Illustrator Flavia Z. Drago on Exploring The Dark & Weird

27th February 2024
5 min read
3rd April 2024

We spoke to Flavia Z. Drago, this year's Illustrator of the Fair at The London Book Fair, about her career and influences.

Flavia Z Drago

It was a surprise to Flavia Z. Drago when she received an email inviting her to be this year’s Illustrator of the Fair at The London Book Fair. 

“I wasn’t expecting it,” she tells me as we chat over Zoom. Flavia is sitting in her home office and the walls are adorned with framed illustrations and prints. “I looked at previous fair illustrators and saw Dapo Adeola was there last year. He’s so talented and everyone loves his books. And then I saw that David McKee had been there previously!” Flavia’s eyes light up at the mention of the much-loved Elmer illustrator. I ask if he’s a favourite of hers. She nods.  

Born and raised in Mexico City, Flavia Zorilla Drago first came across David McKee on television. “We have this channel in Mexico, Channel 11. It was on that channel where I saw a short film based on one of his books – Two Can Toucan. I liked it so much that I copied it and wrote my own version. It was the first time I felt like I’d done something creative.” At that time, little Flavia didn’t know that McKee was a picture book maker. “But as I grew up, I realised who he was.” 

Being Illustrator of the Fair at LBF 2024, therefore, feels very much like a full-circle moment for Flavia. It’s a moment that’s been a long time in the making. Before her first book was published, she’d been “trying to be a part of this industry for ten years.” She smiles wryly before adding that “being stubborn helps.” 

Flavia started her career as a graphic designer, partly inspired by her older sister and artist Javier Mariscal who designed the logo for Barcelona 92. “I didn’t even think about being an illustrator. I thought I would design logos and create brand identities.” But she quickly discovered that type of work wasn’t for her - “I was young, just starting out, and you don’t get the exciting jobs” – and began to explore the world of illustration instead. Exploration led Flavia to Isol, an Argentinian illustrator who won the Astrid Lingren Memorial Award in 2013. “I really loved her books. They’re funny, witty, and have a slightly dark edge and I thought ‘Well, I want to do this. I don’t know how but I want to do this.’” 

After travelling around Europe for work, Flavia moved to England where she graduated from the Children’s Book Illustration MA at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.  

“There’s always been this side of me that enjoys darkness and weirdness,” she admits. “Now I do draw a lot from folklore and horror tropes because it gives me joy. It’s purely selfish.” It hasn’t always been this way for Flavia, however. Learning to lean into her own interests and passions has taken a while. "When I’d just graduated from my MA, the projects I’d developed were about characters that always appear in children’s books – princesses and bunnies. I really wanted to work with Walker Books, and I was so excited when I got an email from Deirdre, my editor, asking to come in and have a chat.”  

They loved Flavia’s work, however there were lots of books in the market featuring bunnies and princesses. “My editor then spotted a sketch of a Catrina in my portfolio. It’s a recurrent trope in Mexican folklore, which is a lady skull dressed in a fancy, French dress wearing a big hat. Deirdre really liked it and asked me if I had anything else similar.”

From this came the seed of an idea for Gustavo, The Shy Ghost, Flavia’s first book with Walker about a shy ghost who’d love nothing more than to make friends. “It was supposed to be a standalone project, but as I developed the book, I had further ideas of stories that featured real monsters instead of children.” 
And so two more books followed: Leila, The Perfect Witch and Vlad, The Fabulous Vampire. Flavia’s work is character driven and a huge amount of research goes into each book. In Leila, keen readers can spot pictures of Joanne of Arc, Katharina Kepler and other famous women who were wrongly accused of evil and ‘witchcraft’.  

What advice does Flavia have for other illustrators honing their craft? “Draw a lot. Do a lot of horrible drawings,” she laughs. “Drawing is difficult because it can be overwhelming to create something out of nothing. But if you don’t sit down and start drawing, you won’t get anywhere.” 

And what about illustrators who are ready to send their work out into the world? “Do your research and get to know what publishers are looking for. Publish things on Instagram. Be proactive.” 

With The London Book Fair approaching, Flavia is excited to finally be at the heart of the industry she wanted to be a part of for so long. Long may her gothic reign continue.

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