A Day In The Life: Isobel Joy Te Aho-White

If you paid attention to our NZCYA Awards coverage, you would have seen one book appear more than any other! Santa’s Worst Christmas – and it’s te reo Māori verison, Te Kirihimete i Whakakorea – was a finalist in four different categories, a pretty darn unprecedented achievement! And the person behind the story’s whimsical and vibrant illustration is Wellington-based artist Isobel Joy Te Aho-White. For your reading and viewing pleasure, we present: a day in the life of Izzy!

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I work best at night because the quiet calm helps me to concentrate. To accommodate the late nights, I usually start work at around midday. I’m a full-time freelancing illustrator, so I often have several projects on the go and spend long hours immersed in various worlds.

Working from home is a crucial part of my mental wellness and ability to function, because I’m diagnosed with high functioning autism and chronic anxiety. In te ao Māori, we have a word for this. Takiwātanga: in my own time and place. It so accurately and simply sums up what it’s like, and where it’s safe.

In te ao Māori, we have a word for this. Takiwātanga: in my own time and place.

My day begins with stretches and a karakia, before pacing the house while I put on a cauldron of coffee. Next is emails and admin, then I’m heading into the zone, where I spend a majority of my time.

Remembering to take breaks is often a challenge, because it can be very jarring. But a repetitive strain injury is not very funny—so to work breaks into my routine I set an alarm at 3pm for lunch and try to get some exercise around 5pm while I listen to the news.

If I’ve had a long day chasing deadlines, I’ll sleep with a wrist brace on as preventative/recovery measure. My spare hand often needs to fidget while I’m drawing, and to stop mindlessly picking at my scalp and face I try and distract it with sensory toys.

Children’s books and educational material are my favourite types of work because there’s something really special about providing nutrition for growing minds. It also takes me back to my own childhood, where stories and illustrations were gateways to different realms.

Children’s books and educational material are my favourite types of work because there’s something really special about providing nutrition for growing minds.

Mum used to go to garage sales a lot, so we always had a lucky dip of vintage picture books. We also spent a lot of time at the local library, where I would grab armfuls of books with covers that I liked, and try and beg mum for more than my usual allowance of three. Some of my favourites were the Asterix comics, Animalia by Graeme Base, Peter Rabbit and anything else by Beatrix Potter, classic fairytales, the Dr. Seuss books, and anything with pictures of scary bugs and dinosaurs.

My own first illustrated children’s book for Huia was published last year. Santa’s Worst Christmas / Te Kirihimete i Whakakorea took some months to illustrate, and went through several stages: research, character design, storyboarding, sketches, refined sketches, colour, tweaks. Most of my illustration projects go through this process or something similar. I work in a combination of programs, primarily Procreate on an iPad and Adobe Photoshop with a Wacom tablet, and I utilise a broad range of rendering styles, depending on what the story or project requires.

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You might have seen this book swimming around. It was nominated across several categories for the NZCYA Book Awards and also appeared on Goodnight Kiwi last year. Huia were great to work with, and I’m so proud of what we accomplished with this pukapuka.

In illustrating the characters, I drew heavily on my experience of having a large and varied extended whānau and the kind of kids I grew up with. I wanted to show how diverse a group of Māori kids could be. One of the kids I illustrated was a neurodiverse super hero, just being creative and doing his own thing.

My second illustrated book is a scientific children’s book about a colossal squid named Whiti and her journey through the Ross Sea, where she encounters many different species. Written by Victoria Cleal and published by Te Papa Press, Whiti: Colossal Squid of the Deep is available for preorder and will be hitting shelves soon!

Several more picture books are in the pipeline for 2021, so watch this space!

Santa’s Worst Christmas

Illustrated by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White

Published by Huia

RRP: $20.00

Buy now

Isobel Joy Te Aho-White
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Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāi Tahu) is a freelance graphic artist and illustrator. Isobel studied design at the Whanganui School of Design and Massey University and uses both digital and traditional media. She specialises in symbolism and metaphor, and her work is influenced by mythology and folk tales, botanical illustration and life experience.