It was whilst studying law and working in magazine journalism that Nadia Shireen rediscovered her love for drawing. Realising that drawing funny animals had always brought her joy, Shireen took the plunge and did a part-time MA in children’s book illustration. At the end of the two-year course, her final project, a book called the Good Little Wolf, was spotted by one of our publishers, and the rest as they say is history.
Shireen is now the author of several picture books. She won the UKLA Book Award in 2013, has been shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize and the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, and has been the Writer-Illustrator in Residence at BookTrust. Her latest story, Barbara Throws a Wobbler, follows an adorable but very grumpy cat. Based on those foot-stomping, ear-splitting, and nerve-fraying tantrums that parents know only too well, Barbara is in a very bad mood and no matter what anyone says she can’t seem to stop her wobbler from getting out of control.
To celebrate the release of Shireen’s new book, we got in touch to ask her our 21 Questions. Here she declares her admiration for George Orwell, how she discovered the world of illustration, and her suitably coincidental meeting with a postmodern novelist.
Which writer do you most admire and why?
I don’t know if there’s one sole writer, in particular, I could single out. It goes against my nature to do that because we need many voices, and those voices need context and contrast, and – wow, what a hard question to start off with! I need a lie-down.
What was the first book you remember loving as a child?
Both The BFG and The Witches by Roald Dahl were massive books for me. I couldn’t put them down and I read them over and over again. His voice was so incredibly engaging and suggested a world beyond my imagining. Quentin Blake’s illustrations also captivated me. How could he get so much life and movement into such a seemingly simple line drawing? I still marvel at them.
What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?
We read 1984 at school and I remember being utterly floored by it. My school was quite traditional and the book felt daring, extremely adult, and somehow dangerous. I was amazed that despite this, it was somehow deemed acceptable to study and dismantle at school! I couldn’t believe how cool this George Orwell guy was.
Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path
While working in magazine journalism I started taking evening classes in illustration in my 30s, and I gradually realised how interesting picture books could be. I was introduced to books like The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers, and suddenly this whole new world opened up to me. It was just such an intelligently designed, funny, and ambitious book. I think Oliver is an incredible artist who has stretched the idea of what picture books are.
What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?
Remember when you used to have to send a roll of camera film off in a funny plastic envelope, and the photos would come back to you a few days later? One summer I worked in that factory, sorting out the parcels of photos.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
“Don’t get it right, get it writ.” I know 'writ' isn’t a real word, but for a dithering perfectionist like me, I need to hear it regularly.
Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)
On Writing by Stephen King, because he’s good for giving me a kick up the bum. My go-to comfort read is anything by P. G. Wodehouse. I don’t even need to start at the beginning of any particular book. Just a few random pages cheer me right up.
What’s the one popular children’s book you’ve never got round to reading?
There are so many, I would be too ashamed to confess them all. I mean, I have never read any of the Lord of the Rings series. I was too busy watching Top Cat.
If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______
If I didn’t become an author, I would probably be happily working in a shop or trying to become friends with the Pet Shop Boys.
What makes you happiest?
Laughing with people I love, preferably near some pets, a good cup of tea, and an open fire.
What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?
I really enjoy kickboxing training. I haven’t done it for a while but am keen to get back into it. I also love hill-walking but that’s not surprising, I don’t think.
What is your ideal writing scenario?
A little drizzly outside, but warm and cosy inside. The cats are asleep, some wordless music is softly playing. My brain is fizzing with ideas and I know exactly the feeling I want to convey.
What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?
When I was in my early 20s, I went on my first ever trip to New York to visit my cousin. I took myself very seriously and was obsessed with The Beastie Boys, Woody Allen, and Paul Auster. I went into bookshops and nodded and frowned, and sat in coffee shops with a notebook pretending to be deeply interesting. One afternoon I was queuing up at a pizza place when I noticed the guy standing in front of me looked just like Paul Auster. Then I realised it actually was Paul Auster. I had to say something, and as you can imagine I made quite the fool out of myself. But he was very friendly and nice. He invited me to a reading he was doing at the college over the road. I still have a signed copy of one of his books. A lot of his stories are all about fate and coincidence, so I rather like the fact I had my own very Austerian experience that day.
If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?
I would invite Charles Shultz over because my son and I are big Peanuts fans. I’d make him a chicken curry and daal. Or maybe he’d prefer my Sunday roast. It’s hard to know.
What’s your biggest fear?
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
Mind control. Then I’d try and get close to those who wield great power and influence and commence a sneaky revolution.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?
Reading in the bath: yes or no?
Yes. I love a bath.
Which do you prefer: chocolate or crisps?
Chocolate! My taste in crisps is very boring – I only like ready salted ones.
What is the best book you’ve ever read?
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth.
What inspired you to write your new book?
I drew a massively grumpy cat and I felt she deserved to have a voice!
Barbara Throws a Wobbler by Nadia Shireen is out now.