In the world of writing and illustrating, careers take many forms and many paths. Some professionals develop their skills in full view, starting small and gradually taking on more ambitious projects. Others seem to burst onto the scene out of nowhere, wielding masterful writing or illustrating skills. Author-illustrator Lauren Soloy falls into the latter category.
Soloy’s gorgeous debut picture book, When Emily Was Small (Tundra Books, 2020), was launched to much acclaim. Three more picture books followed in quick succession: Etty Darwin and the Four Pebble Problem (Tundra Books, 2021); I’s the B’y (Greystone Kids, 2022); and A Tulip in Winter: A Story About Folk Artist Maud Lewis (Greystone Kids, 2023).
Her new book, The Hidden World of Gnomes (Tundra Books, June), offers something different from her three biography-inspired picture books: an expansive glimpse into Soloy’s imaginary world filled with gnomes who spend their days collecting twigs, making gnome cookies, and minding treasure caves. “It’s Busytown crossed with A Hole Is to Dig, crossed with My First Book of Nature,” Soloy says. “And then you just throw gnomes in there.”
Although Soloy has accomplished a lot in a short time, it took years to develop her skills and find her artistic path. She graduated with a visual arts degree in 2002, went back to school to become a furniture maker, and eventually started making wooden toys and whirligigs.
Even back then, her penchant for storytelling shone through. “I always wanted to do stories for the whirligigs,” she says. “It was always like, ‘Oh, and these two people got in a boat and then they sailed off the end of the world.’ I was always interested in images working with words in stories.”
Soloy found her true vocation while reading to her own children; she realized she wanted to be a picture book illustrator. She decided to focus on learning to illustrate while she was home with her kids, and about four years later, she was ready to start submitting to publishers.
Much of Soloy’s work is inspired by her Nova Scotia home, from the 150-year-old house with a view of the Annapolis River to an enormous oak tree that’s strong enough to hold 11 kids at a time and a garden that yields enough fruit and vegetables to keep Soloy and her family snacking outside all summer long.
In short, it’s the perfect home for gnomes. “I always felt like there was more in [the garden] than I was adding,” Soloy says. “I would plant violas one year and the next year a viola would pop up under the kids’ slide. So I started imagining and drawing these little helpers. When I’m in-between projects or I just feel like doodling, I always doodle gnomes.”
It was Tundra Books editor Samantha Swenson who suggested building a book project around Soloy’s gnomes. In response, Soloy wrote down everything she’d imagined over the past decade and drew about 150 pages of thumbnails.
Despite years of preparation, the work was challenging. At first Soloy struggled with the idea of giving the gnomes individual personas – she saw them as more of a collective, like the bees she keeps. “I think that’s why my very first instinct was not to have characters,” she says. “They’re a collective and they work together. But it took me a minute to realize they could still do that, even with names and personalities.”
Fortunately, as soon as Soloy made this realization, names such as Puckle Swift, Hotchi-Mossy, and Billy Button came pouring out. “All of their personalities came out, too,” Soloy says. “The little jobs that they do. I was like, well somebody has to collect things … oh, that’s Twiggy Dell, obviously. They all kind of arrived fully formed when I sat down.”
As in all her work, readers will find Soloy’s sense of wonder on every page. “I want to weave a kind of enchantment for my readers,” she says. “Then maybe they go outside and see a leaf moving in the wind or a flower where there shouldn’t be a flower or something odd out of the corner of their eye.”
In short, Soloy wants to share her own magical lens with the world. “It was such a pleasure to contemplate tiny moments of joy and connection and then to write and illustrate them into the lives of these tiny gnomes.”