Co Down illustrator squirrels away some mittens in debut children's book

Co Down illustrator Alison Soye tells Gail Bell how squirrels, puffins and even a Loch Ness Monster or two all fed into her visual journey through Scotland for debut children's book

Co Down artist and illustrator Alison Soye, who spent part of her childhood in Africa
Gail Bell

AS A child surrounded by magnificent African wildlife – often having to chase a stray monkey from her garden – Co Down artist and illustrator, Alison Soye, developed a natural affinity for the larger-than-life animals she encountered when living in Rwanda and Malawi.

But, while she hasn't depicted the beloved giraffes or elephants of her childhood in her debut children's book – written by Scottish schoolteacher, Coo Clayton – the Edinburgh-based artist is happy to swap African big game for the smaller, but equally delightful puffins and red squirrels synonymous with her adopted home.

In the recently published Maggie's Mittens (Black and White Publishing, Edinburgh), Alison takes the reader on a colourful, visual trip around Scotland, with notable stop-offs in Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews, Dundee, Falkirk, Aberdeen and the Western Isles.

Described by best-selling Scottish writer and illustrator Debi Gliori, as an "endearingly Scottish tale", the book zooms in on a few notable mystical creatures as well, including a certain Loch Ness monster and famous Kelpies, the mythical sea horses which have become a landmark tourist attraction in Falkirk in a form that's said to be the the largest equine sculpture in the world.

"Maggie's Mittens was great fun to work on and I became quite attached to Maggie and her little red shoes," says Alison, who studied illustration at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee and has been living in Scotland "on-and-off" since graduating.

As well as introducing children to Scotland's native wildlife and places – there is also a ‘Find the red squirrel' activity which runs throughout the book – the story is essentially about a little girl who tries her best to accidentally-on-purpose lose her much-hated mittens, without mum noticing.

She throws, flings and catapults them towards a number of potential new owners on the way to granny's house but, like all salutary tales, Maggie has a few life lessons to learn along the way.

With a little red squirrel to find on each page, parents are also encouraged to log any real-life squirrels they see by visiting – part of Scottish Wildlife Trust's campaign to save the popular woodland animal which, despite dwindling numbers, are more prevalent in Scotland that anywhere else in the UK.

"When the author and I were collaborating on the book, we wanted to have a creature which kept popping up," Alison says. "We were going to make it a mouse until someone suggested a red squirrel because of the campaign to save them. I thought it was a great idea to raise awareness of an endangered native species to young readers."

Currently working as artist-in-residency at a private school, Alison has been taking part in a number of school visits for Maggie's Mittens in Scotland and in February is hoping to do the same in Northern Ireland.

"I hope to go back to my old school, Waringstown Primary School, and maybe do some readings of the book in others nearby, including Donacloney and Lurgan," she says. "I have been living in Scotland for a while, but it's always great to come back home, especially at Christmas time.

"It's been great going into the schools and seeing the reaction of the children – I was home-schooled by my mum when I was aged seven and living in Rwanda when my dad was working in the charity development sector there.

"It was a brilliant time, going on safari and getting close to giraffes and elephants, having monkeys in our garden and swimming in a local lake. There wasn't so much wildlife when we lived in Malawi for four years as we were city-based and I attended an international school."

Alison is now collaborating with Coo on a second book, Maggie's Monsters, where the headstrong young protagonist goes travelling again, this time meeting more native animals – the Scottish bald eagle and seals feature heavily.

"It's another chance to go 'travelling' again to beautiful places in Scotland – some of which I need to visit for real," Alison adds. "I've been to most of the them, but some of the more remote islands are still on my exploring list, just like Maggie."

:: Maggie's Mittens, chosen as Waterstone's Scottish Children's Book of the Month, is available to buy in book stores and online. Maggie's Monsters is scheduled for publication in June 2018. More at

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