The Author Spotlight Series shines a light on writers creating heartfelt and original work across genres, giving them an opportunity to talk about their books and why they do what they do.


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“Karlene Harvey (she/they) is an illustrator and writer, who lives on the unceded and ancestral home territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tseil-Waututh people. Karlene is Tsilhqot’in and Syilx and grew up on territories of the Semiahmoo and Kwantlen Nations. They have illustrated several children’s book, including Drum From The Heart, Every Child Matters, Maggie Lou, Firefox and Kaiah’s Garden (forthcoming). Karlene studied at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, earning a BFA in Visual Arts. She earned a Master of Arts in English Literature from the University of British Columbia in 2022. Professionally, she has developed a career that centers on community building and developing leadership capacity amongst women and youth. They work at UBC as an Academic Advisor for Indigenous students. Karlene is happy to share they are currently working on several children’s books that will have release dates in 2024-2025″.


When did you know you wanted to be an illustrator? 

Ever since I was a kid, I loved to draw. When I was young, I would draw on anything I could find…paper placemats at restaurants, napkins, notebooks, the margins of phone books, school binders. As long as I had a pencil or pen in hand, I was happy. I distinctly remember in grade three, my class had to fill out a form that asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up and I wrote: “cartoonist.”


Do you remember the first thing you ever created?

I don’t, it would have been artwork that I created when I was quite little. But perhaps I can share the first thing I ever drew on my iPad tablet! When I first got my tablet, I knew it would be a bit of a learning curve to figure out how to use it. It’s not like drawing on paper at all, the feel of a digital pen on a glass surface is very different. I knew my first few drawings wouldn’t be the best because I had to learn how to use this brand new art tool so I just focused on drawing things that I liked. The first drawing I ever made with my iPad was a girl with a bob cut standing in front of a field filled with golden grass, I used different brushes and kept it simple. It’s not my favourite drawing that I’ve ever made but I remember feeling excited after I was finished. It felt like that drawing was just the beginning.


How did you develop your skills? 

Draw all of the time, it doesn’t have to be good and you don’t have to love everything you make. But draw for at least an hour every day. When I was a teenager and in my early 20s, I used to pack around a hardbound sketchbook and I’d pull it out to draw whenever I had idle time. For instance, if I was waiting for a class to start, waiting for the bus to arrive, or during my lunch hour at school or work. I didn’t buy my first smartphone until I was 21 or 22 so there were many years where I didn’t have a phone to distract me with social media scrolling.


I still try and draw every day. Over the last few years, I took time to assess how to get better at drawing different things. I’ve focused on backgrounds such as interior rooms or natural landscapes. I’ve also practiced on how I can depict different forms of lighting when colouring my characters. There’s always new skills for me to work on and so whenever I feel like I need to work on something, I just jump into it and give it a shot. Growth and trying new things is so important as an artist.


Who are some of your biggest literary influences? Do you have a favourite book/author?

I wrote my master’s thesis on Eden Robinson’s Trickster Trilogy. I really love the way that she writes, I’ve studied her books very intently these past few years. There’s something about her stories that makes me feel “seen” as an Indigenous person. Robinson does a great job at telling stories of Indigenous people living in cities and travelling back in community, to more rural environments. She does a great job with describing the complexity of Indigenous identity and connection in a multi-layered way.


How would you describe your work?

I focus on images that empower Indigenous youth. But I also draw images that can be a little nostalgic, lonely, contemplative or reflective. I am very character driven so most of my illustrations center on a specific figure. I believe in challenging body stereotypes in cartoons and illustrations, so drawing characters that are not always conventionally slim is so important to me. I also like to explore different forms of gender expression through my characters.


Another aspect of my work that seems to get a lot of attention and feedback is that I love to use colour. I think that stems from my time painting in Art school. I learned this from one of my first art teachers who told us to never use ‘black’ or ‘brown’ paint from the tube, you should always be able to mix it from existing primary colours to achieve a deeper tone. Once I began playing with colours and mixing them myself, I began to think about how colour shows up in everything around us. Painting on a large canvas is very different from digital illustrations but I still use a similar technique in my children’s book illustrations. And I feel like that brings a lot of vibrancy and life to the pictures I create.


What’s your creative process like?

If I’m working on a children’s picture book, I like to think about the entirety of the story and imagine the different backgrounds or locations that the character is in. Then I like to think about the perspective of how the reader should see the image. If it’s a close-up of hands holding a butterfly, should the perspective be from over the character’s shoulder so the reader is peering in like a friend that is nearby? Or, should it be angled from beneath her hands so you’re looking up at the character’s hands so it’s almost like the reader is placed in the perspective of a bug staring up at the protagonist. Choosing interesting perspectives can really make a story become alive because it shakes up predictable viewpoints. Once I’ve planned out details like that, I sketch out every image and share it with the publisher to ensure I’m on track. Then I move to colouring each image. This is one of my favourite parts because I get to choose how these colours can bring the story to life. The final stage involves cleaning up lines, more intricate shading and adding specific highlighting. All stages are fun and important in different ways but I have to say, there’s nothing like flipping through your finalized artwork for a project and seeing how it all comes together to tell a visual story.


Tell us about your most recent book. 

Every Child Matters was released last August and I’m so incredibly proud of how my artwork came together for that project. The story was written by Phyllis Webstad and she wrote it with a lot of emotion and so I wanted to honour her words and do my best to reflect her story visually. I am so glad that we get to share this book with the world.


What are you working on now/next?

Right now, I’m working on a book with Kids Can Press, it involves two siblings on an adventure through the woods. I really love drawing trees and flowers, basically any natural landscape. So it’s been very fun to imagine how I used to tromp through a forest as a kid and remember the different ways I used to play around with my cousins while trekking down a dirt path. I also have another book coming out in 2024 with Scholastic called Kaiah’s Garden, it’s a beautiful story about a young girl remembering her grandmother through her garden and beadwork. Working with the Scholastic team was an absolute joy and I think this book will really show how the spirit of Indigenous beadwork is so incredibly powerful.