"They are bright, simple, uncomplicated yarns featuring winsome animal outsiders who crave love and acceptance,” says author-illustrator Nadia Shireen, when describing her books to date. And her new picture book, Barbara Throws a Wobbler, certainly falls into those categories. The book breaks down the cycle of Barbara’s meltdown, which starts off with a rather vexing sock problem. When Barbara reaches the height of her pique, a physical manifestation of her mood—the Wobbler—presents itself as a growing cloud over her. In the later stages of Barbara’s bad mood, she deciphers what has happened through an exchange of dialogue with the Wobbler, and puts an end to it.
Shireen lives in London with her son and two cats. As a parent, she has experienced her own fair share of toddler wobblers. Although there are guides and strategies for parents to control behaviour, Shireen felt it was important to highlight and assure both kids and parents that bad moods come and go. She says: “I suppose I wanted to show a child not to be scared by their feelings, even when those emotions feel huge and out of control. Though I know we can feel overwhelmed at any age. I certainly do!”
The picture book was written quite a bit before lockdown, but couldn’t have been delivered at a more perfect time, as children have undoubtedly been throwing more than the usual amount of wobblers in the past pandemic-stricken year. Shireen thinks “we’re still in it, so it’s too soon” to look back on the full impact the past year has wrought, but believes “it’s affected all of us in many and varied ways”.
On the very last page of the picture book, Shireen outlines a guide of six different bad moods: The Sulk, The Tizzy, The Seethe, The Huff, The Grump and The Wobbler. Each figure is illustrated intricately, followed by a sentence describing the type of bad mood. Shireen says: “I’m always wary of dispensing messages, but if a reader came away from my book feeling reassured that bad moods come and go, that would be great. I mainly want my readers, both parents and children, to take away giggles.”
Barbara Throws a Wobbler really stretched Shireen’s creativity as both an illustrator and writer. She says: “It was pretty challenging to illustrate a character having a conversation with her subconscious. I think it turned out OK; maybe because I included a vaguely rude word [bumhead].”
This is Shireen’s ninth book as author-illustrator, but she has also worked solely as an illustrator alongside a range of writers such as Sophy Henn, Andrew Cope and Simon Puttock. It took her a little while to get to this point, though. Her love for drawing began at an early age, and she spent much of her childhood making comics and home-made magazines. She studied law at university and then worked in magazine journalism for 10 years, but her love of drawing kept pulling her back. She says: “It happened slowly and incrementally, via evening classes in illustration and eventually an MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art.”
Shireen recalls struggling to juggle an MA with her job, but the hard work paid off when her début Good Little Wolf was picked up by Random House at her MA graduation show. “I was in shock for months,” she says, as she thinks back to 2008. She has come a long way since, having been shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize and the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Her second book, 2015’s Bumblebear, was distributed to more than 700,000 kids as part of BookTrust’s Time to Read scheme, and she was also BookTrust’s 2017 writer in residence.
As Shireen has feet in both the illustrator and writer/illustrator camps, which does she prefer? She “found working with Rachel Bright’s text for Slug In Love free- ing and enjoyable—she really knows how picture books work, so I had such freedom to play”. The aspect she enjoys the most about doing both roles is the having the final say, however: “I’m a control freak, so being an author/illustrator enables me to be in charge of the whole thing.”
Shireen raises an important point about a problem that has been debated not just in publishing, but in multiple creative industries: illustrators not receiving the proper recognition for their work. She says: “I’m sure the average person in the street could name The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but maybe not Eric Carle.”
Shireen goes on to praise the impact of the #PicturesMeanBusiness campaign, spearheaded by author/illustrator by Sarah McIntyre, for working hard to highlight the benefits of crediting illustrators for their work. Shireen thinks it will take time before the industry changes and gives illustrators their full due, but applauds activists like McIntyre, James Mayhew and Dapo Adeola, who are continuing to raise the issue.
Circling back to Covid-19, Shireen said that like many others, as a result of the lockdowns and cancellation of events, she experienced a bit of financial uncertainty. Luckily, a project she had been keeping on the back burner ignited, and last autumn, after a heated six-publisher auction, she signed a deal with Simon & Schuster Children’s to publish her first middle-grade series, Grimwood. The series is typical Shireen, featuring two urban fox-cubs, Sid and Nancy, who after being run out of the only home they have ever known by a terrifying stray cat, Princess Buttons, must flee out of the city to Grimwood. But they find life in the country isn’t the easiest. Shireen will illustrate a new picture book with S&S Children’s as well, reuniting with Bright.
In the end, Shireen says: “I’m massively lucky to have a young child and two cats to keep me chuckling and inspired. And having a job I love is just the biggest privilege at the moment.”
Barbara Throws a Wobbler (9781780081366) is published by Puffin on 15th April. The paperback costs £6.99.
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