Yinka had a candid interview, via email, with Niamh Sharkey, award-winning author and illustrator of children’s picture books. Niamh has been very busy with a couple of Disney projects, but she took a few minutes out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions.
Why did you decide to write children's book as a genre? Did you have any childhood inspirations?
I always wanted to be a children’s books illustrator. I am a huge reader. I was a very quiet child, but very imaginative- a bookworm. My mum says, ‘I always had my head stuck in a book’ and she was eternally asking me to go out into the street to play and find some real friends.
My absolute highlight of the week was when the mobile library came to the end of our estate. I would check out the maximum number of books allowed, robbing my brothers’ and sisters’ library cards so I could get their allowance too. Then I would make a cozy nest on my bed and hide out reading. I was in my element and totally engrossed in whatever story I was reading. When it came to time for lights out, there was no way I was stopping, so I’d read by the dim streetlight, or the light from my electric blanket.
When you are shy and quiet you tend to listen and watch what’s happening in the world more closely. You notice so many little details. It’s like you have super senses. As I grew up, I carefully thought about the world and my place in it. And though I was quiet, I was quietly determined and always followed my passions. I loved the Muppet show, Dr Seuss and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Monsters feature a lot in my books.
How long does it take you to write a book?
About two years from start to finish! First, I get the idea, then I sketch and design characters and settings in my notebook, making lots of rough drawings. I write different drafts and make lots of edits on both the images and the text. Then I make lots of dummy books. Dummy books are like a smaller version of the finished picture book in black and white where I try out the layouts. I show these dummy books to editors to see if they like the direction. When I get the go ahead, then I sketch up final roughs and start painting!
How do you come up with the characters in your books?
From lots of different places. For my Hugglewug book, I come from a big family and wanted to feature a big family in a picture book. So, I told the story like a day in the life through the eyes of Henry, a 5-year-old monster.
How has this lockdown impacted on your creativity? Has it motivated you to write more or has it been challenging for you?
I am currently working on two new picture books and I am also working on a new animation project. I have a lot more Zoom calls rather than meetings in person, but I am grateful that my projects got the greenlight before this happened. All my workshops and events have been cancelled for the foreseeable future, so it is uncertain.
When overwhelmed during this quarantine, I have found solace in looking closely at small things that we take for granted. I started painting daily leaf drawings just to keep calm. I hope to continue to make miniature leaf artworks and to share these studies on my social media pages. Painting a leaf, a day, it keeps me focusing and creating new work. It is hard to work sometimes if you are stressed and this helped me a little. https://www.instagram.com/sharkeydoodles/
I love your books and illustrations. You have been involved in many children projects, could you name a few please.
Yes, I have worked on a lot of different projects over the years. I am curious by nature and love working in teams as well as working on my own. Primarily, I am an author and illustrator, and proud that my picture books are published in over twenty-seven languages. One of my picture books “I’m a Happy Hugglewug” was made into an animation series “Henry Hugglemonster” for Disney Junior. I also got to direct episodes for Henry Hugglemonster and was thrilled to be nominated for an Emmy for my Disney shows. I love working in animation and after Henry finished, I was the concept and set designer for another Disney show, “Vampirina.” I am now working on a new show for Disney.
I’ve also designed for the Theatre; I was the character and set designer for Midsummer Night’s Dream for Barabbas Theatre Company.
My passion to make books and illustration part of every young person’s life has led me to co-found Towers and Tales, a Children’s Book Festival. https://www.towersandtales.ie Universal book gifting was one of my aims as Laureate and I set up a book gifting programme with Children’s Books Ireland and Brown Bag Films called Bookbag. It’s now in its 6th year. More information here. www.bookbag.ie I also set up a book festival called Towers and Tales. www.TowersandTales.ie My long-term goal is to set up ‘Storyseed’ a national universal Book gifting scheme in Ireland.
Last question, I promise. This period has been very difficult for a lot of families all over the world. Especially families with young children at home. What advice would you give, as a mum yourself, to mothers of young children on how to entertain their children at home?
I think we should be kind to ourselves and not put too much pressure on entertaining every minute of young peoples’ lives. Children are great if you give them a few art materials and space to create. There are amazing resources to help parents and children to be creative. If you are under 10, you may have already heard of IMAGINENATION. Lots of Irish writers and illustrators came together to make creativity sheets to encourage children to draw and write. https://childrensbooksireland.ie/resources/imaginenation/ I’ve also worked with The Glucksman Gallery in Cork on creative prompts, http://www.glucksman.org/events/creativity-at-home-1
Make time for doodling together, they can be fun for you too! Have lots of pencils and papers at hand; use cardboard boxes to sketch on if you have no paper. Get creative and messy with finger paints and even potato prints. If you have an old roll of wallpaper knocking around, roll it out the back garden and do a huge MONSTER DOODLE. Cuddle up and read lots of stories to each other and most importantly be kind to yourself and little ones. This is a hard time we are all going through! Might be nice for Grandparents to do story time at night. Children’s Books Ireland are running a campaign called #Shareastory. While many family members, especially grandparents, are finding it tough staying away from loved ones, this initiative can help them to enjoy reading together while staying apart, https://childrensbooksireland.ie/share-a-story-while-staying-apart/
Stay safe everyone!
You can also follow the story of the Ravenous Beast, created by Niamh Sharkey, at Ardgillan Castle, where there is a Story trail organized by Fingal Libraries as part of this year’s Cruinniú na nÓg.
Niamh Sharkey’s picture books can be found on the catalogue here
*The author’s picture was taken from her Facebook page with her permission.