Rediscovering the 'Me' in 'Mumeeeeeee'

'I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife’s badly-cooked dinners and untidy ways'. (Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, 1861)

December 13, 2010

Story Spark: Interview with Niamh Sharkey

In my final interview for Story Spark which concludes this weekend, I am delighted to welcome fantastic author/illustrator Niamh Sharkey to Hot Cross Mum. I hold Niamh entirely responsible for my children saying 'Nonsense Smonsense' - a line from her brilliant book 'The Ravenous Beast'! Niamh recently won the Irish Book Awards 'Children's Book of the Year - Junior Category' for her new book 'On The Road With Mavis and Marge' and will be reading at The Ark this Sunday at 2pm. Her session is suitable for 4-7yr olds.

How did you get involved with writing and illustrating children's books?
I really love books. My mum said I always had ‘ my head stuck in a book!’ I studied Graphic Design in Dublin and when I left I got my first illustration jobs with The Irish Times and Mercier Press, who were really good to me. A publisher in England saw these book-covers and wrote to me to see if I would like to illustrate one of their picture books. I was in Australia, no Internet at the time so I sent all my roughs by fax. ‘ Tales of Wisdom and Wonder’ was painted at the foot of Mount Wellington in Hobart, Tasmania.

Where do you get your inspiration?
From Everywhere. People I know, places I have been, snippets of conversations I’ve overheard can become part of my story. I always keep notebooks. When I have an idea going around in my head I try to capture it in my notebooks. Little doodles in pencil and dip pen. I try to capture the automatic idea that I come up with, that’ s why notebooks are great. I try not to think about how it looks, I just scribble it down, I try to have fun with the characters, humour is really important to me.

You must be delighted to have won the Irish Children's Book of the Year Award for 'On the Road with Mavis & Marge'. How long does it take you to illustrate a book like this?
I was thrilled to be nominated - and to then win; it’s a real honour. 'On the Road with Mavis & Marge’ started originally with a chicken that featured in a mural I painted for my daughter’s school in Skerries. Around that time I was watching Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall programme on TV about his Chicken Out! Campaign. I decided to play around with the idea of a chicken and a cow taking Free Range to its limits; to the moon and back.

It always takes way longer than you think to make a picture book. At workshops I ask the kids can they guess how long it takes to make a book. The usual answer ranges from an hour to a week. I wish! It takes me about a year from when I write the story. I make lots of dummy books to see if the idea works. It takes me about 8 months to paint all the illustrations. I use oil paints, inks, gesso and some collage. I have a great design team at Walker Books; they really make wonderful picture books and take tremendous care when choosing the paper, typefaces and design for the book.

How often do you participate in events such as 'Story Spark'? Do you enjoy it, or do you get nervous?!
I love doing workshops; it’s great way to meet my audience. I feel anyone can draw, just pick up a pencil and start doodling. I try to make my workshops as interactive as possible. I love getting the children to join in, whether it’s learning to draw a Hugglewug, a chicken or a cow. Even really young children love to follow along with step-by-step doodles.

Finally, what still excites you about children's books and how does it feel to be involved in a market which is thriving and producing a number of influential Irish authors and illustrators?
Anthony Browne, the Children’s Laureate in the UK said recently that, ‘Picture books are for everybody at any age, not books to be left behind as we grow older. The best ones leave a tantalising gap between the pictures and the words, a gap that is filled by the reader’s imagination, adding so much to the excitement of reading a book.’ If you love books, they can give so much back to you. I am still excited if a child connects with my book. If they laugh, loose them selves in the story, if they recognize the safe harbour a book can offer, and if they connect with my characters, I have done my job. A parent told me recently that their son loved my book so much he slept with it under his pillow every night. That made my year!

Ireland has some really talented authors and illustrators working in the field at the moment. It is so nice to have some new faces this year, both Kevin Waldron and Chris Haughton have made wonderful picture books. Books full of heart, full of warm characters, that leave room for the reader’s imagination to take flight. Hurray!

Thank you to Niamh for her time. You can keep up top date with all Niamh's doodles and news at her blog.



  1. Great interview. There's so much work in a picture book and, in the best ones, you just don't even see it. I haven't read this one, but I'll be looking for it now. :-)


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