‘Children always see more in your work than you ever thought possible,’ – artist Helen Hancocks on illustration, inspiration and life in bookshops

‘I sent some work off to publishers and they said wanted to meet me,’ she says. ‘I expected to just get work experience but they said ‘Oh no, we’d actually like to contract this book up and publish it.’ That was the moment when I was like, oh, this can actually be a thing.'

A few years ago, Helen Hancocks was on the London Underground with her father and brother. It was a busy carriage and Helen and her brother were on one side, her father on the other. Suddenly, her father started flapping his arms and mouthing at them. It was only when they got off that Helen saw the little boy in the pram reading one of her picture books. 

Helen Hancocks

‘If I’d had the conviction, I would have said ‘I wrote that!’ Hancocks tells me, ‘but I just went ‘oh that’s nice,’ and jumped off the train!’ 

We’re sitting in the Bailgate Deli in Lincoln, where we both live, drinking hot chocolate and catching up. I first met Hancocks when we worked together in a bookshop in the city centre. She’s now left the shop to pursue her freelance career as an artist full-time. Still, you can always tell which review cards were written by Helen – her handwriting is quirky and cool, clear but with character. She knows how to wield a Sharpie.

Art is in her blood. Her grandparents were printmakers at Grimsby college, specialising in lino print, and, while her parents earned money as teachers, they were both practising artists in their spare time. 

Helen always loved drawing, loved the work of Maurice Sendak, Judith Kerr and Shirley Hughes as a small child. However, though she always wanted to work in the arts, it was the discovery of Oliver Jeffers as a teenager that made her consider writing and illustrating picture books as a career. She graduated from Manchester School of Art with a first-class degree in illustration and animation in 2011, started putting together her first picture book. 

‘I sent some work off to publishers and they said wanted to meet me,’ she says. ‘I expected to just get work experience but they said ‘Oh no, we’d actually like to contract this book up and publish it.’ That was the moment when I was like, oh, this can actually be a thing. And then there’s the moment you actually see it in a shop. I still haven’t lost that excitement yet.’ 

Her first book, Penguin in Peril, was published in 2013 by Templar Publishing and follows three cats who steal a penguin so he can catch fish for them to eat. 

‘I read a news article about a boy stealing a penguin from a zoo,’ says Hancocks. ‘I couldn’t draw people so I drew cats instead.’

Penguin in Peril has now been translated into French, Polish, German, Danish & Chinese. It was nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal 2014, as well as Shortlisted for Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2014, Peters Book Award 2014 & The Cambridge Read It Again Award 2014. 

Hancocks really is very good at drawing cats. Her William series is based on her cousin’s cat, William. 

‘He’s such a lovely, handsome cat,’ she says. ‘I imagined what he might do – go on adventures, you know. And then I pitched this to my editor and they were like, why? What’s his motivation? So then it became more of a crime caper. It didn’t start out like that – he was just going to be a travelling cat that went to a different city in each book but, yeah, then it became a crime story.’

She’s good at cats but Hancocks can now also definitely draw people. Her book, Ella Queen of Jazz, is based on the life of Ella Fitzgerald. In 2017, Helen hosted an event at Cheltenham Jazz Festival. 

‘People were buying tickets for the launch event so there was a lot of pressure,’ she says. ‘I had two lovely performers singing and doing some jazz which helped a bit but I’m not very confident with reading aloud. I have learned that I should read it aloud as I write though because that’s how it will be read or listened to later.’ 

Performance is quite a large part of an illustrator’s career, strange though it may seem, as art is usually a fairly solitary activity. Hancocks spends a lot of time running workshops in galleries and visiting schools. 

‘The kids always see so much more in your books than you ever thought possible,’ she says. ‘I went to a school once and they’d done the first William book as their book for the term. They didn’t just read the book; they learned about Paris. They had a fake trip to Paris by setting out the chairs as if they were on a plane, ate croissants and learned about different monuments and art movements. The first William book is set in a gallery so they learned about Matisse and surrealism which wasn’t bad, seeing as it all started with my silly idea about a cat solving a crime in Paris.’ 

Helen’s art is delightful, draws on her love of animals, travelling, people, cake, culture and film. She’s designed logos for businesses, prints for walls. You can get her illustrations on tote bags, hang her paintings in your house. It’s a brighter world, the one in which Helen’s characters live, and must be a fabulous place for children to start savouring stories. 

‘Working in the bookshop was an eye-opener,’ Helen says. ‘You think you’d just be reading books all day and maybe making pretty displays, but there’s actually a lot more to it. That said, it is my pipe-dream that one day, perhaps when I’m in my sixties, I’ll have a bookshop just for picture books. There’s a really beautiful place in Bologna, for the Bologna Book Fair, which is just a children’s bookshop. It’s wonderful – that’s my dream.’ 

The bookshop was also a great place to get inspiration, to pick up on other writers and illustrators creating interesting books. Helen is a great person for book recommendations. 

Gotta Dance, Gotta Dance, 2014 (copyright Helen Hancocks)

‘My favourite book that I read while I was at the shop was The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius,’ she says. ‘It’s a 9-12 book and it’s set in Portugal. Quite a hefty book for 9-12-year-old but really brilliant adventure read. I really like Katherine Woodfine’s series, which is a detective series, set at the turn of the century. In terms of picture books, I love anything by Carson Ellis, John Klassons, Oliver Jeffers, David Roberts and Isabella Arsenault. They’re all really amazing.’ 

If you want to know more about Helen and her art you can visit her website here. To find out the details of her workshops follow her on Twitter and Instagram. She has a shop where you can buy prints and merchandise. That’s if I don’t buy it all first. 

Nothing in the Rulebook editor, Ellen Lavelle, is a graduate of the University of Warwick’s prestigious Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s working on a novel and interviews authors for her blog – you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter. She is currently commissioning features for Nothing in the Rulebook and can be reached via the email address.

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