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“Every child should see themselves in a book”

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Published on 19 November 2018

University lecturer Holly Sterling
University lecturer Holly Sterling

What happens when you are a book-loving schoolgirl growing up in Britain without any inspiring fictional characters to relate to?

Easy, you create them yourself. And that’s just what University of Sunderland illustrator Holly Sterling did.


Holly Sterling doesn’t do things by halves.

A lifelong passion for children’s fiction has brought her to where she is today – about to start work on her 14th book.

But step back two decades and you will find a young schoolgirl desperately searching for someone to identify with.

From a mixed ethnicity family – an English mum and Jamaican dad – Holly would search her book collection for characters she could relate to, that she could empathise with. But she struggled.

She struggled to the point of picking up her own pencils and drawing characters from her own imagination to sit alongside the books she would read at night.

Her granddad had always been a keen artist, his hobby had been creating watercolours, and she quickly developed the drawing bug.

“I feel that every child should see themselves in a book,” says Holly, now a Lecturer in Illustration at the University of Sunderland.

“As a child that’s something I really struggled with, finding those stories that I could really relate to, that said something to me.”

It was this search that brought her to the University of Sunderland where, between 2006 and 2009 she was an undergraduate studying for her BA in illustration.

Her mission would be to bring to life for future generations of children the characters that she never saw.

While honing her skills at the University, Holly didn’t rest on her laurels between lectures, instead she indulged her passion for karate, going on to be named British Universities Karate Champion, having already been named the UK National Women’s Karate Champion.

So whether it be through her karate of her drawing, the now 31-year-old was determined to push the envelope, to break barriers and to find her voice in the world.

Always determined to be the best, in 2009 Holly graduated with a First Class Honours Degree. She would go on to work at design company, Big Bang Creative in Teesside creating designs for websites, e-commerce, branding and games.

In 2011 the artist decided to go back to university, to do a two year Masters at Edinburgh College of Art. She graduated with a Master of Fine Art (MFA) with Distinction in 2013. In the same year she was highly commended for the Macmillan Illustration Prize and the winner of the Seven Stories/Frances Lincoln Illustration Competition.

As part of her final year project for her MA, Holly wrote and illustrated a children’s book called ‘Hiccups’, it would be the first of 13 books where she would contribute her unique artwork.

She said: “My initial work focused on the different ethnicities in the books’ characters which were targeted towards children aged between three and seven-years-old.

“I want my drawings to be empowering for everyone; for girls and for boys. It’s important we subvert gender stereotypes.

“I wanted to create different characters that different young people could relate to. We’re not all the same; we come from different places, have different histories and relate to things in different ways.

“It was about bringing characters to life where the children could see a little bit of themselves, that’s really important.”

In many ways Holly’s illustrations are helping provide the role models for today’s children that she never had. Or did she?

“I had a lot of clear role models in karate and now I try to pull that inspiration into my work,” Holly adds.

“I started doing karate when I was just 10, so it’s something that’s been with me for the past 21 years.

“It has taught be a lot about life and now I teach it myself as a way of giving something back.”