This week’s guest on The 21st Century Creative is Nadia Shireen, an award-winning and bestselling children’s author and illustrator. Her books include Good Little Wolf, The Bumblebear, The Cow Who Fell to Earth, and her latest, Billy and the Dragon, is released this summer.
Nadia’s books have given a lot of pleasure to my own family, as my wife and I have read them with our children over the years, so I was very pleased that Nadia agreed to come on the podcast and talk about her work.
If you love children’s picture books – and who doesn’t? – then you’ll find this a fascinating peek behind the curtain to see how they are made. It was really nice to discover that the magic of a picture book is also there in the creative process, as you can hear how much Nadia enjoys amusing herself during the writing process.
Nadia also talked about some of the specific challenges and opportunities of writing for children, and the importance of trusting and respecting their capacity to experience powerful emotions.
Whether you’re a writer or not, if your creativity depends in any way on working within an established set of formal constraints and making the most of them, then you’ll likely find insights you can use in your own practice.
I certainly came away from this conversation with a very different way of looking at the deceptively simple format of the children’s picture book. I noticed surprising parallels with my own art, poetry, and also with the challenges of screenwriting for feature films. Maybe you’ll discover similar resonances with your own creative discipline.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then relax and enjoy this journey into the world of children’s stories, with Nadia Shireen.
The photo of Nadia is by Jon Challicom.
Nadia Shireen interview transcript
MARK: Nadia, what possessed you to start writing children’s books?
NADIA: Possessed is a good word. I took a really round about way to get here, to get to this career. I’ve always been a daydreamer. I’ve always been someone that’s enjoyed drawing, doodling. I’ve always lived in my imagination a lot. It wasn’t a career option I took seriously, just because I didn’t grow up in that kind of household where a creative career was necessarily considered to be a serious option, like many of my peers. I don’t know many people whose parents were like, ‘Yeah, you should definitely become an artist, that will pay well.’ So it was just always there. It was just always something I did.
And it was when I was about 30, I was working in the magazine industry and really feeling like this creative itch wasn’t getting scratched. So I did a few evening courses in illustration, which then led me on to do an MA in children’s book illustration, part-time. And I have to be honest, the only reason I did that MA was because it fit into my work schedule. So I could earn a living being a freelance journalist, and then one day a week, nip up to Cambridge, it was at Cambridge School of Art, nip up to Cambridge and do illustration. And the children’s book aspect of it was secondary to me, which I’m sure the tutors wouldn’t have been delighted to know.
But in the course, whilst doing that course, that’s really where my appreciation for the form came alive. And I thought, ‘Hey, this is actually perfect. This is the perfect combination for me.’ I want to tell stories, I love language, I love drawing, and there’s a mysterious alchemy between these three things in the format of children’s books. Does that answer the question in a little way?
MARK: Yeah, it does. I just think, because in this country, we’re in the UK, stories with pictures for adults are kinda frowned upon, aren’t they? It’s not like in France where bandes dessinées is revered, or manga in Japan, where the grown-ups are reading it on the tube.
NADIA: Yes, it’s such a shame. I don’t understand why, but we’ve got this idea that books, or text and image working together is somehow infantile or stupid. And actually, it’s so rich, because if you look at an image and there’s some accompanying text, if it’s done well the text will not be repeating what the image is telling you. They will both be telling you slightly different things. There’s a gap in between, and that’s the gap that we fill in. That’s the gap that you fill in as a reader. And I think that there’s so much potential in that gap, and that you can exploit that gap in really interesting ways. But I don’t know why we’ve suddenly decided that once you get to a certain age, that that’s it.
MARK: I think it’s getting better. Graphic novels are becoming more popular and respected as an art form. But I really want to pick up on this gap that you talk about, Nadia. Because one of the things I really love about your books is, when you read them, you’ve really got to pay attention to the illustrations, because you see stuff in the text and very often there’s a telling little detail in the illustration, and I don’t want to spoil any surprises, that if you miss that, if you just turn the page too quickly, then you kind of miss another dimension or another joke.
NADIA: Yes. And some parents have criticized me, well, not criticized, but said, ‘Oh, I missed that the first time.’ And I think it’s just about slowing down. And you have to, like you say, you have to read the image to get the full picture. And that’s the fun of it.
And also, my picture books have to appeal to children who cannot read, and then children who are learning to read, and then children who can read comfortably, as well as teachers and parents. There’s a real joy to be had, if you can’t read yet and your parent or whoever, is reading to you the story, you get to find something and you’re not just relying on them. So for them, to get some information from an image, feels a bit like I’m telling them a secret.
MARK: Yes. And you’ve got to pay attention, and attention is rewarded. I was rereading them, obviously this week, because I knew I was going to talk to you. And it’s a very nonlinear experience of reading. We’re so used to reading emails, and texts, and tweets, and just getting the gist of it. Even with a novel, it’s kind of you’re traveling in one direction. But when you read a picture book, you read and then you’ve got to look back at the image again in the light of what you’ve just read. You’ve got to read in several directions at once, and like you say, slow down.
NADIA: Yeah. And pacing is an interesting thing that I deal with. Because, I don’t know if your listeners are aware, but picture book formats are pretty standard globally. You’ve got 32 pages.
MARK: I wasn’t aware, tell us about this.
NADIA: You’ve got 32 pages, pretty much. And that’s pretty standard. That’s just because of printing, the economies of printing. And often, picture books need to be sold to other countries to make any money back. So it’s a very globally interconnected industry so hence, there are these standards. So 32 pages is your standard length. So within 32 pages, that’s not much space in which to establish characters, establish a sense of environment, where is the story taking place, and then give your reader a traditional story arc. So pacing is important, because you need to ramp up the tension points, you need to slow your reader down at some points. And image can really help with that.
So an intricate image or a couple of pages where, as you say, the words aren’t telling you everything, I’m forcing the reader to slow down a little bit. It’s like directing a film, almost. It looks deceptively simple, but actually, the image and the words both dictate how long you stay on a particular page.
And sometimes you want that page turn to be quick because of a funny joke, or because you’re trying to ramp up the action towards the end of your 32 pages. And then you want it to slow down so that your reader feels, even though they’ve only got two pages left, they have slowed down, so they feel like that ending is satisfying. Does that make sense?
MARK: Yeah, it does. And you’re giving me a completely different way of looking at it. I’m kind of unconsciously, this is what I’ve done reading your books and other picture books, but you’re showing me the book through a different lens.
And it’s quite cinematic. I’m thinking when I work with screenwriting clients they’ve got about 90 pages for their feature film. And the format, that’s been well established in the industry, and yet that box gives them a space to innovate and pacing and character development, and speed is obviously critical there. But I hadn’t quite thought about a children’s book in this way, but you’re absolutely right when you describe it like that.
NADIA: Yeah, it makes it a challenging but really stimulating kind of environment to work in, or medium to work within. There’s something about when you’ve got quite a restricted template, it makes you more inventive, in a way. You’re trying to eke out everything you can to kind of tell your story. Whether that’s changing the background color of a page to indicate a change of mood or emotion, or toying with where you put an ellipses or an exclamation mark. Everything counts in a good picture book.
MARK: Yeah, because everything is magnified when you’re looking at it that closely and carefully. Obviously, I’m thinking of poetry here, because if you write a short poem, like a sonnet or a haiku, then every word really counts. In a very different way than if you’re writing an 80,000 word novel.
NADIA: It’s a balance, isn’t it? It’s a balancing act.
MARK: The reader’s eye is very unforgiving.
NADIA: Yes, yeah, absolutely. There’s nowhere to hide. And the weight of things really matters. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of its similarity to poetry, but that’s definitely true.
MARK: So, what do you think makes a really good children’s book? Are there any examples of other people’s works that you would say, ‘Oh, that’s someone I really look up to and admire,’ or, ‘That’s a kind of exemplar of the craft?’
NADIA: I don’t know, it’s so personal. Do you mean picture books or children’s books in a more broad sense?
MARK: Yeah. I mean picture books.
NADIA: It’s funny because people say to me, ‘Oh, you must have had loads growing up.’ And the truth is, I didn’t. We were a house of readers, that’s no doubt, but we would go to the library and my mom would, you know, get her Dick Francis or Agatha Christie, and I’d be free to do what I wanted in the children’s area. I would just tear through them. Mostly I would tear through them there. So I didn’t have loads in the house when I was growing up. I loved Jan Pieńkowski who did the Meg & Mog
books. Do you remember them?
MARK: Oh, God, yeah! Oh, that takes me back.
NADIA: Yeah, he did Meg & Mog which I just loved, and Haunted House which was this amazing, kind of three-dimensional book. Like you open it up and a frog jumps out of the toilet, that kind of thing. So I loved those because they were bright and bold. They felt a little bit forbidden because they were so different from the kind of genteel Hans Christian Andersen type picture books that would be thrust into your hand. These were quite kind of loud and punky.
MARK: And they were quite anarchic, weren’t they? And quite edgy.
NADIA: And the drawings were deceptively simple. And the drawings, as a child, you kind of went, ‘Oh, I could draw that,’ because they’re really simple, and sometimes you can see that he’s done them in felt tip. I love that. I still really love that. So they were great. And then the pitch, in terms of the ones that loomed large, those loomed large for me as a child. And now, of course, oh, there are so many. There are so many fantastic picture book artists working, but I try not to look at them because it depresses me. But people like Brian Wildsmith, you’ve got these kind of heroes who work well with color.
Contemporary people who work well with color would be people like, Benji Davis is a contemporary picture book artist who I think does great things. Jim Field is, I think, one of the biggest selling picture book artists at the moment. And pains me to say it, but he really deserves it because his characterization is amazing. It’s a really rich time for picture books. And I am half joking when I say it makes me feel envious, it also makes me feel immensely proud that I’m working during this time. I think it’s really rich. I feel we’re all looking at each other’s work and enjoying it, and it pushes all of us on, I think.
MARK: And all of your books, it strikes me, looking at them again, there’s a really strong, central concept to each one. Like, Good Little Wolf, or The Bumblebear, or The Cow Who Fell to Earth. Where do you get the ideas?
NADIA: It’s a funny one.
MARK: And how do you know that you’ve got an idea that you want to turn into a book?
NADIA: I think it has to have a few elements. So there has to be an engaging character. So that comes just from me sitting at my desk with a pencil, or not even at my desk, in bed with a sketchbook or wherever. I’m always drawing just characters and just seeing who appeals. When I draw a character and that character is looking at me, and I’m like, ‘Well, you’re definitely a separate entity.’ Then I think, ‘Okay, so that’s one factor.’
But then also, I need to be able to put them in a situation, give them an interesting story. But I do want there to be a little bit of weight. I need to empathize with them. And I think maybe that’s where the weight that you’re talking about comes from. It’s not enough for me that you’ve got, like a bear goes to the shops and buys a loaf of bread and comes home and makes a sandwich. Which is fine, but for there to be real stakes, real tension, and then real love or real connection, I think you need to feel it. That sounds really heavy and highfalutin when you think about a cow.
MARK: No, it doesn’t.
NADIA: I need to feel it. I need to mean it, at least.
MARK: I think with any story reader, we’ve got to feel that it matters to the central character, that there’s something at stake. And therefore, if we empathize, maybe see ourselves in them to a certain degree, then it matters to us.
NADIA: Yeah, absolutely. And I think kids can take that. Kids go through such a roller coaster of emotions in one day, and all the stuff matters. So, I take their emotions seriously. I’ve got a good emotional memory, I remember what it feels like to be a kid. And all those feelings are just as valid and serious as they are now.
And I want my books to be funny, too. Don’t get me wrong, ultimately, I want kids to have a laugh and have a good time before bed, and enjoy them. But I do, at the same time, want to treat my characters with love and respect.
MARK: There is quite a remarkable emotional range in your stories. You have people who are lonely who are feeling left out, or rejected, or they’re lost, or terrified, frankly. Good Little Wolf is… Well, obviously, I don’t want to spoil the ending, but when I turned that final page, I thought, ‘Whoa,’ it was quite shocking. Was it shocking for you when you got the idea? Did you think, ‘Is this too much?’
NADIA: For Good Little Wolf?
NADIA: No, not really. That was funny, because that was my first book. And that was a book that I created when I was finishing my MA at Cambridge School of Art. And I’d been failing that course, like my tutor quite gleefully was kind of telling me, ‘You’re probably going to fail,’ because I was working at the same time, and it was just too much of a juggle. But in the end, I took three months off work just so I could focus on my final push. So I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be published.’ I was thinking, ‘I need to finish my course. I need to get this book done. And I want it to be presented on my final degree show and get a good mark.’ Maybe that liberated me because I had no experience of the children’s book publishing industry world at that point. I don’t know if I’d do it now, maybe I’d be too cautious now, I’m not sure. But I think the fact that it was so surprising, that ending, really helped as a debut picture book author, because it really got me noticed.
MARK: Well, I’m not surprised. I mean, again, folks, you really need to read it. It ends with a bang, that’s all I will say. And the thing is when my kids read it, I was like, you know, ‘What will they think?’ But they loved it.
NADIA: I’m interested in that. Did you leave it up to them to interpret the ending?
MARK: Yeah. I wouldn’t tell them what it means.
NADIA: That’s the key.
MARK: I was just watching how they responded.
NADIA: So that’s the key, yeah. Well, you did absolutely the right thing. You know, I’m trying not to spoil it, not that anyone is that bothered I’m sure. But I have had parents read it and go, ‘We got to the end and I couldn’t believe it. And I explained to Little Timmy what happened, and he was devastated.’ And I feel like going, ‘Well, don’t explain then!’
Because if a child interprets that ending in a particular way, they’re ready to, and they’ll find it funny. If they are going to be upset by that, they will read something else into it. And I even help out that with; if you turn the page again, there’s another picture that can help that ending be plausible. So I think the child sees the ending as ready to see. But it’s when parents get involved and explain things maybe the kid’s not ready for, then I’ve had bad feedback.
NADIA: I mean, I blame the parents!
MARK: But it sounds like it’s more the parents are interfering with the story. Of course, we blame the parents! Of course, they always get the blame. We are both parents, by the way, and we always get the blame!
NADIA: We always get the blame. It’s fine.
MARK: But I really do think that is a great example; it’s really bold, and you really trust your reader, you really treat the child with respect in being bold in that way. But then there’s also that subtlety to it, that if they’re ready for it then they’ll get this, and if they’re not, then maybe they’ll take something else from it.
NADIA: I’m on the side of my reader before anyone else. I am on the kids’ side. And I do think as a children’s book writer or illustrator, you’ve got to be on the side of the kids. And I naturally feel that’s not a leap for me. I want to challenge my readers maybe a little, but I never want to patronize them. I also don’t want to traumatize them for no good reason. I don’t like those cartoons or books, or whatever, that are set to shock or upset just for the sake of it. So it’s got to be done with wit or care.
MARK: And, again, nearly all your books, there is a kind of a punch line. It’s not necessarily as dramatic as that one, but when you turn that final page, there’s a moment of an emotion being expressed or released, that you really do feel something has been said that matters. How easy is it to get that final page? Is it one of the first things you get, or do you have to work for a while and then it comes?
NADIA: Oh, that’s nice that you’ve noticed that, because that is something me my editor, Andrea, who I work very closely with, she really helps me with pacing, and we always talk about that page 32, the final sign off because it seems a shame…
MARK: Really? Page 32.
NADIA: Yeah, it seems a shame always, after you’ve gone through an adventure, to just have a last page that either doesn’t make you really feel anything, or doesn’t raise a smile. They’re not always little jokes, sometimes they do just underline a mood. Billy and the Beast, which is the most recent book that came out, and the final page is the lead character literally walking off into the sunset with her pals, but it’s hopefully done in a way that just underlines, ties together, as you say, leaves you with a strong feeling. It’s quite tricky sometimes. I always want to try and get an extra gag in always. I like to shoehorn in as many jokes as possible, but it is quite tricky.
MARK: Okay. So that is something that is consciously worked at. Because it leaves you with a feeling, and it’s a range of different feelings in the different books, but you really do feel, ‘Oh,’ when you put the book down. There’s something that lingers with you.
NADIA: I hope so. I don’t want to waste any space. There’s so little space. I want to squeeze it, squeeze it like a sponge, wring every last page out. I don’t mean cram every page full of stuff, I just mean use the entire book. Use my palette, if you like. Exploit my canvas, I mean, not my palette. Exploit my canvas to the best of my ability.
MARK: Another really bold move that you have, that we can talk about because it’s in the title is, The Cow Who Fell to Earth.
NADIA: It was my Bowie grief book clearly…
MARK: Oh, really? Was it written at that time?
NADIA: Yeah, weirdly. I had a meeting set up, an editorial meeting before… you know, ‘So what’s the next book going to be?’ And I had a couple of sketchbooks, and I had drawn a space cow with the words ‘The cow who fell to earth,’ in my sketchbook. Pre-Black Monday, as I like to call the day of David Bowie’s death.
MARK: Blackstar Monday, yeah.
NADIA: Yeah, Blackstar, very good. Pre-Blackstar Monday. So it was there and I had the meeting on Tuesday, which was like… I was very tear-stained. I was like, ‘I’m sorry. My hero’s died.’
MARK: We all were, yeah.
NADIA: I was genuine… yeah, we all were genuinely gutted, I know, I really was. And as we were flicking through the sketchbook, it was like, ‘Oh, who’s this little space cow guy?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, we’ve got to do the space guy.’ And as much as Bowie… it’s a cheeky nod to him, but the actual story is about something completely different.
MARK: Okay. I assume, everyone listening to this is a Bowie fan, but just in case you missed out on his cinematic masterpiece, it’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, right?
MARK: It’s the movie. And again, part of the boldness is that movie really isn’t for kids. It isn’t for most adults! It’s really dark and scary. And weird, frankly, which is what makes it glorious.
So this was something I was thinking about, because I’ve been reading Asterix with my son recently. And I always loved Asterix as a kid. And one of the things that Asterix does really well, and that something like The Cow Who Fell to Earth does really well, it gives the parent something extra, but it doesn’t detract from the child’s enjoyment. So in Asterix there’s a few political jokes or references to classical poems in Latin and stuff. The kids are never going to get it, but the parent reading it goes, ‘Ah, all right. I see what he’s doing there. That’s nice.’ And it’s like there’s something for everyone in a book like that.
NADIA: Yeah. As I say, my primary audience are the kids, and I’m on the side of the kids. It’s more to amuse me. Because I didn’t call that book The Cow Who Fell to Earth because I thought I’d get a load of Bowie parents buying the book. Honestly, I didn’t, because that’s a terrible idea. That’s a terrible thing to hang a picture book on: I hope some parents are David Bowie fans. It will be quite niche.
So it’s more about me, that’s more about just making myself laugh. And yeah, sure, like-minded people will get a laugh out of it as well or will get some satisfaction from it. But I think if I went down the road of trying to shoehorn in stuff for the parents, I think there’s a danger of losing your focus on kind of who your main audience is.
MARK: Right. And it doesn’t come across like that. And I think that’s a lovely answer, that it’s for your own amusement. And I think that comes across. I assume you enjoy doing these things because the books are full of joy. And I like that exuberance that when you put something in you just can’t resist doing it.
NADIA: Well, yeah. I mean, what a luxury. This is my job, it’s ridiculous. You know, I’ve had normal jobs before this, and I’m grateful.
MARK: And we know what they’re like!
NADIA: Yeah, well, sort of normal. But I feel stupidly grateful. I feel really grateful this hasn’t been my only job, because I can really appreciate what a joy it is to have this creative freedom. I’ve got a whole book that I’m writing and illustrating myself. Who gets that? Who gets to have a playground? So I’m going to enjoy it while I’m doing it. I’m putting stuff in that makes me laugh. Even if it doesn’t make anyone else laugh, if it makes me laugh, that’s something.
MARK: I’m just turning the book over as we talk, and on the back cover it says, ‘Warning. This book is very silly.’
NADIA: That’s a perfect example. I was like, ‘I really want a chicken holding a sign, a warning sign.’ Nobody asked me to do that. I just like that kind of stuff.
MARK: It wasn’t necessary, which is what’s joyful and fun.
NADIA: Completely unnecessary.
MARK: What does the typical working day look like for you?
NADIA: It’s pretty boring, but pleasingly so. The best days are the ones where I just have to be at my desk all day, in a way. Because a brilliant but unexpected side effect of my job is that I go into schools, I get involved in literary festivals, I am invited to various panels. There’s a whole other side to the job that I wasn’t anticipating that exists. So in a typical week, I might have a couple of store visits, or I don’t know, some extracurricular thing. But that’s great.
But a joyful day is one where I get up, take my son to school typically, come back, make a big cup of tea and get to play at my desk. Now, I’ll be somewhere in the picture book cycle. I’ll either be trying to figure out what the next book is going to be, which is an exciting but also quite terrifying time, and that’s where I am at the moment. I’ve got nuggets of ideas and I’m trying to develop them visually to see which one’s going to be the one I work on.
Or I’ll be later on in the process where I know what I need to do, the book is mapped out, and I’m just going in to do art work. Those days are quite interesting. Those days are quite heavy, but I like them. Those are the days that music is really important to me. So when I’ve got a day where I know what I need to do, so I know that I need to sit down and draw some mountains and some trees, for example, I love it because I can just get stuck in, I can put some very weird drony experimental music on maybe, or whatever, and just get on with it. And that’s brilliant.
I used to listen to the radio, but recently I’ve found listening to speaking too distracting. I can sometimes. If it’s purely visual and I’m not having to switch on the kind of narrative part of my brain, then I can listen to the radio. But generally, I like to do that. Because of what you mentioned, we’re both parents, before I was a mother, I would do things like go for a nice, long walk to clear my head and think about next steps. But now that’s just not part of my reality, because now I cram in as much as I can before the end of the school day.
MARK: What’s the relationship for you between the creating, the writing, the illustrating, and the business professional side of it? Do you enjoy both sides? Some artists are, ‘I just want to be in the studio all day and I hate having to do any marketing or promotion.’ What’s your attitude to that?
NADIA: I actually enjoy both sides because 80% of my job is me in the studio. So, most of my work is solitary. And I’m one of those people that likes people around. I don’t necessarily like to be talking all the time with people, but I like them nearby. I used to work in magazines, so pretty noisy offices, and I quite like that hubbub. At the same time, I can be very insular within that hubbub. I like it. It’s fine. I don’t find it a particular chore, I enjoy yabbering, it’s why I’m on this podcast with you. And I get a lot from other people.
I love just chatting. I get lots of inspiration from other people, motivation. Because as a sole practitioner, and you’ll know this, you have to be everything, right? You have to be your line manager, you have to be your own work experience girl, you have to be your own trainee. You have to be everything. And so you have to wear different hats at different times. And it’s nice to interact with other people and get some help. I like it if I’m chatting to a PR person or something or a bookseller, and they’re telling me about how their role interacts. Why do I find it really comforting? It reminds me that I’m part of a bigger network.
MARK: And we’ve focused mostly on your books, but you do other things as well. You illustrate for other people, and you do some amazing prints as well. Talking of Bowie again, the Fox Low cover is just fantastic. Can you maybe talk about some of the other things you do around the books?
NADIA: Yes, I do. I think it’s really important because I’m on a… treadmill is such a negative word, so I shouldn’t say treadmill, I need to think of a better word. I’m on a schedule, I suppose, with my picture books. It’s like if you’re in a band, you do an album and tour. I suppose that’s a bad analogy. It’s not like that now. And it’s really important to, every now and then, do something else just to keep your creative juices flowing, to keep interested.
So, I’ve always been open to trying new things. When I do prints, like the Bowie Fox print you’re talking about, that’s because I have a deep, primal urge to do an image. I’m like, ‘I must create this.’ And I don’t know where that comes from, but I’ve learned that when that comes, it serves me well to listen to it. Now, that image I create might just sit on my desk or in a sketchbook or at my computer, if I’m doing it digitally. Or it might, like certain images, I might think, ‘Hey, I could sell this as a print.’ But I try to always listen to it. Or it might come out in a piece of creative writing or, as I say, I try and say yes to stuff that makes me feel, even if it makes me nervous. So I’ll say yes to doing a podcast or interviewing someone or whatever. It just keeps it interesting for me.
MARK: What’s next for you? What’s going to keep it interesting for you in the future?
NADIA: Loads actually. Loads at the minute. Annoyingly, quite a lot of that I can’t talk about because it’s speculative. But definitely, more picture books are happening, which I’m really happy about. And I am pressing my nose up against the window of other forms. I don’t want to jinx them because nothing’s been signed on the dotted line.
MARK: Okay. Don’t jinx anything!
NADIA: I’m not going to jinx anything.
MARK: Just come back and tell us about it in the future.
NADIA: Yeah, that’d be great.
MARK: But you are exploring other avenues as well.
NADIA: Yes. Absolutely. I’m quite liberated by being a stage of life, middle-aged, and mortality looms large. It always has for me. It always has for me, I’ve always been death-obsessed. But I’m always like, ‘Uh, our time is limited and I want to do as much as I can, and not worry so much about if I’m entitled to…’ I think in the past, I’ve been worried like, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t become that kind of writer,’ or, ‘You can’t suddenly go into this sphere, because you’re not entitled,’ But now I just think, ‘Oh, to hell with it. Do what I want.’ And if someone wants to stop me, they can have a go.
MARK: Years ago, my friend Chris Arnold, who works in advertising, said to me, ‘You should always get forgiveness rather than permission.’
NADIA: I’m going to try and remember that. So true.
MARK: ‘Oh, really? I shouldn’t have done that? I’m so sorry.’
NADIA: Yeah. That’s brilliant. I’m going to nick that. Because I’ve been very much the other way. ‘I’m so sorry. I mustn’t do that. I mustn’t do that. I’m not serious enough. I just draw bears.’ That’s the self-disparaging line I use a lot to get out of things. Like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, silly old me, I just draw bears.’
MARK: And actually, that’s a very serious undertaking, as we’ve seen.
NADIA: It’s a serious undertaking.
MARK: So if somebody is listening to this thinking, ‘I have an idea for a children’s book,’ or, ‘I thought I would be good at that kind of thing,’ do you have any advice for them on where to go with that?
NADIA: I think it would be really helpful because I get quite a few emails of that nature. And I always think the best thing I can say is, get to know your market a little bit. Because the children’s book market is, you’ve got picture books, you’ve got middle-grade books, you’ve got now young adult books, these categories have kind of arisen, rightly or wrongly, but it’s important that you get to know what’s out there and try and understand where your story fits.
Because sometimes people come to me with chapters and chapters, and I say, ‘Well, I’m a picture book writer and artist, so this is completely not my wheelhouse. This is a different thing.’ So just a little bit of research can go such a long way in helping you. Then look at your story and go, ‘Oh, actually, this would work well as a chapter book with black and white illustrations,’ or, ‘Actually, maybe it’s more a baby board book.’ And that can really help. And that can help you when you then come to describe it to potential agents or interested parties. They’ll really appreciate the fact that you’ve done your homework.
MARK: Again, thinking of screenwriting, that when it comes to pitching a movie, then you’ve got to be able to describe it very clearly and succinctly, what is the idea, in a way that someone can get that very clearly. And it sounds like it’s very similar with a children’s book.
NADIA: I think so. And I presume with a screenwriter, you’ve also got to demonstrate that you understand the restrictions of the form of screenwriting. So, for example, if you think, ‘I’ve got a great idea for a picture book,’ then be aware that picture books are 32 pages long, do you know what I mean?
MARK: It’s not going to be a 500-page effort!
NADIA: No, but you’d be surprised at kind of the assumptions people make. And it’s like, really get to know the very dull mechanics of the format you’re trying to break into. Because that will serve you really well, and save everyone’s time. It will save your time as well.
MARK: And again, I think, as you’ve shown today really delightfully, at the beginning of the conversation, those apparently dull mechanics are very often the key to the magic of it. When you talked about the 32 pages and the pacing, it really showed me it in a new way. So if you’re thinking of getting into this space, then really do go back and listen to what Nadia was saying about the format and the form.
NADIA: Yeah. And it’s joyful. It is restrictive, but there’s pleasure in butting up against those restrictions and seeing what you can do with it. I think that’s a great way of kind of… I’m sure you’ve discussed this on other episodes, but…
MARK: It is an ongoing theme, yeah.
NADIA: … a great way of unleashing creativity is to have some restrictions in place.
MARK: Talk about pleasure butting against restrictions, I think this would be a good time to introduce your Creative Challenge, Nadia.
NADIA: Yes. My creative challenge is really quite simple, but again, deceptively so. So one of the challenges I come across, day in day out really, is how to inject a sense of play into something that’s also my job. And I think that’s challenging, whatever sphere you’re working in, is that we are often our best when we find our flow, and we feel playful, and we stop frowning, and we stop clutching our pen really hard.
It’s a very simple thing. If you’re drawing and you’re tense, you’ll notice that even the way that you hold your pen or pencil, you can feel the stress and the tension in that. Nothing good is going to come out of that pencil or that pen.
My challenge is to just to give yourself half an hour, and maybe a sheet of A4 paper, and a pen or a pencil, and just let yourself play. And that sounds really kind of fluffy, but I mean, really see if you can let go, doodle, create, and not worry about the outcome. So, don’t look down and go, ‘That’s wrong. That doesn’t look like a tree,’ or, ‘That’s a rubbish horse.’ That’s not really the point.
The point is to play, just get back into that playful field. And we all did it when we were kids, we all picked up crayons and made a big mess on a bit of paper, and we didn’t care about it. We just enjoyed the feeling of doing it. And I think it might be an interesting exercise to see if you could tap into that.
MARK: That’s lovely. So just so we’re clear, is this when you’re under pressure in some way? Maybe you’ve got a deadline or a big performance about coming up, or you’re just getting stressed out about trying to be the best you can, then just take out the pens and pencils and crayons and do a bit of scribbling, even if you’re like me and you wouldn’t remotely consider yourself an artist?
NADIA: No one else has to see this. Honestly, that’s the key, is that you need to let go. The battle we have with our own ego about what we come up with at the end. It can literally just be stripes, shapes, enjoying the movement and kind of moving your hand around, and seeing if you can relax kind of in that way. Yeah, it might work, it might not, but I think removing any expectation of what you think a successful drawing looks like is key to this exercise.
MARK: Lovely. Well, I shall be doing that at the next opportunity. I look forward to the next time I feel stressed at work so I can do this! And I’m sure our listeners will have fun and joy doing it too. Nadia, your books, at least here in the UK – where every time I walk into the children’s department of a book store, I see your books – so people should obviously rush to their nearest bookseller and get them. Where else can people go to engage with you and your work and your books?
NADIA: Some of the titles are sold internationally, some aren’t. So that’s kind of a bit scattershot. But if you go to your local tax paying bookshop, I’m sure they can advise you on what titles they have. My latest book was Billy and The Beast. This year the sequel, Billy and The Dragon, will be out in August. Just tapping into the kind of ground swell of dragon interest, that’s Game of Thrones. I’m not, that’s a joke! I had nothing to do with that. I do have a website, but I’ll be honest, I’ve not really updated it in a while. I’m on Twitter.
MARK: That’s what? nadiashireendraws.org?
NADIA: nadiashireen.org. There’s not a lot on that, but you can have a look.
MARK: Okay. We will link to that.
NADIA: There are a few pics. I do whitter around on Twitter, but I can’t pretend that that’s…
MARK: Rubbish. You have to follow Nadia on Twitter. She’s really funny.
NADIA: There’s not much about work on that. There’s not much about my work.
MARK: Well, that’s what makes it funny and engaging. And it’s really not for kids, a lot of it, but it’s great. It’s very Nadia.
NADIA: I bank on there not being five-year-olds on Twitter.
MARK: But you are one of the people who makes me smile on Twitter. So definitely follow. And we’ll put all the links in the show notes as usual, and maybe an illustration or two so you can see the magic for yourself.
NADIA: You know, illustrators are meant to be on Instagram, and I am, but I’m rubbish. I’m really bad on that. But I am on that as well.
MARK: But the pictures are not rubbish, so maybe we’ll link to that too. And also, what about your prints? Have you got a link for the prints that we can put in the show notes?
NADIA: Yeah. So the prints, I’ve got an Etsy store, which is in my Instagram bio and is also on my Twitter page. The Bowie Fox prints are sold out.
NADIA: I know. I’m so sorry. But I’ve got some horror movie homages at the moment. So if you’re a fan of like The Shining and Don’t Look Now.
MARK: Great. That’s exactly what the children’s illustration sector is missing, isn’t it?
NADIA: Yeah. So if you want to see a little kitten in a red mac holding a knife on a Don’t Look Now poster…
MARK: And who wouldn’t want to see that?
NADIA: Who wouldn’t want to see that? Then head over to my Etsy page.
MARK: Brilliant, brilliant. People will do all of that. Nadia, thank you so much. As always, it’s a delight to talk to you, and I’m really glad you’ve made the time to share your words of wisdom and your silliness with my listeners, who I’m sure will enjoy and appreciate as much as I do.
NADIA: It’s been lots of fun. Thank you.
About The 21st Century Creative podcast
Each episode of The 21st Century Creative podcast features an interview with an outstanding creator in the arts or creative industries.
At the end of the interview, I ask my guest to set you a Creative Challenge that will help you put the ideas from the interview in to practice in your own work.
Make sure you receive every episode of The 21st Century Creative by subscribing to the show in iTunes.