Tag Archives: Owlkids Publishing

“I grew up in an old church and the windows in my room were green bubble glass. The light would change so dramatically throughout the day. I loved that. I guess that is why I work with light.” | Q&A with Illustrator Elly MacKay

I purchased a copy of Maya at the 2016 Toronto Word on the Street festival


We tend to think of illustration as something involving lines drawn on a piece of paper. But in the case of Elly MacKay’s work, there is something a lot more. She works with light, paper and photography, which creates images that draws anyone in. MacKay recently illustrated the book Maya (which just has become one of a favourite item of people who visit my library) and answered a few questions for me – ‘illustrating’ how she creates her works.


1) How long did it to create the images in “Maya?” How did you get involved with the book?


This book took a little longer than usual. I give myself 4 months for each book I work on. This one was a new way of working. I had to consider how to show 3 different worlds. There is the real world (rooftop with Mama), the story world (stories Mama tells), and the dream world where the two come together. Within the dream world, there are many animals… tigers, elephants, peacocks and monkeys. This was the trickiest of the worlds to create. It starts out scary but through reframing her thoughts, the world becomes peaceful and playful.
I met Karen Boserma at the American Library Association. Along with publishing books for kids, Owlkids publishes Chirp, Chickadee and Owl magazine. I was telling her that my brother was on the cover of Owl back in the 80s. We had a nice chat and when a book came up that needed shadows, Karen and her team thought of my work.

2) How did you get started in illustration?

I took a couple of illustration classes in university. My professor would sometimes give me his overflow work. It was great experience. I did some logo work, editorial illustrations and made an activity book for Nova Scotian kids. I also had a neat job going through the Nova Scotia Archives, picking old lithos that would become covers for historical romance novels.
Sample page from Maya

3) Are there any illustrators that you admire? If yes, who are they and why do you admire them?

One of my favourites is Stéphane Jorisch . His use of line is so beautiful. Eunsil Chun is another favourite. Her work is at once delicate but also strong.  Her use of
negative space is really what I love, along with her characters. (Link to her website) Julie Morestad for her whimsy and wistfulness. (Link) Isabelle Arsenault for her unique compositions and I’m just in awe of the range she has. (Link) Jon Klassen for his subtle sense of humour and gorgeous, sparse landscapes. (Link) Sydney Smith for his loose linework and muted colours. (Link) Qin Leng for the complexity of her images. Also for her joyfulness. (Link)
Gosh, I could just go on and one with 20 or more names but since I have pretty much named all Canadians here with the exception of Ensil Chun, I’ll leave it.

4) You seem to have a complex technique to the creation of your images – starting with the use of paper to the lighting right up to the photography of the whole illustration. Did it take you long to learn all those skills and bring them all together? Do you have an all-time favourite illustration that you created?

I grew up in an old church and the windows in my room were green bubble glass. The light
would change so dramatically throughout the day. I loved that. I guess that is why I work with light. I’ve always been fascinated with how light changes atmosphere. I guess we are products of our environment… I came to work with paper because my Mom, Joan Irvine wrote books on how to make pop-ups. I was always working away with paper with her or making sculptures in the basement with my potter Dad, Steve Irvine. He is also a photographer. It seems like a strange job I guess, making little things out of light, paper and photographing them but it is just the result of growing up in that home I think. I’ve been making things this way since I was 14 or so.
A favourite one? I suppose From Shore to Shore. You know those places that exist in your dreams that you return to again and again. This, and Between Tides were both created based on a dreamscape of sorts.
From shore to shore by Elly MacKay. Illustration is a diptych (Two images that work side by side.) Images are linked from Etsy.com

5) How does the public react to your illustrations? Is there any memorable reaction to something you have created you care to share?

I always love showing the process I use to children. We make a little world together and turn out the lights. When I light the theatre, they all get so excited. I love that.

6) Do you get a chance to travel and speak about your work? If yes, is it something you enjoy doing?

Yes, I really love doing school visits and writers festivals. I have a bachelor of education that I don’t get to use, so getting a chance to work with kids is always something I really enjoy.

The Builders by Elly MacKay. Image linked from her website

7) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

I am working on a book called Waltz of the Snowflakes for Running Press right now. It is a wordless picture book that celebrates the colour and life that music and dance can bring to a dreary day. It will be out in Fall 2017. (Link to Running Press’ webpage for Waltz of the Snowflakes) I am also working on one for Tundra that is built from old weather sayings. It is called Red Sky at Night.

8) You seem to have an avid presence on both Facebook and Twitter. How do you like being on those platforms in relation to you work?

I like seeing what others are working on through Twitter and Facebook. Facebook has been great for sharing and getting some feedback too.

9) Your online biography has you listed as living in Owen Sound, Ontario. How do you like living there? Are there any aspects to the Owen Sound region that particularly inspire you in your work?

It is a great place to live. We have rocky beaches, sandy beaches, hiking trails/ski trails, and waterfalls all nearby and a great community of like-minded people here. It has a concert hall that brings in bands, an art gallery, wonderful library, artist co-op and a forest school that just opened. It is also affordable to buy a home here. I feel like the spokesperson for this town… But I really do love it. And yes… This place, especially the land half an hour north of Owen Sound, where I grew up is my constant source of inspiration.

Leaves Leave by Elly MacKay. Image linked from her website


Link to Elly MacKay’s WordPress blog

Link to Elly MacKay’s website

Link to OwlKids’ webpage for “Maya”

Link to my Q&A with Maya’s author Mahak Jain -“I wanted to write about a world where animals as different as the peacock, monkey, elephant, tiger, and snake would find themselves gathered around a banyan tree. Maya’s story emerged from that dream.”

“I wanted to write about a world where animals as different as the peacock, monkey, elephant, tiger, and snake would find themselves gathered around a banyan tree. Maya’s story emerged from that dream.” | Q&A with author Mahak Jain


My exploration into children’s books has found a whole new set of authors for me to explore. One of those new authors is Mahak Jain. Her book Maya was certainly well-crafted and lyrical. (See my review The Well-Crafted World of Maya) but in researching and communicating with  Jain, I was able to see she is a writer worth following. Jain was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about her work.


1) How long did it take you to write Maya? Was there something specific that inspired you to write the book?

It’s a tough thing to quantify. I wrote the first draft fairly quickly, in a few hours, but then I set it aside, for almost two years. But I probably learned things in those two years that I needed to learn to help reshape the draft. As for inspiration, I wanted to write about a world where animals as different as the peacock, monkey, elephant, tiger, and snake would find themselves gathered around a banyan tree. Maya’s story emerged from that dream.

2) How has the reaction been to Maya? Have there been any memorable reactions or comments to the book you care to share?

The reaction has been so positive, but (Illustrator Elly MacKay’s) response, which was among the very first, still stands out. She said that when she reached the end of the story, she teared up, and that’s why she decided to illustrate the book. I am very lucky to have worked with an artist as tremendous as Elly who connected with the story so deeply.

3) Your biography lists you having published short stories and poetry. Was writing Maya much of stretch for your writing ability? Would you write another picture book?

I actually wrote Maya first. Maya was the first time I wrote a complete story that worked, and I learned a lot from writing and revising it. It’s for sure informed the short stories I’ve written since. I am definitely interested in working on another picture book, when the right idea comes along.

4) Your short story “The Origin of Jaanvi” will be published in the forthcoming in The Journey Prize Stories 28. Could you give an outline of the story? How do you feel about having the story selected for that collection?

“The Origin of Jaanvi” is about a scientist whose relationship with his wife fractures while they wait to find out if their unborn child will inherit his blood disorder. But it’s also about internalized racism, arranged marriages, and the tension between science and religion. And it’s an amazing thing to have a story selected for the anthology, alongside such incredible writers and by such incredible writers. I am thrilled.

5) Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?

Toni Morrison, J. K. Rowling, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kazuo Ishiguro, Junot Diaz, Charlotte Bronte, Zadie Smith, Jane Austen, Robin McKinley, Maggie Stiefvater, Kyo Maclear, and so, so many more. Right now I’m reading the young adult novel Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor. I’ve just started it, but it’s absolutely wondrous.

6) You seem to have an active presence on social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. How do you like using those apps in relation to your writings?

I don’t think of Facebook or Twitter as related to my writing. I find them handy for staying in touch with people and sharing articles and news. Because so much of my life revolves around writing, that’s what I end up sharing, but for me the platforms are social tools, ways of connecting, the way e-mail or texting are.

7) You are scheduled to speak at the 2016 Word on the Street Festival in Toronto. Do you participate in many public events for your writing? Is appearing in public for your writing something you enjoy?

I actually do enjoy it. I am a solitary person and most definitely an introvert, but I like participating in literary events and gatherings. I love meeting and talking to people, especially in a setting that’s centred around what I love most—stories and language.

8) Your biography lists you as having been born in Delhi and having lived in numerous locations around the world before settling now in Toronto. How do you like living in Toronto? Are there any cultural institutions in the city that you specifically enjoy and inspire your imagination?

I love Toronto. I feel very much at home here. But because I’ve moved so much, I enjoy the simple things. The owners of the corner store know and recognize me, for example. And so does the owner of my local coffee shop and the servers at the restaurant where I eat most often. I didn’t have that kind of familiarity before I moved to Toronto and decided to stay put, so I really appreciate it.

9) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

Yes—right now, I am working on a novel about a teenage girl who trains mythical warbirds. 


Link to Mahak Jain’s website

Link to Owlkids Book website for Maya

Link to Mahak Jain’s profile page for the 2016 Toronto Word on the Street festival

The Well-Crafted World of Maya | Review of “Maya” by Mahak Jain/Illustrated by Elly MacKay (2016) OwlKids Books

A book that is well thought-out and crafted – no matter how small or short it is  – is a pleasure to spend time with and carefully ponder. To appreciate the fine details that encourage a reader to loose themselves in a plot of a story seem almost enlightening to anyone’s mind. And there is plenty to ponder over in the detailed efforts of Mahak Jain and Elly MacKay in Maya.


There is a lyrical way the prose of the story flows here, written by Mahak Jain. We follow Maya who is fearful because the lights have gone out and her father isn’t around to light the candles to soothe her like he usually does. Maya’s mother tell a tale of how the first monsoon came to be creating the first banyan tree. But soon the tale takes on a life of it’s  own as Maya begins to imagine herself among the beings in that tree.


“The first monsoon was a long time ago,” Mumma said. “The earth filled with rivers, and water seeped into the ground. Everyone was scared that the heavy rain would wash away their homes and destroy their crops.

“One little girl was especially afraid. What if the waters washed her away while she slept?”

Maya clasped her mother’s hand. “This doesn’t sound like a happy story.”

“By the bank of a new river,” Mumma continued, “Rested a banyan tree. Just a sapling, it drank and drank. The monsoon rains flowed through its roots. They fed its thirty leaves and swelled its young trunk, and soon the sapling was a small tree.

“As the tree grew, so did the branches. They grew wider, until they could bear the weight of a tiger. They grew longer, until a peacock could strut in their shade. And then the branches sprouted roots that dropped like ropes, until a monkey could swing through them in play.”

Jain has definitely used her skills from her short story and poetry experiences into this story. The plot seem to sing off the page and into the reader’s mind, almost staying in place. And the story within the story of the plot has a magical feel to it, enchanting the reader to go forward with the book.


The images that MacKay has crafted for this book are brilliant and illuminating (not just on there own but they illuminate the plot of the story as well.) A reader could get lost in the images alone for hours on end for the detail they show and the feelings they give off.


Mahak Jain and Elly MacKay have crafted a truly gifted book with Maya. The words sing off the page and the illustrations literally enrich the story. And with that right combination of elements, the book is a pleasure to ponder over.


Link to OwlKids books website for Maya

Great video on Youtube showcasing how Maya came together

Link to Mahak Jain’s website

Link to Elly MacKay’s website

Link to Mahak Jain’s page for Toronto’s Word on the Street Festival for Sept. 25, 2016



The Crafting of a Good Book Without Words | Review of “Skunk On A String” by Thao Lam (2016) Owlkids Books


There was a kind of synergy created when we were younger and learning to read. Teachers, TV hosts and even our parents somehow combined creating arts and crafts with reading. But then we grew up and somehow art and reading became separate items. Yet there is a joy to be had in a young-at-heart souls when we discover a book that combines the two items again for us. And while Skunk On A String may be a book for the younger set, the collages Thao Lam has created to illustrate this book, should appeal to anybody.


The book has a certain type of whimsy to it but it is a well-crafted form of whimsy. There is a story about a skunk who is trapped by a string on a balloon. And yes, we follow that skunk past all sorts of surprised beings who are too surprised and scared to help that poor skunk out. Yet it is when we look at Thao Lam’s biography we can truly appreciate the skill that went into this book.

Excerpt from the description on the back flap

Thao Lam fled from Vietnam to Canada with her family as a child. Learning English was difficult, and it was picture books that helped her understand this new world and ignited her passion for visual storytelling. She has an insatiable love for colored and textured papers, which she uses to create her exuberant collages.

Skunk On A String by Thao Lam may be a picture book created for the young but it also has appeal for us that are young at heart. Lam’s collages made of different types of paper bring a well-crafted zeal to the book that anybody can appreciate.


Link to Thao Lam’s website

Link to Owlkids Publishing website for Skunk On A String

Link to Toronto’s Word On The Street festival’s website hosting Thao Lam’s appearance on Sept. 25, 2016