Nadia Shireen: Getting started in picture books and writing unhappy endings
Published on: 23 April 2018 Author: Nadia Shireen
Writer-Illustrator in Residence Nadia Shireen tells us how she ended up creating children's books for a living – and why you shouldn't be afraid to give your stories a twist.
I sometimes get emails from illustration students or hopeful children’s books writers asking me how I got into the whole crazy, fluffy bunny-filled world of picture books in the first place. This blog can hopefully serve as my answer.
I suppose the first thing I should say is that there aren’t quite as many fluffy bunnies as you’d expect. I know, disappointing, isn’t it? There are, however, loads of promotional cupcakes and tote bags.
Quite unhelpfully, I have to be honest and say that luck played quite a large part in getting published. I don’t say that out of false modesty – it’s simply what happened. I made my first picture book, Good Little Wolf, as a project for an illustration course I was doing. I exhibited it at our graduation show, and some publishers turned up and happened to like it. The luck was down to the weather – apparently the year before, the show had been a total washout and only a few publishers had braved the rain.
Some early dummy versions of Good Little Wolf
The other huge bit of luck was that Helen Mackenzie-Smith, who would become my editor on Good Little Wolf, liked and understood my stuff. Taste is subjective, and for every editor or art director who liked my book, there were many others who liked the look of something else.
There are some other really important reasons that I was able to seize the opportunity given to me at that degree show. First of all, I already had another job. As a freelance journalist, I could make my transition over to full-time author/illustrator quite slowly. I knew if it all went horribly wrong, I had another skill I could fall back on.
And secondly – and this is a big one – I had family around me who could make up the financial shortfall when my income took a hit. The vast majority of writers and illustrators don’t earn a huge amount, and often need to supplement their income with school visits and/or part-time jobs. I try and be upfront about this whenever anyone asks me how I got started or how I earn a living. I know it’s not a glamorous answer, but at least the picture book-makers of the future can go in with their eyes open.
How I created that first picture book
Anyway, back to Good Little Wolf. The main character, Rolf, started life as a little doodle in my sketchbook. I thought he looked quite sweet, if also a tiny bit pleased with himself. I mean, he really did look like a good little wolf…
This was the first drawing of Rolf that popped up in my sketchbook one evening with no explanation
Of course, once I started thinking about the big bad wolf, I saw that playing about with old fairytale tropes was a really fun way to develop a story. I didn’t directly seek to create a ‘twisted fairytale’ as such, but there’s a nod to Little Red Riding Hood at the very start, and of course I deliberately made Rolf’s best friend a pig because of the Three Little Pigs.
This is my favourite drawing from the book. The scale is completely 'wrong' but I don't think that matters – the Big Bad Wolf needed to look HUGE
Mrs Boggins is the comically passive grandma, who is constantly knitting and seems unconcerned with any of the goings on around her. Loads of people told me they thought she looked like a character from the cartoon South Park. This wasn’t intentional, but it did make me a little reluctant to draw human characters in my books for a while. To keep my spirits up as I drew, I listened to loads of episodes of the Adam and Joe Show (a now-defunct comedy radio show.) There was a character in that called "Boggins the dog", and I realised – very late into the book – that I had totally nicked the name "Boggins" from them. Oops. Sorry, Adam and Joe.
Rolf hanging out with unflappable knitting queen, Mrs Boggins
I suppose the other notable thing about Good Little Wolf is the ending. Ooh, hang on a sec, I’d better insert a
***** SPOILER ALERT ******
I thought it would be really funny, and unexpected, if at the end of the book the Big Bad Wolf triumphed and Rolf got… well… eaten. I know, I know, I’m a sick and horrible person. But come on, it’s funny, right?
The last spread of the book. Why is the Big Bad Wolf's tummy so big? And where are Rolf and Mrs Boggins?
I mean, I don’t actually show the Big Bad Wolf eating up Rolf and Mrs Boggins. We just see that they’re not sitting at the table anymore, and that the Big Bad Wolf suddenly has a massive tummy. I seem to remember that one of my earlier drafts of this spread had a few traumatic claw marks in the chair and on the wallpaper. My tutor Martin Salisbury rightly counselled me that this was ‘maybe too violent’.
What was interesting was how people read it. Adults fell into two camps: they were either tickled or utterly HORRIFIED. And trust me, I got to know about the horrified ones. The reaction of children was more interesting. If they were allowed to look at the pictures themselves, without an adult prompting them, they either didn’t understand what had happened and therefore weren’t disturbed by it or they decided for themselves what had happened and found it funny.
I really believe that each young reader will see what they want to see, when they are ready to see it. After all, on the back page, I drew a little picture of Rolf with a shopping basket – it’s entirely plausible that he’d just nipped out to get more milk.
Anyway, I’m still very fond of that scruffy little wolf. He got me where I am today. Sorry I killed you off, Rolf. No hard feelings, eh?
Check out my playlist
Ooh yes, one more thing! I decided – for no reason other than to amuse myself – to make a Good Little Wolf-themed playlist. Hope you like it. In the meantime, I shall slope off into the night to howl at the moon…
See you soon,
Read our review of the book
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