Rachel Morrisroe is still a relatively new voice in the children’s picture book world – she released her debut How to Grow a Unicorn in 2021 – but she’s already standing out, thanks to her hilarious and magical stories. Her new book, The Drama Llama, follows the adventures of Alex Allen and offers children practical advice about dealing with worries.
Alex feels a bit worried now and then, like when he gets an answer wrong in class or dances badly at a party. And whenever there is a bit of drama, Alex’s brain produces a real-life llama! Usually, this pesky llama goes away, but the more Alex worries the bigger it becomes, and soon he’s in all sorts of trouble.
To mark the release of The Drama Llama, we caught up with Rachel to ask her our 21 Questions on life and literature. Below, we learn how fellow author Amy Sparkes changed her life, why she always looks for joy in the present, and about her dislike for refrigerated chocolate.
Which writer do you most admire and why?
I’m going to be cliché here, so apologies! Roald Dahl is such a huge inspiration to me. I think reading his books – his placement of words, the musicality of his sentences – really lit my passion for creative writing. The Puffin Book of Big Dreams includes one of my stories with Steven Lenton called The Great Imaginarium, and thanks to the luck of the alphabet, my name is four above Roald Dahl’s in the list. Eight-year-old me would have lost her head about that. 38-year-old me (at the time of publication) actually did!
What was the first book you remember loving as a child?
I loved anything by Shirley Hughes and the Ahlbergs. I loved Paddington, I loved Towser! I think the top of my list would be Burglar Bill! I used to ask for it day after day. Funnybones was a definite favourite too.
What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?
Sharing my guilty secrets! I was definitely not into high-brow literature! In my early teens, I was ALL ABOUT a Point Horror book (who remembers those?). I had a bit of an addiction and remember reading about eight on holiday one year. I made my poor mum search out all the local bookshops so I could go and squirrel out all their copies. As I got older I became a bit Shakespeare-obsessed (we had an incredible, charismatic English Literature teacher who really got me into the plays).
Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path
About six years ago, I read Once Upon a Wish by Amy Sparkes and Sara Ogilvie. Amy’s flawless rhyme, along with Sara’s magical illustrations, absolutely leapt off the page. At this point, I’d been working on my writing for about a year but I had become a bit stuck in a rut, as I’d had a fair few rejections from agents. I contacted Amy, and she was so helpful. She gave some really priceless critique and forced me to think about my scansion (the beat of the words in each verse). I honestly believe that without Amy’s support and encouragement I would never have got an agent, let alone sold so many works to my dream publishing house. So picking up Once Upon a Wish in my local bookshop that day undoubtedly changed the course of my life! Thank you Amy!
What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?
I’m not sure about the strangest job, but I used to work as a Trek Leader at a riding centre, taking people on horse rides up the Welsh Mountains. I did that for about eight years to earn cash through school and university.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
To try and allow myself to take some space to enjoy the present, and to force myself to reflect on current successes rather than always chasing the next thing. The wisest and loveliest of authors, Rashmi Sirdeshpande, wrote a brilliant thread on this on Twitter right at the time I needed to hear it. I have a tendency (I know many of us do) to be pretty relentlessly horrible to myself. I am my own most brutal critic and I really get in my own head. I have had to learn how to quieten this voice, otherwise I can make myself miserable! I dip in and out of social media as a result, as I tend to feel overwhelmed. I try to stay in my own lane and keep the blinkers on. I still dream-chase, I’m highly ambitious and I can’t and wouldn’t want to dull that. But I very strictly look for the joy in the present more than I used to.
Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)
I am a massive Nikita Gill fan and I find myself dipping in and out of her work a great deal. As a painter, I am very inspired by interpretations of female strength in literature and mythology, and Nikita writes poetry about this through a feminist lens. Her words are some of the most soul-stirring and impactful I’ve ever read. One day, I’ll have a tattoo of her dedication in Fierce Fairytales, which makes me go all goose-pimply every time I read it:
who has never forgotten
It wants you to know
it remembers you too.
What’s the one popular children’s book you’ve never got round to reading?
I have never read any of The Famous Five books. SHOCK HORROR!
If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______
An archaeologist. I studied history at university and if I hadn’t gotten into my first choice at Leeds, my second was a combined history and archaeology course.
What makes you happiest?
The people I surround myself with. My husband, my beautiful boys. We are lucky to live next to friends who are more like family. Getting together with all the kids for a big meal or party is my favourite thing ever.
What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?
I actually have two jobs (both of which are both my hobby and my passion)! As well as a writer, I’m also an abstract artist. I love nothing more than shutting myself away in my studio for a morning and chucking paint around on a canvas.
What is your ideal writing scenario?
I write anywhere and everywhere. Whenever I can squeeze it in! Normally with a child shrieking at me for snacks, drinks, and bottom-wiping. Sometimes I’ll be typing lines or ideas for a plot into my phone when I’m dog-walking. I think very few of us have the luxury of being able to choose our writing conditions. I’m just so happy that I’m lucky enough that I get to do my dream job that I honestly don’t care where I write. The fact that I get to do it at all is enough for me!
What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?
Oh goodness, I got totally over-excited at the first Puffin authors and illustrators gathering I got invited to. I bumped into Sally Green (author of the Half Bad books) in the loos. I got really starstruck and lost my head. I literally shrieked in her face and told her I was a massive fan. Poor Sally must have thought a stalker had snuck in. Highly embarrassing.
If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?
This person is not yet a published writer but I am as sure as I can be that they soon will be. Her words are as inspirational to me as the beautiful clothes she creates. Yvonne Telford is the owner of a fashion brand called Kemi Telford and she is one of the most empowering and fabulous women on the planet. Her daily musings on Instagram are a powerful work of daily mantras. She is wise and loving and through her powerful words and her clothes, she has given me a level of confidence I would never have had to do this job. So I would have dinner with Yvonne, and we would have to order a takeaway because I am the world’s worst cook – so much so that I often joke that where many people say you can taste the love in their cooking, you can taste the spite in mine because I hate doing it so much!
What’s your biggest fear?
My family or friends not having their health.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
The power to write an overnight international bestseller would be nice... hehe! Hmmm. I’m not sure, I think I’d go a bit Matilda and have the power to move things with my mind. You could have some serious fun with that.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?
Stronger by Poorna Bell. It reframes everything we have ever been taught about women’s sport, strength, and fitness. Every page makes me want to whoop aloud and give her a standing ovation.
Reading in the bath: yes or no?
Yes. Always. It’s essential.
Which do you prefer: chocolate or crisps?
Chocolate all the way. Zero contest. But not fridge chocolate – yuck – IT’S NOT HOW YOU EAT IT. Always room temperature chocolate. *Sits back and waits for the wave of horrified disagreement from cold-chocolate-eaters.*
What is the best book you’ve ever read?
I’m going to go for a children’s book here. Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love is sheer picture book perfection. With glorious illustrations, Jessica uses very few words utterly masterfully to build the highest stakes and the biggest heart I’ve ever felt in a picture book. It is a beautiful, love-filled work, and it deserves to be celebrated and treasured for generations to come.
What inspired you to write your new book?
I have two young boys myself, and I’m so conscious of the world they are growing up in. I think it can be so hard for young children to feel confident and comfortable expressing their worries. Ella Okstad and I hope that the story will help parents, carers, and teachers to support children with anxiety by using the humour of a daft, pink llama to lighten the discussion enough to get to the important issues. We hope everyone loves hearing about Alex and his very pesky llama!
The Drama Llama by Rachel Morrisroe and illustrated by Ella Okstad is out now.
Image at top: Rebecca Hendin for Penguin