Life After the MA in Children’s Illustration at Cambridge Anglia Ruskin University by Julia Woolf

When I was invited to do another post for the Picture Book Den (the last one was in July 2013) I really wasn’t sure what to write about. But as the first post had been about studying on the MA, I thought that I should now do an update about how things have been going since graduating in 2015.

I did the part time course at Cambridge, which took 2 1/2 years. It was a great experience, which I thoroughly enjoyed and I graduated with a distinction.The course is exceptional in making one experiment with different processes and also in its links with the publishing houses. The stand that it has at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair is a great way to showcase your work to publishers with the hope of getting a book deal.

I was lucky enough to acquire my first author/illustrator book deal with Macmillan on my first visit to Bologna a year before I graduated.It was an amazing and exciting experience. My book ‘Giraffe on a Bicycle’ came out in January 2016.

So what’s happened since then? … Well, ‘Giraffe on a Bicycle’ was featured on the BBC’s Cbeebies Bedtime Stories, read by Sir Chris Hoy.

‘Duck and Penguin Are Not Friends’, (my third author/illustrated book) published in 2019 by Andersen Press went on to receive a nomination for CILIP Kate Greeenaway Medal 2020. It was also in the BookTrust’s  ‘Great 100 Book Guide for 2020’.

‘Calm Down Zebra (my second book with the author Lou Kuenzler) published by Faber and Faber in 2020 went on to receive a nomination at The Sheffield Children Book Awards 2020.

Alongside my published work, my illustration ‘Fox in the Forest’ which I made while on the MA, was the inspiration for the architects, Hawkins Brown’s design of Ivydale Primary School in South London, which subsequently won the RIBA London Award 2018 and in the same year I won the ARU Alumni Contribution to Culture Award.

So all this, and ten books later (four of which are author/illustrated), all sounds really exciting, which of course all the above was, but it doesn’t really paint an accurate picture of what’s been going on and the personal struggles of motivating oneself to produce work in the hope of a publisher wanting to give you another book deal. And it goes without saying there have been many rejections of book dummies.

I find it extraordinary how one day I can feel elated and excited by working through a new project and the next day have real feelings of doubt and not being very good at what I do. I think this had a lot to do with working on my own day in day out and looking at Instagram too much.

I miss the discussions I had with fellow students on the MA. How we would all help each other with our work.

Having come from an animation background where I had worked in a studio environment for 20 years, it was a bit of an adjustment getting used to working in isolation. I miss the advice that you could get from working alongside others. I learnt so much that way and the MA had a similar feel.I do call up and talk to my MA friends fairly frequently and we discuss our current projects and ideas. But it’s not quite the same as seeing each other in person.

Going back to instagram, and the need to be out there in the social media world doesn’t come second nature to me. Being older and not growing up in a computer environment was a bit of a struggle to get my head round. Also blowing one’s own trumpet was another thing that my generation seemed to be encouraged not to do as it was thought of as unseemly. And of course the publishers also want the next great young thing. So I do have those negative feelings of self-doubt in the very competitive world of children’s books. 


There are so many very talented people out there it’s easy to feel a bit rubbish about yourself, old and irrelevant, and so that’s the other thing, teaching yourself to be positive and to concentrate on your own projects and to just get on with them. And if they do get rejected, well loads of people get rejections, so you can either try and improve on the rejected project, or put it to one side for a while and get on with something new.

But of course picture books don’t pay a great deal and do take a long time to earn out the advance. 

Are publishers taking as many risks on new projects? Especially after covid and the cost of living crisis looming.

I have done rather well with PLR (Public Lending Rights) from the libraries, which is a good way to up one’s income.

I am trying to stay positive and just plod on with my new projects. I don’t have a current book deal (at the moment) but I do have some very exciting projects that I’m hoping will be picked up. At the moment I’m working on a graphic novel, which is based on the school in south London so fingers crossed it ends up in print.

I have also redone my website which is a huge relief to me as it hadn’t been updated since graduating from the MA.

I’m still really passionate about my work, so onwards and upwards … hopefully!!

Julia's website  

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