Maria Oliver is a Hertfordshire based yoga teacher and member of the British Wheel of Yoga. She started teaching yoga in 2015, much to her children’s disgust, and spent the next few years trying to work out how to interest them in what she did. This changed when she started her children’s yoga teacher training with Calm for Kids, and she learnt how to spark children’s imaginations through yoga.
Maria has written three collections of relaxation scripts for lively children, and one yoga adventure book which has been translated into French and Ukrainian.
Maria is married with two children and two cats.
When did you know you wanted to become an illustrator?
I’ve always loved drawing, but as I didn’t study art and design I thought I’d shut off that part of my brain and any future opportunity to work in this area.
In 2021 I had the idea of writing a children’s yoga book and approached an illustrator called Lizzie Martell. She didn’t have the time to take the book on. However, when I shyly suggested that perhaps she could support me in illustrating the book myself, she was very encouraging and enthusiastic. She gave me tips on the best art materials to buy and helped by scanning in the pictures and ensuring that the digital files were of print quality.
How long does it typically take to make a page or cover for a book?
AGES. I draw in pencil, go over in ink and then paint with watercolours. As I draw children in yoga poses, I have to make sure that the way they are positioned is accurate so that children can copy correctly and safely. There is energy in each yoga pose, and I have to be sure that the energy comes across in the illustration. Alignment of body parts is important too! Lizzie then scans the illustrations in and we work together to make sure that the final digital file is just right.
What’s your favourite piece of art equipment?
I love my watercolour paints, even though I can best be described as ‘an enthusiastic amateur’. I paint a bit like a child has got hold of the paintbox and I have a bit of an untidy style. I think that’s why children like my illustrations.
Do you have a favourite colour scheme, if so what and why?
Purple and green. I love those two colours together. Green relates to harmony and love, purple relates to inner wisdom and intuition. Both are associated with calm.
Who were your inspirations when starting out?
Lizzie Martell was very inspirational. She illustrates greetings cards and was a winner of Theo Paphitis’ Small Business Sunday and has met him several times. She is not formally trained either, and made me believe I could illustrate my own book.
I love Axel Scheffler’s illustrations. I think we have the same cartoonish drawing style, even though he has more command of his paints! But reading his books to my children when they were small made me think ‘I could draw that too.’
Do you have another job beside being an illustrator, if so what?
I am a yoga teacher! I teach children, adults, pregnant women and new mums. I’ve always loved drawing and creative writing, but being a yoga teacher has also given me an excuse to write my yoga and relaxation books for children. The two inform each other – I have created resources that I can use in my classes and share with other yoga teachers, school teachers and parents, and the books themselves are inspired by yoga philosophy, teaching yoga, and my class members.
What do you do to overcome a creative block?
I don’t tend to get them! I have to juggle teaching my classes and organising my home and children. I find that ideas come to me and then I have to make time to carry them out. It’s very rare that I sit down to draw and write and find that I’m lacking in ideas. Normally when I finally get the opportunity to sit down, the ideas have all stacked up and are bursting to be let out.
Do you have a favourite piece in your portfolio, if so could you share it and talk about it?
It is hard to choose, but I think it has to be the flying horse and the flying foal. It is entirely about unconditional love and forgiveness.
Firstly, I wanted my books to be inclusive. The genders of the flying horse and foal are never given, and neither is their relationship. The horse could be a parent, step parent, foster parent, grandparent, teacher, aunt or uncle. They might be the sole caregiver, or there may be another caregiver in the background. I didn’t want to depict a mother or father as caregiver. Any child could look at that relationship and think ‘that’s about me’.
The foal has learnt to fly, and has flown off. The horse needs your help (as the reader) to catch them. When the foal is caught, they say they are sorry and they are instantly forgiven. In the illustration, the foal looks a little like they feel they do not deserve this unconditional love.
They know they have misbehaved and caused a lot of trouble. All children are worthy of unconditional love, no matter how much trouble they cause.
What was your first book related project?
I wrote a collection of relaxation scripts for children during Lockdown in 2020. I had to quickly adapt to teaching yoga online. I used Zoom and I also recorded YouTube videos. I learnt that I could not record myself reading someone else’s book without permission from the publisher.
Unfortunately, yoga teachers love books! We use readings at the end of yoga classes, we quote from old texts… so I wrote my own relaxation scripts and collected them together into a children’s book, ‘Red Kites, Apples and Blood Cells’, working with illustrators Ben and Steph Grandis.
@hat type of media do you prefer to work in and why?
Now I have discovered watercolours I love them, although I know I have a lot to learn.
Do you have a playlist you like working to? If so do you want to share it?
I am so fussy about music, that I could spend hours choosing what I listen to, so I prefer not to. I have very limited time to work and need to just sit down and get on with it.
Do you have any rituals when working?
I like to have a cup of tea. I have to be very careful not to dip my paintbrush into it.
Do you have a favourite artist outside of the world of books, if so who and why?
I love the Impressionists and have always been entranced by Monet’s Waterlily paintings. I could stand and stare and become immersed for hours. I studied English and French studies at University, and learnt a lot about Impressionism as part of my French course.
Did the books you read as a child influence your work?
In terms of story, I used to love Choose Your Own Adventure Books, and Asterix Adventure Game books, although I’d always make wrong choices and end up meeting a sticky end. In my yoga books, there are no wrong choices and they all end with a guided relaxation, like every yoga class should.
In terms of illustrators, because I loved Roald Dahl, I owned lots of books containing Quentin Blake illustrations. As a child, I really wanted to tidy up his wobbly lines, but I could also appreciate that his pictures were very skillful! I liked his detailed pictures of The Twits when their home is turned completely upside down, and The BFG when he has breakfast at Buckingham Palace, on a table using Grandfather Clocks as legs.
Has your illustration/art style changed over time?
I very much draw the way I did as a child! But I’ve moved on from colouring pencils to watercolours.
How closely do you work with the author on developing the illustrations for a book?
As I am the author, very closely indeed! I have a very clear idea about how I want the books to be laid out and how the text and images fit together. Being self-published means I have total control over the book.
If you could illustrate any classic book which would it be and why?
Oh my goodness. I don’t think I could possibly. I can only imagine the illustrations matching the text as they are already.
Which illustrated books in the last year have you loved?
Blobfish by Olaf Falafel. I buy picture books to use in children’s yoga classes and I thought this book was brilliant. It’s about loneliness and friendship, ocean conservation, littering and bad jokes. When I use it in children’s yoga classes, they all love it and laugh all the way through. The illustrations are great fun as well. And best of all, I can fit yoga poses into the story! I use revolved half moon pose for ‘litter picking pose’ if you’re interested!
If you can please tell us about your latest project and if not your last project
The first book I illustrated was ‘Once Upon a Time, You… a Yoga Adventure where you choose what happens!’ It came out in 2021, and last year I had it translated into Ukrainian and crowdfunded so that 200 copies could be printed and distributed to schools and host families around the UK.
I am now working on the sequel, called ‘Not so long ago, You…’ and now I’ve illustrated one book, I know exactly how much hard work this one will be! Both books are adventure picture books where you can choose who you fly with and where you fly. There are objects to find on each page, decisions to make, and of course lots of yoga poses!
do you have any events on in the near future?
I don’t have anything concrete planned yet, but if you go to www.boxmooryoga.co.uk I share all my news there.