singer, ‘Braving the Wilderness’ by Brené Brown. Those heavily underlined books are my scaffolding.

I recently finished ‘The Midnight Library’ by Matt Haig, which was an entertaining read. And have just started ‘On Being Human’ by Jennifer Pastiloff. That’s promising to be a good read. Next on the list are three books by Ryan Holiday (a renowned thinker and writer on stoic philosophy and its application in modern life).

A book which I didn’t read last year but would recommend to anyone wanting to get stuck into a chunky page-turner during lockdown is ‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts. Strongly influenced by his own adventures in India, it’s 936 pages of sheer adventure and escapism.

6) Are you working on anything new at the moment? 

Yes! Apart from some other illustration and design projects, I’m working on a new picture book called ‘Wild Beings’. Set to be published spring 2022, again with LBYR. It’s about our close connection to nature. I can’t give away too much yet, but it will be packed with all kinds of creatures.