“My late great aunt Tinnie was an amazing, eccentric and inspirational woman – she would choose one primary colour a day and would wear that colour from top-to-toe.” Children’s book illustrator Jenna Herman on finding inspiration in family members and nature…
Jenna Herman, 37, lives in Teddington with her husband Tom and their three-year-old son, Jack.
Do you remember your first piece of artwork as a child?
When I was little, my grandmother would come to stay and I’d show her my latest ‘work of art’ – I remember a structure made from toilet rolls and recycled easter egg foil. She spent ages studying it and told me it was ‘absolutely wonderful!’.
What inspired creativity in you when you were growing up?
My family – my grandmother is Danish and has a fantastic taste in art and style. She’s sent me hundreds of museum or gallery postcards over the years – I’ve collected them all and recently pinned them up in my studio.
My late grandfathers were both very creative people too – keen photographers and interested in architecture, travel and culture. My late great aunt Tinnie was an amazing, eccentric and inspirational woman – she would choose one primary colour a day and would wear that colour from top-to-toe, including her glasses frames and a little shoelace tied like a bow at her collar.
Tinnie’s front room was decorated with red rosettes (won at dog shows!) from floor to ceiling. She was an inspiration to my entire family – she taught us all to be ourselves, to be creative, embrace our quirks and to have a laugh!
Were your parents artists?
No, but my mum inherited my grandmother’s love of style and interiors – when I was young and she was a single mum she would get stuck into the decorating or DIY, and made us the best fancy dress outfits (wearing a homemade Madonna ‘cone bra’ at age seven was memorable).
She definitely has an artistic spirit – nowadays she lives in France, and when she’s not getting her hands dirty painting walls or upholstering furniture, she’s doing her local amateur dramatics and just generally being dramatic.
What was your childhood home like?
When I was small we lived with my mum in a perfectly-decorated little white house with a yellow willow tree in the front garden, and a wendy house and a tiny pond in the back garden. Despite being on a surbuban street we kept chickens and ducks in the garden, and I carefully monitored a clutch of chicks hatching in an egg incubator in my bedroom.
I think the neighbours thought we were a bit mad. Mum loved entertaining, she often had friends round, cheese fondue bubbling away and Wham on the stereo (it was the eighties).
Did school nurture you, artistically?
When I started secondary school and my art teacher noticed I could draw, he put the pressure on. He was quite an intimidating man and didn’t want anyone to think art class was time to slack off.
I remember the nauseous feeling I used to get – worried about his critique of our homework. He pushed us all into putting the effort in, and convinced a few of us to pursue artistic studies and careers. Errr but I guess this sounds less nurturing and more dictatorial doesn’t it?!
What piece of art do you remember feeling particularly proud of as a child/teenager?
I was very proud of my first life-drawings, and portraits I did of my classmates. I was asked to paint a full length portrait of a girl in the year below me – she’d been selected to swim at the Commonwealth games so I painted her standing at the end of a diving board. It was hung outside the headteacher’s office for years. I have no idea if it was actually any good, but I was really chuffed with it at the time!
Did you go on to study art?
Yep, I was lucky enough to go the Ruskin School of Art: Oxford University’s Fine Art department. It was actually my school art teacher who pushed me into developing a portfolio and doing the application. It was there where I met Lucy (the writer to my illustrations, and the other half of Doodles & Scribbles).
We were both at St Edmund Hall together – Lucy was a couple of years above me studying English. At the Ruskin I was lucky enough to study Drawing of the Anatomy under tutor Sarah Simblet – she’s an anatomist, botanist, broadcaster and writer, and her work is incredible. Her huge anatomical drawings are mesmerising and I loved her tutorials.
When did you begin focusing on illustrating kids’ books as a career?
Very recently. It’s something I’d always wanted to do, but it wasn’t until Lucy approached me with her lovely poetry while I was on maternity leave (I was working in magazine publishing until then) when I thought ‘I’m absolutely going to do this’.
And so I dusted off my pencils for the first time in years, and started a children’s book design course at night college for a little bit of ‘me-time’ on Monday evenings. It all grew from there.
Three years on, and our first book is doing really well, we’re delighted to be getting fantastic reviews and to be stocked in some of the UK’s best independent bookstores.
We’ve set up our own business and online shop – Doodles & Scribbles – where we sell our books as well as bespoke children’s activity boxes. We run activity workshops and events for children, and we have more books and exciting projects in the pipeline too… I never imagined I’d be able to say it, but I can confidently say this is my career now.
Can you describe your first book?
Parrots Don’t Live in the City! is a hide-and-seek storybook all about looking for emerald parakeets. Emily and Jack go out to a city park to fly their kite – Jack sees a parrot, but Emily doesn’t believe him. We explore the hedgerows and trees looking for that flicker of green feathers, and find all sorts of other animals and creepy crawlies along the way.
It’s been a really fun project – ring-necked parakeets have been spotted all over the country and people are absolutely fascinated by them. Children love to find their precious green feathers. The book is also about taking time to stop and notice nature all around us – even if we live in a bustling city.
Do you envisage it being difficult to make a living as a children’s book illustrator?
It’s difficult to make lots through bookshop sales alone, because everyone along the process takes a cut. But we sell well directly from our website: our shop currently stocks books and lovely children’s activity boxes and we’ll be expanding soon to sell more gifts and prints. Most importantly I’m working for myself now: I can plan things around my family and work when I want to, and that’s hugely valuable to me.
When did children come along, and how has this impacted your career?
Children actually came first. Having a baby gave me that kick up the bum I needed to follow a new career path. Parenthood definitely helped me reassess things – it made me want to challenge myself, and to want my son to be proud of me.
Where do you look for inspiration now?
I’m inspired by my son Jack, the way he explores the world around him, his inquisitiveness and constant enthusiasm, and the random funny things he says.
I find inspiration in the garden, in the walk to the park, and in the huge lavender plant at the end of our street that’s always swarming with bees. I’m inspired by my husband Tom with his creative inventiveness and philosophical spirit.
And of course I’m inspired by Lucy and her latest observations and ideas for new stories and projects.
In what ways do you encourage creativity with Jack?
I’m learning as I go, like any first parent. I guess I’m just letting Jack be himself – at the moment he loves all things musical, and so he makes a hell of lot of noise on his toy keyboard/trumpet/drums.
He’s really into drawing and painting too – although he usually prefers to watch me draw things for him (‘now draw a carrot’, ’now draw a big scary Bergen Troll!’, ’now a crane with a man in it!’). He absolutely loves books, and so we cuddle up – or wrestle – to read three books at bedtime each night.
What is your home like now?
It’s a pretty terraced house which we’ve renovated in a light and airy Danish style. We have some lovely art on the walls – paintings by my friend, artist Hester Finch, as well as pieces I’ve collected over the years: prints, maps, drawings and my own photography.
We often have my husband’s latest home-brew bubbling away in the kitchen or (preferably!) the shed. Our house has a lively atmosphere with a three-year old loon as a housemate – Jack’s friends are often round to play, or he’s out pestering Ella from across the road.
As Jack became a toddler I learnt how to see the world through a child’s eyes again
How do you balance work/life?
Well we’ve worked round the clock to get our book finished and launched, and to get our new business off the ground. So to make it fit around our families we did a lot of work on the night-shift, and during naptimes.
I’m not sure we were winning at the ‘work-life balance’ thing in the weeks leading up to our press deadline! And then there were meetings whilst spoon-feeding purees, boob-feeding and pushing buggies. But it’s been an amazing and rewarding experience for us all – we’ve learnt so much among the way, and I see so much more of my family than would’ve been possible if I’d have gone back to a 9-5.
Jack is currently in nursery 2.5 days a week – it’s hard work squeezing all the work in to those allocated days, but well worth it to be able to spend the other half of the week having fun with him. I just have to be really efficient and disciplined to make it work.
Skype and whatsapp have been an absolute lifesaver when Lucy and I need to chat from opposite ends of London and get things done, and we use a brilliant app called Trello to coordinate our to-do lists.
Can you describe your workspace?
I work from home in an office/studio/spare roomc – there I have a corner desk with postcards covering the wall behind my mac and an ever-evolving storyboard on another wall. Boxes, envelopes, books and supplies stacked high. But work goes through stages, and I’m either beavering away at the computer, or out and about drawing – when I’m drawing I love to go to Bushy Park, The Pheasantry, Kew Gardens, or I have a cuppa at the Fallow Deer on Teddington High Street.
Any tips for other creative parents looking to follow their creative dreams?
I would say embrace parenthood as an opportunity to encourage creativity rather than to act as a hindrance. When I was on maternity leave I started drawing again, I used nap time to develop ideas, and went to night college an followed online tutorials to hone my design skills.
As Jack became a toddler I learnt how to see the world through a child’s eyes again and I’m always amazed by his fascination for every new discovery around him. Long-forgotten memories of childhood came back to me with motherhood too – I feel like more of an artist than ever now!
To launch three more books in the series to follow Parrot’s Don’t Live in the City! and release more new books after then. To expand our shop to sell beautiful gifts and prints. To run more children’s activity workshops in schools, community centres and at other events. For Lucy and I to read at a literary festival. To do the the school drop-off and pick up every day.
Parrots Don’t Live in the City!, written by Lucy Reynolds and illustrated by Jenna Herman, is available at selected bookstores and online for £7.99. Each book comes with a special green feather inside and those ordered directly are prettily wrapped – perfect as a gift, or just a bedtime story treat. For more information, head to: www.doodlesandscribbles.co.uk