The Mahy Questionnaire: Sarah Wilkins

This month’s instalment of the Mahy Questionnaire features award-winning illustrator Sarah Wilkins! Sarah does editorial, educational, and promotional art in addition to illustrating children’s books. Her most recent picture book, the beautiful Abigail and the Restless RaiMatndrop, is out now! Without further ado, here’s Sarah on hauntings, witches and bubbles.

1. Describe yourself in three words

Looking, thinking, drawing.

2. During the height of adolescence, was it good changeover?

Both good and bad, but I was in such a hurry to get going with life that any dramas were short-lived.

3. Are you haunted by a particular memory?

When I was six I witnessed a friend’s budgie fly at high speed into her living room Venetian blinds. The bird got trapped between the window and the blind. Something about the noise of the bird’s beak and claws hitting against the glass, and the frantic fluttering of soft wings against the clattering blinds, traumatised me. Even today this memory sends shivers down my spine.

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The Haunting by Margaret Mahy (J.M. Dent, 1982)

4. MM: ‘Imagination is the creative use of reality.’ Is this true for you?

Absolutely. My creative ideas seem to bounce off the experiences I’ve had. Total fantasy doesn’t really resonate with me – things need to be somehow plausible to be fully appreciated.

5. Have you ever owned a rattlebang car?

Never. I’m a walker.

6. Which witch? Identify a favourite one from literature.

The White Witch. I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in the window of time between being terrified of books about witches as a young child, and the feminist consciousness-raising of my early teens when I became very ambivalent about witches in literature – did they celebrate female strength, or did they just demonise women for their knowledge?

7. ‘Come dance all around the world. And see all the beauty that surrounds us.’ Words for a romantic or just being mindful?

A bit of both surely. Being reminded not to take the natural world for granted and to see the beauty and wonder in what is close to home is certainly sage advice in this age of environmental crisis.

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The Lion in the Meadow by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jenny Williams (F. Watts, 1989)

8. A lion in the broom cupboard or a lion in the meadow?

A lion roaming anywhere—if it’s in your imagination.

9. When have you been at your most discombobulated?

During the past few months. This pandemic has shaken up the entire world.

10. What is your most favourite thing to do on a summery Saturday morning?

It usually involves coffee, maybe a croissant, and definitely a pile of books and magazines.

11. In what way might you be a trickster?

Bringing words to life in an illustration involves some serious trickery. We illustrators have a few trade secrets.

The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy (J.M. Dent, 1986)

12. Have you ever been rewarded when looking down the back of the chair?

I suspect there’s a whole ecosystem living down the back of my sofa so I might get lucky one day.

13. A pirate for a mother or a jester for a father?

One of each as it turned out. My parents smuggled my youngest sister on the boat from England to New Zealand because they couldn’t afford the ticket.

14. Would you babysit someone else’s shadow?

Sure. That would mean I’d get some time in the sun.

The Boy With Two Shadows by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jenny Williams (J.M. Dent, 1971)

15. ‘Horrakapotchkin,’ said the cat. ‘I want to write a poem.’ Is that how it works for you?

Sometimes you just have to leave all those pressing, sensible things and create something beautiful. So yes.

16. What I like for dinner when I am on my own is…

I’m never alone at home so if I were alone it would mean I’ve traveled somewhere; in which case I’d like something surprising and unique from that place.

17. If you find yourself nose to nose with a shark, the only thing to do is to…

Go with your instincts!

The Great White Man-Eating Shark by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jonathan Allen (J.M. Dent, 1982)

18. MM: ‘If things were fair, all stories would be anonymous…set free from the faults that go with its author’s name.’ Would you set your stories free in the name of anonymity?

That would be wonderful, yes, but in reality, I feel a responsibility to take ownership of my work—and all its faults. That’s how I get to grow as an artist. And on a more practical level, there’s the whole issue of copyright which is so important for illustrators and visual artists. Behind every picture book illustration there’s an artist attempting to make a living, and recognition of their work makes it easier to be correctly compensated.

19. You’re at a party and someone finds out what you do. What is the question they invariably ask?

It’s less of a question but more of a statement—’Children’s books!’ If I’m feeling energetic, I’ll start listing the other types of illustrations I do such as editorial, educational, promotional, product etc. I don’t get very far before their eyes begin to glaze over.

20. Who do you go to be entertained by linguistic pyrotechnics? Or entertained by sonsense nongs?

Reggie Watts, if you like your songsense nongs with beats. And the wonderful Michael Rosen is a big favourite in our house.

21. Which way does your heart lie: between the stars or anchored to the trapeze?

Between the stars, back where it all started.

The Wind Between the Stars by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Brian Frood (J.M. Dent, 1976)

22. Would you rather be followed home by hippos or giraffes?

Giraffes—so elegant and graceful but so tricky to fit on the page.

23. Never mind a baby in the bubble. Would you rather – rice bubbles, bubble gum, bubble ‘o’ bill ice cream or Michael Bublé?

I’d rather the bubbles that kept us safe during lockdown.

Sarah Wilkins

Sarah Wilkins is an award winning illustrator whose images can be found on buildings, buses, bags and many other curious places around the world, but they feel most at home on the pages of beautiful books. Sarah illustrates from a light-filled studio perched high on a hill overlooking the Wellington Harbour. She is curious about visually communicating science to young and old, and illustrated Abigail and the Restless Raindrop while completing her Master in Science in Society. Find out more about her work at