Malcolm, Sabrina

Malcolm, Sabrina



In Brief

Sabrina Malcolm is a writer, illustrator and graphic designer with a background in botany and geology. Her illustrations have appeared in scientific publications, issues of School Journal, and picture books. She illustrated Koro’s Medicine by Melanie Drewery (2004), which was a finalist in the picture book category of the 2005 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Sabrina Malcolm participates in the Writers in Schools programme and is available for school visits in the greater Wellington area.


Malcolm, Sabrina (1962 - ) is a writer, illustrator and graphic designer.

Sabrina Malcolm was born in Albion, Michigan in the United States. She immigrated to New Zealand in 1971, and was educated in Tapawera and Christchurch. At Canterbury University she studied botany and geology; she then studied illustration and design at the Christchurch Polytechnic.

Malcolm began her professional life as a Scientific Illustrator and later a Senior Scientific Illustrator at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in Lincoln. Since 1994 she has been a freelance graphic designer and illustrator.

Malcolm has illustrated a number of books including Flora of New Zealand Volume 5 Grasses by E Edgar and H E Connor (Manaaki Whenua Press, 1999), Skeletons by Jane Buxton (Learning Media, 2000) and Koro’s Medicine by Melanie Drewery (Huia, 2004). Koro’s Medicine was a finalist in the picture book category at the 2005 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, and was also listed as a 2005 Storylines Notable Picture Book.

Malcolm’s illustrations have appeared in the School Journal. She created set of 14 full colour map brochures for the Department of Survey and Land Information. She has created posters for subjects as varied as New Zealand’s threatened plants and the Orpheus Choir of Wellington recitals.

In 2007 Malcolm was the recipient of 'Massey Scholar' scholarship for study towards a Master of Design at Massey University of Wellington.


Sabrina Malcolm participates in the Writers in Schools programme and is available for school visits in the greater Wellington area, and with notice will travel. Her preferred age group is primary. She is happy to discuss getting ideas; getting started; starter exercises; visual continuity of characters; matching illustration style to story style; media and techniques; and most other things to do with illustrating.

KAPAI: Kids' Authors Pictures and Information


Where do you live?
Karori, Wellington.

What books do you read?
All sorts. Recently I've enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon, Believers to the Bright Coast, by Vincent O'Sullivan, and Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, is an old favourite. Children's books I've enjoyed have included Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh, Half Magic and other magic books by Edward Eager, and some of Roald Dahl's books such as The BFG. When I've bought children's books for our son, I've tended to buy those with illustrations I like; many of Roald Dahl's books are illustrated by Quentin Blake, whose work I like a lot.

Who is your favourite writer?
I don't really have a favourite, just as I don't have a favourite illustrator. I admire different things about different writers and illustrators. With The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, I like the way the author has got right inside the head of the unusual boy in the story, Christopher. The reader gains real empathy with Christopher and understands what it must be like to be him. To Kill a Mockingbird is written as if by a young girl, but because of the way it's written, you learn a lot more than the girl would have really understood. Another book a bit like that is Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, by Roddy Doyle. As I said, one of my favourite illustrators is Quentin Blake: I like the freedom of his style and the clear colours he uses. I think all the white space in his illustrations is nice too. I also really like Eric Carle's style and – closer to home – Karen Oppatt's.

How do you think up your ideas?
When thinking up illustration ideas, I give myself time. First I read the story – a few times – and then I leave it for a while and let things tick over. I think about the story a lot, such as when I'm in the shower or before going to sleep at night. Ideas for the illustrations gradually come and build on each other. Occasionally a big idea will come suddenly, but that doesn't usually happen unless I've been thinking about the subject intensively.

What is the best thing about being an illustrator?
The best thing about illustrating is that I get to do things I really enjoy: painting, drawing, and playing on the computer. I love being able to experiment with colours, especially bright ones.

Primary School students

What sort of pets do you have?
Two young cats. They both like to climb. Rufus leaps from ground level up to people's chests: it's a bit surprising. They're both more like dogs than cats: they follow us if we go for a walk, and they attack dogs in the street.

What is your favourite colour?
It changes from day to day; usually strong ones like purple and red.

What is your favourite food?

What is your favourite movie?

Favourite children's movie: Monsters Inc. Adult movies I've enjoyed: Lost in Translation, Toys.

What is your favourite game?

Badminton. I have to admit I like Scrabble too.

What is the most fun thing about being an author?

To answer this as an illustrator: the most fun thing is the playing and experimenting side of it – trying different materials and techniques.

How do you make books?

From the illustrator's point of view, you have to plan them out, deciding what will go on each page. Some people do this as drawings on a page, others by making a 3D mock-up of the book. You read the story given to you, probably many times, and then decide what will be a good image (or images) for each page of words. Sometimes the illustrations can add a little extra information to the story; for example, if the story jumps from one scene to another, you can show the characters on their way to that next scene. Then you make the illustrations at their full size and the book is on its way.

Where do you go for your holidays?
Different places in New Zealand, usually on road trips – we go to a few different places rather than staying in one place for a while.

What was the naughtiest thing you ever did at school?
In primary school, I pushed a boy right across the room and he fell over a desk. He had been calling me names. He wasn't badly hurt.

Secondary School students

How did you get started?
I used to draw quite a bit as a kid. At university, when I was doing lab exercises for biology, I spent more time on the drawings than on the exercises. After I had studied at university, I decided to go to polytech and study art.

Who inspired you when you were getting started?
A friend of mine who was already at Polytech encouraged me to apply. It was really helpful, because I might not have had the confidence to try it otherwise. As for inspiration, there were always artists around to admire.

What advice would you give an aspiring young writer?
To aspiring young illustrators, I would say experiment a lot with different materials, techniques and styles. I sometimes get stuck because I think something won't look good – but the best thing is to just get on and try it. It might not look the way you expected it to, but it will probably lead you to something interesting. I should think the same thing applies with writing.

Is it difficult to make a living writing in New Zealand?
I've never tried to make a living exclusively by illustrating; but I know other illustrators who say its not ever going to be a great living (maybe unless you're someone like Quentin Blake). If you really love writing or illustrating, though, you'll probably still want to do it. Quite a few people have a day job to pay the bills!

What were you like as a teenager?
I was fairly quiet and shy. I had a different accent from everyone else – not good news, since most teenagers want to blend into the crowd to some extent. I guess I was pretty fit: we lived on a farm, and used to do a lot of fencing, planting trees and running around mustering cattle. I learnt how to drive a tractor, make pottery and castrate calves; since leaving the farm I haven't often used those skills, especially not the last one.

Is there anything else you could tell students about yourself?
My family emigrated to New Zealand from the United States in 1971. I was eight and my sisters were ten and eleven.
When we lived in Nelson, my parents bought an old house in Mount Street and did it up. My sisters and I usually had the job of weeding fennel from the back of the section while my parents worked on the house. One day they were scraping old paint off the house, using blow torches (having just come from the States, they didn't know about borer or the flammability of borer-ridden wood). It was close to dinner time, so we girls came up from down the back. My older sister had just gone up before me, so when I saw a fire in the wall of the house, I thought (in my illogical eight-year-old way) that since she'd just seen it, it was probably meant to be there. I almost didn't mention it – I had a horror of sounding dumb – but I thought I'd better just check, so I quietly asked if there should be a fire in the side of the house. My parents jumped into action, grabbing for the garden hose, and yelled for me and my sister to run up to the neighbours and call the fire brigade – our house didn't have a working phone yet. We were still very new to the neighbourhood, so my sister and I were quite shy. It seems incredible now, but we actually loitered around on the neighbours' front step for a few minutes before conquering our shyness and knocking on the door. Eventually we knocked, and the neighbour rang the fire brigade. Luckily, my parents already had the fire out by the time they arrived. There was a disapproving article in the local paper the next night, criticising my parents for using blow torches on the house.

Living on the farm led to quite a few incidents. One day we were mustering a big black bull from one paddock to another, and he suddenly broke away and started running towards me. I was out in the middle of the paddock, not near the fence as I'd been told to be, so it was lucky that when I started yelling, he stopped and went back the other way.

Another time, my father was driving the bulldozer down a hill some way off from the house. I was in the shed making pottery, a good two or three hundred metres away; but I heard a strange noise and came out onto the road to look around. The bulldozer had got out of control, zoomed down the very steep hill, gone through the electric fence, jumped a ditch and was sitting idling in the road at the bottom, several fence wires around the front of it. My father had jumped off halfway down the hill, twisting his ankle.

Winter time could be hazardous. We used to take the tractor and trailer for feeding out to the cattle. One time we had finished but still had a few haybales on the trailer; my father started the tractor down the hill. My two sisters were on the trailer and I ran down the hill to open the gate. The tractor had special iron non-skid wheels attached outside the rubber ones, but the paddock was so muddy that it started skidding anyway. They went faster and faster, the trailer bumping and sliding around behind the tractor, looking as though it would tip over any time. Afterwards, I remembered hearing someone screaming very close to me, and eventually realised it had been me – I guess I was so shocked I wasn't aware of it. Luckily, they made it down okay, the only injuries some scratches from the haybales.


Updated January 2017.