Elly MacKay and her daughter, Lily, with one of Elly’s 3-D book illustrations for “Butterfly Park.” After the illustrator creates the dioramas, she photographs them for the books. (Courtesy Elly MacKay)

Ever make a fairy treehouse? What about a gliding whale or misty waterfall? Elly MacKay can say yes to all three. “The fun thing with this medium is there’s always more to experiment with,” says the 37-year-old author and illustrator.

The dreamy, shimmering art in the nine picture books she has written and illustrated since 2013 aren’t just a product of paper, paint and ink. They’re three-dimensional scenes MacKay builds, lights and photographs inside small theaters at her home in Owen Sound, Ontario.

Cool? Yes. Easy to do? Hardly.


“The Tallest Tree House” is Elly MacKay’s newest work. (Running Press Kids)

MacKay’s latest title, “The Tallest Tree House” tells the story of two fairies, Mip and Pip, who compete to build the best treehouse. Illustrating the fairy girl Mip’s teeteringly high creation led MacKay to build a 2½ -feet-tall tower made of foam board and thin wood strips.

And while fairy fella Pip’s house isn’t as big, it involved plenty of imaginative handiwork, too. Inside, there’s a hanging light (actually a marble and paper clip), a miniature chair made of paper and cellophane windows. The exterior is constructed from a cut brass sheet.

“It was the trickiest thing trying to photograph, because the light would bounce,” MacKay admits.

Most of the sets and figures in her books are drawn by MacKay on YUPO, a synthetic paper.

“I like it, because it doesn’t flop over when I’m building three-dimensional scenes. It will stand up,” she says. She illuminates each setting with LED lights usually positioned behind tracing paper.

MacKay applies color to her creations with acrylic-based ink using a paintbrush or dip pen. Characters that appear throughout a story get specific watercolors.

When all the pieces for one illustration are ready to be backlit and photographed, the author uses tape and wire to hold them in place within one of a handful of miniature theaters (ranging in size from 1½ by 2 feet to 2 by 2 feet) that her husband, Simon MacKay, a cabinetmaker, has built her.

One scene alone can take days. Making the final art for an entire book takes three months.

It takes time, but the end result is always worth it, says MacKay: “There’s always this element of surprise.”


MacKay works on a 3-D illustration for her book “Red Sky at Night.” (Courtesy Elly MacKay)

Her kids, 11-year-old daughter Lily and 7-year-old son Koen, may have a different reason. When the tooth fairy visits, she has taken a fancy to one of the houses Mom built for her book “Butterfly Park.”

“It’s taken on special significance here,” MacKay says. “It’s become the tooth fairy palace.”