A popular North-East children’s illustrator and author is drawing an international audience by providing free art lessons to support families with home-schooling during lockdown. PETER BARRON reports

LIZ Million can still vividly recall the day at infants’ school when she drew a bee. But it wasn’t just any old bee – it was wearing a yellow crown and a purple cape.

“It’s a Queen Bee!” she told her teacher.

It might not have been an anatomically correct bee, but it was an early example of the blend of creativity and fun that would lead Liz to a successful career as a prolific author and illustrator of children’s books.

“I was the worst in the school at maths, but I always loved drawing and making people laugh,” she says.

Her dad, Sutton Million, ran a sports shop in Darlington, and mum, Margaret, was a hairdresser. Her Grandpa was Phil Sefton, remembered as head teacher at Gurney Pease Primary School.

After developing her art skills at Abbey Primary School, Hummersknott Secondary, and Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College, she headed to London to study illustration at Kingston University.

Walker Books came to see her degree show, promptly offered her a book deal, and Orchard Books followed. Since then, she’s lost count of the books she has to her name, and has hosted workshops worldwide.

Now, as a mum to 11-year-old George, Liz is using her skills to keep children entertained during lockdown, by streaming online art sessions into their homes.

Every Friday, at 10am, she can be found on her Facebook page, inspiring kids to draw by starting with basic shapes. In the first week, oval potatoes were transformed into funny aliens. Follow-up themes have included carrots becoming sharks, birds, fish and mice.

While Joe Wicks is keeping the nation fit during lockdown, Liz wants to do her bit to demonstrate how healthy art can be.

“I want to get more children drawing because it breaks down barriers,” she says. “It’s a really hard time for families, so I want to make kids happy.”

And yet, like so many other self-employed people, she admits to fearing for the future when the coronavirus pandemic first took a grip nearly a year ago.

Overnight, all her bookings for creative workshops at schools around the country began being cancelled.

“It was horrendous. I was worried I was going to lose everything, and had a cry,” she recalls.

But then Liz did what she’s always done during difficult times – she went into her studio, and began to draw. “I did some Roman centurions and felt loads better,” she says. “I just needed that bit of creativity.”

It led to her thinking how she might put her skills to good use during lockdown, and quickly started posting free tutorials on Facebook.

“It’s not just a job, it’s my vocation, so I wanted to do my bit to help,” she explains. “Parents are being expected to turn their hands to all sorts of things, and art might not be their strength, just as maths isn’t mine. If everyone used their expertise to do a free workshop, we could all help each other out.”

The idea quickly escalated, with an Arts Council grant of £2,500 coming as a welcome boost, while Liz’s husband, Mark, continued his job as a key worker.

Then, a Scout leader got in touch via a mutual friend, offering to pay Liz for a virtual workshop. Word spread amongst the Scouting network, and has now clocked up more than 500 Zoom sessions for Cubs and Scouts.

“Cubs and Scouts saved my career – it went absolutely crazy,” she says.

The free 40-minute Facebook workshops every Friday are Liz’s way of “putting something back” and they are open to everyone, including adults who fancy a go.

As well as drawing aliens, sharks, fish, birds and mice, she’s also drawing a huge audience that includes schools in Australia, Malaysia, and Spain, as well as the UK.

“The feedback’s been lovely – I’ve been sent stacks of amazing pictures by children,” she says.

This Friday, at 10am, the starting point happens to be baked beans. Close your eyes and you can imagine them being turned into swarms of bees – complete with crowns and royal robes.

To join in the free Friday workshops, search for “lizmillionillustrator” on Facebook and be ready at 10am with pencils, paper, rubber…and your imagination.

MY favourite story from the past week was about Darlington schoolgirl Eve Wake’s magnificent exploits in honour of her beloved grandad, Dave, following his diagnosis with dementia.

Eve, nine, raised more than £2,000 for Dementia UK by running a total of 70 kilometres, at a rate of 10k a week, and timing her finish to coincide with her grandad’s 70th birthday.

To recognise her achievement, she was one of the recipients of this year’s Darlington Sports Winners awards.

“What do you like best about your Grandad?” I asked Eve, pictured below.

“The way he always pulls funny faces behind my Nana’s back when she isn’t looking,” giggled Eve.

Sorry, Grandad – the cat’s out of the bag.

The Northern Echo:

THE wonderful, online shenanigans at Handforth Parish Council, and the emergence of Jackie Weaver as a household name, has been another highlight of the past week.

It reminded my old friend, Ted Young, of the time he was covering a meeting of Newton Aycliffe Town Council for The Northern Echo.

Ted, now the esteemed editor of Metro – the UK’s highest circulation print newspaper – cut his teeth on the Echo, alongside yours truly, in the 1980s.

He’d gone along to the town council without particularly high expectations of finding anything exciting to report, beyond the usual rubbish bin collection times, dog fouling complaints, and Britian in Bloom entry update.

However, he was intrigued to discover a puzzle page had been mysteriously inserted amongst the official documents for the meeting.

The page was enticingly entitled JOIN THE DOTS TO SEE THE LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION.

Once completed, it revealed a picture of a chimpanzee.

The ooo-ooo-ooodunnit didn’t just make the front page of The Northern Echo, but found its way into all the national papers too. Sadly, the internet hadn’t been thought of then, otherwise it would surely have gone viral.

Any other (monkey) business from local councils? I’d love to hear your memories.

FINALLY, and for the record, I wish it to be noted in the minutes that my wife has complete authority in our house, and I’m very well versed in the standing orders.