Otto Goes North: Q&A with Ulrika Kestere

Otto Goes North. A book for kids published by Gecko Press  

Ulrika Kestere is a photographer, illustrator and graphic designer born in Latvia and now based in Lund, Sweden. Otto Goes North is her second book for children, released by Gecko Press in 2019.

What illustration training and other work have you done?

My career is scattered in all directions. It began when I was eighteen—I studied photography and at the same time started drawing more and reading a lot of children’s books. I hadn’t read so much when I was young, so I rediscovered the world of children’s books as an adult. I love the way they combine wisdom with illustration. Writing doesn’t come easy for me so I love being able to tell parts of the story through pictures.

At 21 I was studying industrial design but kept drawing “storylike” illustrations during my free time, and I stayed up to date with the children’s book world. After school I worked in advertising as a graphic designer and photographer. But after three years as an employee, I decided to freelance, and that’s when I started working on my first book. I was also doing photography commissions, teaching workshops and whatever other work came my way.

Today I work part-time at a creative company, where I illustrate, photograph and design. The rest of the time I make books, teach and photograph. I hope to keep my work varied and constantly changing!

Did your childhood in Latvia inspire your stories and illustrations?

I lived in Latvia until I was four years old. I remember that time as very free. We lived close to the forest. All the children in the neighbourhood took care of each other and we basically went wherever we wanted. I think I was strolling alone in the forest when I was two years old.

I really like the way that Eastern European children’s TV looked at this time. One classic short film is about a bunny-mother washing all her little bunnies in the sauna. Maybe that’s how the sauna appeared in my story about Otto!

Where did the idea for Otto Goes North come from?

I studied photography in Lofoten in Norway. Lofoten is really the main inspiration for this book.
Apart from the amazing landscape and nature, the school was a place of wonderful friendship and
also a lot of knitting! I think Norwegians knit a lot more than Swedes; they put so much time into
knitting things for family and friends. A knitted sweater is such a wonderful gift.

So Otto Goes North is about the nature of north, wonderful friendship and the craft of knitting.

The animals in your books have very funny conversations that sound just like children—
how do you capture that child’s voice?

Oh, my writing is not very mature so I would say that the “childish” sound of my books comes
very naturally for me.

How did you create the illustrations for the book—what medium/tools do you use and
what is your process?

I mainly use acrylic colour and coloured pencils. Then I put the illustration together in Photoshop,
so I illustrate it layer by layer. The graphic designer side of me wants all the sections by
themselves and then the freedom to move them around, change and add however much I need.
It’s an extremely slow way to illustrate but hopefully I’ll get faster with time.

What authors and illustrators working today do you particularly admire?

I love Beatrice Alemagna, Machiko Kaede, Kate Pugsley, Rebecca Green and many more!

What did you love to draw when you were a child?

I’ve always loved to draw animals. During my teens I had a period where I drew fairies and
mermaids but now I’m back to animals again. I actually don’t like drawing humans, because I feel
that they get enough attention as it is …