A couple of weeks ago I reviewed the debut picture book from British author/illustrator Nadia Shireen, Good Little Wolf. Today I’m very happy to bring you a conversation I’ve had with her since about her love of books and her not-at-all-straightforward route to becoming published.
Playing by the book: What books were most important to you as a child?
Nadia Shireen: I know it’s hardly original but Roald Dahl’s books were really important to me – I was obsessed with them. I still am, of course – I went to the Roald Dahl Museum last year and got all weepy looking at some original manuscripts. I used to read pretty much everything and anything though. There were always PG Wodehouse books lying around the house and I got into those quite early on.
Playing by the book: What sort of games did you play as a child? What was your favourite way of spending time?
Nadia Shireen: I was generally a quiet child and always liked drawing and writing. I’d make little comics and teach my friends how to draw Garfield. Apart from that, I used to like tinkering about on my keyboard and reading magazines. I’d also watch the same film on video over and over and over again… I was obsessed with Jaws, which probably explains a lot.
Playing by the book: Your route to becoming a published author and illustrator was slightly circuitous – for a while it looked like you might become a lawyer. What was it about the Law that appealed to you?
Nadia Shireen: My law degree came about because my A-level subjects were Art, English and Law. Of the three, Law seemed to be the most ‘sensible’ subject to pursue at university. Certainly nobody at the time, teachers included, encouraged me to carry on with art. If I’d drawn funny characters for my Art A-level, I’m pretty sure they’d have failed me! Anyway, it soon became clear that I would make a rubbish lawyer… but by then it was just a matter of gritting my teeth and getting through the degree.
Playing by the book: Is it true you worked at Smash Hits (for readers outside the UK, Smash Hits was a kids’/teenagers’ magazine about pop music that was a seminal part of many childhoods in the ’80s and ’90s)? So does music play a large part in your life? What do you like listening to? Do you listen to music whilst writing and illustrating?
Nadia Shireen: It is true! I worked as a sub editor on magazines for about 10 years, which included about three years at Smash Hits. I loved that magazine when I was growing up, so it was great fun to end up working there. I didn’t necessarily like the music we covered – the magazine was aimed at 9 year olds, after all – but it was a great experience. I always listen to music while I’m working. It can really alter my mood and therefore affect the kind of work I do. I listen to all sorts but at the moment I’m listening to lots of old movie soundtracks after buying a job lot of records at an auction.
Playing by the book: How useful did you find your course at the Cambridge School of Art? What were the best aspects of the course for you?
Nadia Shireen: I found it really useful. I started the course because I just wanted the opportunity to study art at a higher level, I suppose to make up for the fact I’d given up taking it seriously as a teenager. The Anglia Ruskin course was great because it fit in with my work schedule and Cambridge is commutable from London. To be honest, the children’s book illustration element of the course wasn’t that important to me at first. But very quickly I became interested in the picture book format. I put quite a lot of effort in, because most of the other people on the course were art graduates and had much more experience, so I really felt on the back foot. Also, I think when you go back as a mature student to study something, you really take it seriously – not least because of all the time constraints and financial pressures.
Playing by the book: Apart from your illustration course what other experiences and which other people have been pivotal in helping you find your voice and calling?
Nadia Shireen: Hmm, I have no idea really. I think my family and friends have been as shocked as I am by this new career! Everyone is very happy for me, though. My husband has been very patient with this big shift in our lives. You never know what’s round the corner, so I want to work really hard and keep doing this for as long as I can. I feel very happy and lucky to have found something I really want to do with my life.
Playing by the book: Your first book was about wolves, your next book (I believe) is about deer – do you have a favourite animal? Which animals do you enjoy drawing the most? Which are the most difficult to draw?
Nadia Shireen: My next picture book will be out next summer and it isn’t about wolves, or deer… I’m keeping it under my hat for now. That’s a bit of a clue, actually. The deer book is a different project called ‘The Baby That Roared’ and will be published by Nosy Crow. I’ve illustrated it, but the story is by Simon Puttock, so I can’t claim any responsibility for choosing deer. If an animal is too difficult to draw, I just give it big ears and turn it into a rabbit.
Playing by the book: What advice do you have for anyone reading this who would like to become a picture book illustrator?
Nadia Shireen: Well, I’ve only done one book so far so I’m not sure I’m that well placed to be dishing out advice. But if I did have any, it would be just go for it – don’t dither for ages like I did. Look at lots of picture books and pay attention to how they’re structured and paced. Draw lots. Notice how pictures and words work together. And while you should be conscious of your audience, always please yourself first.
Playing by the book: Thank you Nadia, it’s been a pleasure talking to you… and I’m really looking forward to seeing what you’re hiding under your hat!
Now to the giveaway…I have two copie of Good Little Wolf to giveaway and if you would like to win one of them, simply leave a comment on this post
If you want extra chances to win Good Little Wolf set you can:
For any of the extra entries to count you must leave a separate comment here on this post saying what extra chance you’ve gone for (eg tweeted about the giveaway etc).