Nadia Shireen: Hey Presto!
Creator of Good Little Wolf Nadia Shireen tells us about how she became a picture book author and illustrator - and how she created her magical new book Hey Presto!
Your route to becoming a picture book author and illustrator was quite unusual - you started out training to be a lawyer and went on to work as a journalist on magazines like Smash Hits before getting into children's books. How did you end up as a picture book author and illustrator?
I worked for almost 10 years as a magazine journalist, and enjoyed it very much. I remember one year we invited Girls Aloud to switch on the Smash Hits Christmas lights. They arrived at our grey, dingy office and had to kneel by a plug point to switch on a sad little plastic tree from Argos. They weren’t amused.
Anyway, I was approaching 30 and feeling a bit fed up and unmotivated so decided to do an evening class in illustration, as I’d always enjoyed drawing but had never really paid it much attention. This led to more evening classes, until eventually I found myself on an MA course in illustration at Anglia Ruskin University. I studied part time for two and a half years, and managed to put Good Little Wolf together just before the degree show. It was spotted at the show by various publishers, which was an unexpected thrill.
Good Little Wolf, was a huge success. Was it daunting working on your second book, and how did you approach it?
It was a little bit daunting coming up with the follow-up, but on the other hand I was really pleased to have the opportunity to do another book. I wanted it to be something different – I didn’t want to just churn out Good Little Wolf Part 2.
Your latest book, Hey Presto! is a delightful story about two friends who start up a magic show. Where did the idea for the book come from?
The characters and situations all turn up in my sketchbooks and I’m not entirely sure how they get there! I just doodled this bashful-looking cat magician one day. He seemed to be crying out for a noisy, clumsy, silly sidekick, which is where Monty comes from. I was interested in Presto and Monty's friendship – I was a quiet kid and remember that feeling of being a bit overwhelmed by louder, excitable friends. Though unlike Presto, I wasn't an amazing magician!
Tell us about how you create the illustrations for your books
I play in my sketchbooks first. Then I scan drawings in, or sometimes draw straight into my computer using a graphics tablet. I also scan various textures and blobs of ink or whatever, and then I just mess about. I haven’t really developed a strict ‘method’ yet – I make it up as I go along. It’s haphazard, but it also helps to keep everything fun and loose. For black and white work (eg The Raccoon Rampage books by Andrew Cope) I just draw in black ink with a fountain pen.
Are there any other authors or illustrators who have particularly influenced your work? Which other picture book creators do you admire?
I really like Brian Wildsmith, Mary Blair, David McKee and Quentin Blake. And there are loads of brilliant people around at the moment like Alexis Deacon, Oliver Jeffers, Kevin Waldron, Joel Stewart, Marta Altes… I don’t actually spend hours and hours poring over picture books because I don’t want to subconsciously absorb too much. I’m just as influenced by stuff like music and cartoons.
Good Little Wolf is all about being yourself and standing up to stereotypes, whilst Hey Presto! explores the importance of valuing your friends and doing things together. Is it important to you to have a positive message in your picture books?
Um, not really! I’m much more interested in creating something fun to read and entertaining to look at. I know a few people were upset by the grisly twist at the end of Good Little Wolf and suspect I’m out to corrupt the minds of small children… which, of course, I am. I was tempted to include a gruesome magic-trick-gone-wrong accident in Hey, Presto!, but if I resort to death and destruction in every book it would get boring and predictable very quickly.
What advice would you give to the aspiring picture book authors and illustrators out there?
Draw lots and try and please yourself before you try and please anyone else. If you have a story or characters you like and believe in, it will make the whole picture book-making process a lot easier. Just keep trying to do stuff you’re satisfied with and hopefully your work will find a like-minded audience. Oh, and if someone as disorganised and undisciplined as me can get a book published, there’s hope for everyone!
What are you working on next?
I’m busy working on my next picture book, which is shaping up to be quite an unusual beast…
Nadia Shireen grew up in Shropshire. She studied law and worked for a journalist on magazines including Smash Hits before starting an MA in children's book illustration at Cambridge School of Arts in 2007. Her first book was Good Little Wolf published in 2011.