As co-founder of Wildfang, the locally based, uber-popular tomboy-inspired fashion company—adored by the likes of Ellen Page, Tegan and Sara and Evan Rachel Wood—Emma McIlroy keeps plenty busy.
But that didn't stop the 31-year-old from finding time to write a children's book. Emma's A Gem, which comes out Wednesday, Nov. 19, was inspired by McIlroy's own discovery of a dinosaur skull on a beach in her native Northern Ireland. She spun that experience into a rhyming tale about a plucky, curious tomboy who finds fossils, fights crime and helps a fashion designer rekindle her creativity, all in the course of a single day—which she concludes with PB&J from a food cart, the book's most obvious nod to McIlroy's adopted home.
It's the first book written by McIlroy, and the first illustrated by local graffiti artist Jeremy Nichols. His drawings are colorful and imbued with a careful level of whimsy—a treehouse with a giant hamster wheel out front, a character with a pufferfish in hand, a sidewalk stand that sells car insurance rather than lemonade.
McIlroy talked to WW about stumbling upon dinosaur fossils, the message she's hoping to send to kids and her favorite hidden detail in the book. The book itself can be purchased from Wildfang's website or at the company's flagship store at 1230 SE Grand Ave.
WW: What spurred you to write a children's book? I know some of it is based on truth—what's the story there?
Emma McIlroy: When I was 7 years old, my mum's best friend taught me how to look for fossils. I was on a beach back home in Northern Ireland, and I picked up a large rock that I was convinced was a mammoth's foot, including a very large toenail. Now, it's ridiculous to think that I had in fact found a mammoth's foot. Firstly, I wouldn't have been able to carry it. And secondly, there would have no longer been any toenail. When I showed it to my mum and announced that I'd found a mammoth's foot, she said, "Wow! Let's go hand it in at the museum and see what they say!"
My mum had two choices in that moment: Laugh at me and my mammoth's foot, or allow me to be curious and inspired, and take me to the museum. My mum clearly chose the latter and used it as an opportunity to take me around the dinosaur exhibition.
The next day, a man called Andrew Jerome called our house screaming. He was head of paleontology at Ulster Museum and broke the news that the rock I'd found was not a mammoth's foot, but rather a 200-million-year-old icthyosaurus skull. In fact, it was the best example of its kind in Ireland.
Looking back, I praise my mum and admire her for her actions that day. She taught me to be curious, generous of spirit and to go after what you believe in. Emma's A Gem was created to teach children these same principles—to inspire children to find their passion and get after it.
You'll be pleased to know that the dinosaur skull I found is still displayed in the Ulster Museum today, 24 years later.
When did you find time to work on it? Did you find that your work at Wildfang influenced the book? How so?
It has been four-and-a-half years in the making. Wildfang takes up almost all my time, so the book got squeezed in late at night or on the weekend. It's not surprising that Emma, the main character, is a feisty young tomboy who likes to break a few rules. I think it's fair to say she's a Wildfang in training.
Why write it in rhyme? Had you written anything in that form before?
It's funny, because if you read any how-to about writing a children's book, they say to never write it rhyme—it's too hard and you won't be able to do it properly. However, I read those articles after I'd written it. Whoops! My favorite books as a child were by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, and all of them rhymed. Rhyming is just way more fun.
What drew you to Jeremy Nichols? How did you decide to collaborate with him? What was that process like?
I wanted to work with a Portland-based graffiti artist to bring a really fresh, modern look to the book: something adults would love as much as kids. I love cross-pollination as a way to breed innovation. That's why I wanted to work with a street artist—someone who had never illustrated a book before. When I met Jeremy, I was blown away by his ability to bring a character to life and his attention to detail. He is so ridiculously talented and he fell in love with Emma the same way I did. It's been a pleasure working with him.
Some of the writing is quite blunt. I'm thinking mostly about your description of Nina, the fashion designer: "She likes to date girls and has left-wing views." Other bits—about Emma's bravery and creativity, for example—are more subtle. What's the takeaway message? Did you write this book with a particular audience in mind?
My goal was to create a contemporary children's book that adults loved to read just as much as kids. I wanted content that cause children to ask questions and would expose them to diversity. I was fed up reading kids books to my nieces and nephews with zero ethnic or sexual diversity—they just don't reflect modern society.
What's a favorite detail or two about the book that might be missed on a casual reading?
The cross-stitch on Nina's wall is a personal favorite: Keep Calm & Knit On.
And let's get real for a moment: Is this all really just a plot to groom future Wildfang customers?
Hahahaha. Well, Wildfang is a labor of love. Julia and I started it to build a brand and community that young women were proud of. A movement that inspired other women to be a little bolder, break some rules and achieve their full potential. Emma's A Gem comes from a very similar DNA. It's taken four years and almost $7,000 to create. The only reason to do it was to send a really powerful, inspiring message to kids everywhere. It's not inspiring to tell a kid to "be smarter," but it's super cool to tell them to be curious and brave and follow their passions. And maybe, just maybe, something really cool will happen. I think both Wildfang and Emma's A Gem are filled with the same cheeky, bold tomboy spirit.
What's next? Another kids' book? Something else?
Maybe someday. Right now, it's about watching lots of little Emmas read and enjoy the book.