Where did Sophie Gilmore become acquainted with the crocodiles that star in Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast (Owlkids)? The first glimmerings of the tale emerged from stories told by her sister’s husband, an ecologist in Australia, whose job sometimes required catching crocodiles and tagging them, and who told hair-raising tales about his experiences. She had not really given crocodiles serious thought before. When she found out that they carry their young in their mouths to bring them from place to place, “that lit a little light inside of me,” she says.
Gilmore did know a lot about living in the wild. She spent the early part of her childhood “in the middle of nowhere” on the North Island of New Zealand. The bush was full of birds. She was free to go barefoot, to watch and wander.
Gilmore loved to draw, and when she thought about the future, making books for children seemed like one of the few things she could imagine herself doing. Outside Edinburgh, where she moved later on, there were fewer places to wander. Instead, she spent hours in her room, reading about other wild places in books, including Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness and Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals.
A course in illustration at Edinburgh College of Art brought Gilmore closer to making books. Yet when she finished, she wasn’t sure what to do next. Her then-boyfriend (now husband) moved to London, and she told him she would come if he found them a houseboat. He located one, miraculously, and they lived on the water for eight years. Day jobs gave Gilmore time to work on private commissions and smaller illustrating gigs. The first significant step was joining a studio with three other illustrators, who offered support and community.
Gilmore wrote a story about a little doctor (“She had to be a girl”) who cares for crocodile patients, until the fateful day that Big Mean appears, a croc bigger than all the others, who clearly needs help but won’t open her mouth to say why. With confidence inspired by her studio mates, Gilmore found an agent: Jennifer Rofé at Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Gilmore sent her the text of Little Doctor along with pages of pencil illustrations, and Rofé helped her prepare it to show to publishers.
Fifteen refusals followed. Then, Karen Li at Owlkids in Toronto said yes. “She’s very vocal in her excitement over a project,” Gilmore says of Li, “and that was incredibly important to me.”
The Owlkids team left the story largely as it was, though Gilmore’s inexperience caused some trouble for the designer, Alisa Baldwin: “She would often have her work cut out for her,” Gilmore says. “I kept forgetting to leave space for the text.”
Gilmore describes the amount of time for a book to come out as “just about long enough to really doubt that anyone else will want to read it.” Three starred reviews and a writeup in the New York Times reassured her. Now she’s at work on a book about a girl who takes in a beetle that grows and grows “and causes her a little bit of trouble.” In the meantime, she and her husband have relocated to Pisa, Italy, where there are new creatures to get to know. “It’s a joy to live in a place that’s hot enough to have lizards.”