Spotlight On: Cate James

Cate James photo by Callum Moffat
Category: Bookbug

'Spotlight On' gives you the chance to learn more about the work of authors, publishers and illustrators connected to the Bookbug programme. This month, Illustrator Cate James answers some questions about her work. Cate is the illustrator of Breaking the Spell and the popular Lollipop and Grandpa series. Cate has also illustrated the new Bookbug Song and Rhyme booklet, which you can pick up at your local library.


Tell us a little bit more about your work.

I illustrate mainly for children’s publishing, but also for advertising and branding. I like to draw my images with an old ink pen and then use my computer to build up layers of texture and colour around the line work. I like to make a mess and have inky hands as much as possible.

What is your earliest reading memory?

I remember reading Ant and Bee books. They were my Mum’s books from when she was very young, so they were falling to pieces a bit. Also I think I read a lot of Topsy and Tim, and the Ladybird books with the amazing illustrations.

Who or what is your biggest influence?

I eat a lot of food, use a lot of ink, and whenever possible I nap

I am probably inspired the most by a combination of all the illustrators I loved when I was growing up. I remember copying pictures from books all the time. In particular, Richard Scarry, Mr Men, Rosie’s Walk and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I grew up in the 70s and 80s and I think that the colours I use are influenced by these amazing decades!

Are there any contemporary picture books you wish you’d written or illustrated?

I am not particularly good at writing stories, so there are plenty that I wish I’d written! I adore The Great Paper Caper by Oliver Jeffers (the story and the illustrations) and everything that Quentin Blake has ever done.

Aside from the wonderful world of picture books, which genres or authors do you like to read?

Whenever I get to the end of my pile of books that I couldn’t stop myself from buying, I always start at the beginning of the Tales of the City series by Armistead Maupin and work my way through all of them. I met Armistead this year and was totally in awe of him.

I also love Cat Clarke’s books, especially Undone, which have led me to read more Young Adult fiction. I’ve just finished reading Mind Blind by Lari Don. It was addictive, but also unsettling and unnerving.

Cate James illustration from Lollipop & Grandpa
Briefly describe your typical working day

I swim first thing every morning to make sure that I get out of bed. Then I will either work all day in my studio (with probably too many snack and tea breaks), or if it is a day when I am working at a hospital/school/library I will travel with an extremely heavy bag full of pens, paper and books. I eat a lot of food, use a lot of ink, and whenever possible I nap. If I have a deadline looming I will probably skip the nap.

How do you get out of a creative rut?

Being an illustrator is great because I get told what to draw a lot of the time, which means I never get too stuck in a rut. Also I usually have the luxury of time because I work extremely fast (probably shouldn’t say that, I can hear my agent shouting at me from here), so if I do ever have a horrible day when I can’t draw, and I do have them, I will take the day off and come back to it fresh the next day.

What is your top tip for budding authors or illustrators?

Draw all the time, read a lot of picture books, have confidence in your work and never give up.

Can you give us an insight into what you’re currently working on?

I have a series of books to illustrate for Phoenix Yard about a boy who gets bitten by a radioactive squirrel. The stories are brilliant which makes them a pleasure to illustrate. I am also working on a fantastic book for Barrington Stoke, and one of my own stories. My residency at the Sick Kids Hospital in Edinburgh has also just been extended from 18 months to 3 and a half years, so that will carry on keeping me busy for a good while yet.

Finally, tell us a random or surprising fact about yourself

I have my first ever drawing framed in my studio. It is a crocodile and I was 2 years old when I drew it.

Read more Bookbug Spotlight Q&As with authors, illustrators and more here.