Gurgle interviews author and illustrator Nadia Shireen
‘I find it hard to read my own books to my son, it’s just a bit too weird’
Mum and children’s book author and illustrator Nadia Shireen is the writer behind Good Little Wolf, Hey, Presto! and Yeti and the Bird. We chatted to her about her new book, The Bumblebear, where a young bear called Norman disguises himself as a bee...
What inspired The Bumblebear?
I was doodling a big bear being strung on the bottom by a bee and it make me laugh. That hasn’t ended up in the book, but that was the first image I drew that led me down the path exploring the relationship between bears and bees.
Eventually I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be fun if a bear pretends to be a bee?’ So I drew the bear in a bee suit, and it all started to make sense. It turned the bear into a much nicer character. Originally I was drawing quite a big, ugly, scary bear, and then when I drew him in a bee onesie he looked adorable, and it gave me a very clear protagonist that’s cute and cheeky and funny. And immediately it all started to flow from there. Put anything in a bee onesie and it will look cute.
If you could put on a onesie and disguise yourself as an animal, what would you be?
So many, that’s my dream! It would be nice to be a bear, actually, because I could hibernate. I could sleep for six months; that would be fantastic!
Were you inspired by Winnie-the-Pooh at all?
Not consciously! I did wonder if maybe there are too many books about bears - there’s Winnie-the-Pooh, Paddington, there’s Going on a Bear Hunt, Hugless Douglas... there are hundreds of books about bears, and I realised it doesn’t matter if I’m adding one more. The bee and bear relationship is not a new one, and it’s quite nice to take something that is known and familiar and then give your own spin on it. There’s a reason bears and bees work together really well and that duo has crept up in lots of stories.
What do you hope children take away from The Bumblebear?
The Bumblebear is full on silly. I hope it makes kids laugh!
How about parents?
I wanted to make it entertaining for kids but I also want it to be straightforward for parents to get through, because I’m now on the other side I’m exhausted by bedtime. I love a children’s book where the words are easy and I don’t have to skip paragraphs; that was where my consideration for parents came into it.
Why did you decide to go into children’s books?
It kind of happened by accident. I was working in magazines, approaching my 30th birthday feeling a bit fed up. I wasn’t finding it massively fulfilling. So as a hobby I started doing illustration courses in the evening, to have some fun and break up the monotony of the week. I did that for a couple of years, and then eventually did an MA at the Cambridge School of Art. I did that for a few years, commuting one day a week to Cambridge, working the rest of the week in London. I was only doing the MA for my own satisfaction, I didn’t even think I was going to pass. There was a degree show at the end of the course where we showed our final projects. For most of us it was a picture book, and mine was Good Little Wolf. To my utter shock the publishers that were there liked it, and then it’s just kind of gone on from there.
Do you have a special space at home to work on your books?
I’m really lucky. We moved recently and now I do actually have a room, whereas before I was in the hallway outside our bathroom, which was a bit cramped, especially with a little one. Now I do have a room, and it makes a big difference. It’s very messy and I haven’t started decorating it yet. I’m probably going to start recreating my teenage bedroom and put up all the music posters that my husband doesn’t approve of. There’s paper and books everywhere, cats wandering around and the radio’s always on.
What are your favourite children’s books?
I like The Witches, by Roald Dahl. That’s the book I really remember being obsessed by. Not Now Bernard is also a great book.
My son loves Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton, and he really enjoys Max the Brave by Ed Vere. I find it hard to read my own books to my son, it’s just a bit too weird. I did ask him once, ‘would you like to read The Bumblebear or Max the Brave?’ and he was like, ‘Max the Brave.’
When do you read to your son?
Bedtime, because it’s bribery. My parenting revolves around bribery and threat. It’s a way to get him into bed. He’s full of beans, he’s a really energetic little boy, and a book just calms him down. It’s a great motivator, otherwise I would never get him into bed.
You enjoyed making homemade magazine and comics as a child – do you do that with your son?
Not yet. He’s really not bothered about my drawing. I sometimes offer to draw him an animal, and he’ll just say no. He instead likes to get a car and make me trace around the car, or he likes me to write the alphabet for him. Or he hops up and down on the spot shouting out letters and I write the letters, and that’s it. It’s early days, he’s only just three, so maybe in a couple of years he’ll be interested. I hope so. That’s the irony, he’s just so not interested. I say, ‘dude, come on, I’m a published author and illustrator!’ and he just doesn’t care.
How does being a mum inspire your work?
The truth is it makes me really tired. I don’t have as much time to spend on my work as I used to. When I was pregnant everyone said having a child would really inform my work. But no, I’m just tired. That’s the main way it’s affected my work, I’m just exhausted all the time and I have less time to work. I have less time to dawdle about how good a tree looks. My poor publishers. I never worked that fast in the first place and now everything just takes even longer.
What’s next for you?
I’m hard at work on my next book. It’s early days, I’m just working on the artwork, but it will hopefully be out next year.
The Bumblebear by Nadia Shireen (£6.99, Random House) is out on 4 May.