Kerry with her two books (bilingual and monolingual picture dictionaries)

From inspiration to illustration: An interview with illustrator Kerry O’Callaghan.

6 minute read

In spring of this year our bilingual book “My 100 Words” was published. In this blog post we’d like to introduce you to the extraordinary woman behind this work: Kerry O’Callaghan. The Irish artist graduated from the Cambridge School of Art with a master’s degree in Children’s Book Illustration and has since worked as a multimedia designer and illustrator. She lives with her husband and her cat near Cork. 

“100 Words” is her second children’s book after “The A-Z of Minding Me“. In our interview Kerry talks about the sources of her inspiration and the creation of the picture dictionary. She gives us exciting insights into her creative process and reveals what she does when she comes up against a creative block.

How did you come up with the idea for this first-word book?

It began with the idea of making a first-word book but at the beginning, we didn’t have a plan of how it would be structured. There are lots of first-word books with lists of objects, but I wanted to create something with more of a narrative. The idea of traveling through the seasons felt right because each season has something new and special to learn when you’re little. 

Draft image

Can you tell us how you started working on the book? 

First I made very small, rough pencil drawings. They are really scruffy drawings to begin with, but then they became slightly bigger, and when I was happy with the compositions, I moved to drawing on the iPad instead of paper.

I shared the digital drawings with the team to see what they thought. We would meet weekly and discuss what they liked or didn’t like. I’m happy to say, generally, the feedback was good, so I kept going. We discussed back and forth about which scenes to have, and what to take out. From each scene, we talked about which words were important to learn. 

Later I defined what I wanted the color palette to be. I always like to work with a strict palette. Because then you can use more of that color in one situation and less of it in another, but it always makes it feel like one universe. For example, in Autumn I use a lot of yellow. And then in Winter, it’s more blue and white to make it feel colder. But it still has some yellow bits – and this yellow is the same as in Autumn, that way they are connected.

Winter spread

How did you choose which words to use for each spread? 

Choosing the words was quite collaborative. We worked with psychologist Dr. Stephanie Wermelinger to choose the words. We came up with an initial list of words and she checked it for us. If there were some words that she felt were too advanced for the age group, we changed them to make sure they fit.

How did you come up with the personalisation options?

We came up with the personalization quite early on, choosing hairstyles and outfits. Then when all the drawings were finished, I needed to focus on the color of the personalization options. There is a lot to consider: If the hair is red hair and the carpet is red too you won’t be able to see it. With a personalized book, you need to take into account that each child will be different and every color combination needs to work, you don’t want anyone to blend in with the background! So there’s a lot of checking to make sure I use the right colors in the right places.

Did you learn anything new about yourself or about your art during the creation process?

I discovered that I really like to add lots of little details to my drawings. Making a book for younger kids meant I could really have fun with adding small things I felt they would enjoy finding and discussing. I think it’s important for children who can’t read yet to be able to find their own story.

Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any other artists who inspire you?

There are lots of artists I love. I don’t draw like them, but I love to see how they make their compositions. Before I start a project, I love to go through my library and enjoy the lovely artwork. I try not to do this while I’m already working on something because I can end up with too many influences.

In the middle of making this book, I got a kitten and she used to try to interfere with the book-making process. So I would be drawing or working on the laptop and she would like to sit on me. She’s a very affectionate kitten. So I felt like a lot of the time when I was looking for inspiration, she’d be right there! I wonder if you’ve spotted her in the book?

I get a lot of inspiration from everyday things. For example, if I’m making a drawing of a child’s bedroom, it’s so hard to imagine. So actually spending time, looking at my niece or nephew’s bedroom and seeing what kind of things they have in there – and where they leave things laying around – can be very inspiring and helpful!

Kerry's cat and a frog illustration

Do you have a trick for when your creativity feels blocked?

Doing something totally different like cooking or going outside for a walk. Forgetting about what I was stuck on is usually the best thing. I find that even starting on a different page of the book can rejuvenate the process.

Can you tell me about any highlights you’ve had from working on this project?

The fact that we trusted the process. We kept going and reiterating, and it feels like the book took on a life of its own. That’s a highlight in itself: To work together and see the evolution of the book. 

If you had to choose a favorite page of the book, which would it be, and why?

I love the page where the child and the crocodile arrive at the crocodile’s house. I really enjoyed designing the street and the vehicles passing by. I also like the fruit salad that’s being made on the next page!

The book has been published for a while now. What were the reactions?

The reactions have been very nice. My nieces and nephews all have a copy. Seeing how a child responds to the book is definitely the best part for me. They give the most honest reviews as well. When my three-year-old nephew opened the bathroom page, he said “Too many bubbles!”.

Bubble bath image

Can you remember the first words you said when you were a toddler?

I don’t know what my first words were. But I know as a toddler I had my very own word for cornflakes. I called them Tonkels.

About the Book: “100 Words”: Our Bilingual Book that follows the four Seasons 

The personalized children’s book “100 Words” celebrates the diversity of the seasons. From eating in ice cream  summer to adrenaline filled sleigh rides in winter: the visual worlds of this book are full of discovery – and with them a hundred new words to be learnt. The bilingual picture dictionary offers a playful introduction to the world of languages and is aimed at children up to the age of seven. With over 25 languages and dialects, “100 Words” is the most linguistically diverse book in Librio’s collection to date.