It’s my stop on the blog tour for The Worrying Worries by Rachel Rooney and Zehra Hicks, and I’m delighted to be sharing my interview with the book’s illustrator, Zehra!
When a young child finds a Worry they decide to keep it as a pet. But soon it becomes clear that a Worry does not make the best pet. Not only do they follow you around EVERYWHERE, they also get extremely hungry and their favourite food is your fear.
Eventually, the pet Worry gets so big and troublesome that there is only one option left. The child must consult a Worry Expert.
The Worry Expert has lots of useful real-world advice about how to deal with worries which my daughter and I both loved. The book has been written with the lightest of touches, it is not a heavy, intense book. Just the opposite, in fact. It is skilfully done to create a wonderfully engaging story with vibrant illustrations, whilst simultaneously conveying a priceless message on emotional well-being, hope and inner strength.
Together, Rachel and Zehra have captured the emotional experience of worrying; and that terrible feeling of having a worry niggling at you and stopping you getting on with your day to day life. During this pandemic I think many of us could all do with a visit to the Worry Expert!
The Worrying Worries is the fabulous follow up to the duo’s picture book, The Problem with Problems, which was published just as the UK entered lockdown 1.0. Problems come in all shapes and sizes, and can pop up at the most inconvenient moment. The Problem with Problems shares a secret with the reader about how to get rid of problems! I knew it was just the book my family needed during the first two lockdowns and I’m thrilled that we now have The Worrying Worries to help guide us through lockdown 3.0!
Both of these fabulous picture books work as standalone stories. And they couldn’t be more appropriate given the pandemic we are all living through. They are light, rhythmical, upbeat stories that arm the reader with brilliant advice about how to go about fixing problems and tackling worries. These books are about universal issues and it is great to see that they have been illustrated in an inclusive way.
One of the things that makes The Worrying Worries particularly stand out to me is the fabulous representation throughout Zehra’s illustrations. The family dynamics of the mixed race main character has intentionally been left ambiguous. I particularly loved this spread. Not only does it show how worries can creep up on us anywhere, the secondary characters give a true reflection of today’s society.
The Worrying Worries is inclusive in so many ways, which is what I think makes it so special. Whoever reads this book, will feel that it speaks to them. I feel incredibly lucky to be interviewing the super talented illustrator, Zehra.
Hi Zehra, thank you so much for chatting with me. My daughter and I absolutely loved The Problem with Problems and we were so excited to read this second book in the series by yourself and Rachel Rooney. Can you tell us what you thought when you first read the text for The Worrying Worries?
I felt SO passionate about the mental health aspect of the story, I knew immediately I wanted to illustrate it to bring Rachel’s words to life to help children (and adults) overcome any potential worries they may have. It’s an incredibly worrying time for everyone at the moment. I actually finished illustrating the book about 18 months ago, before any sign of Covid 19, so it seems particularly timely to be coming out now.
Even though the pink pet Worry is not much more than a squiggly blob, you have given it so much personality and expression! How did you find illustrating a “worry”?
Thank you! I explored different ideas for worries – different textures and mediums but I felt the scribbly smudgy nature of the ‘blob’ style for a worry, using a crayon (like a child would use) worked best. I felt I needed it to lose a bit of control, so when I drew them, I literally got my whole body into the emotion of drawing them – sometimes changing the position of how I held the crayon, sometimes using my left hand etc. In fact I just drew lots of scribbles and chose the best ones and then added eyes and mouths.
I love the spread where we see Pet Worry going to the library and shops and park. It’s clear that you really focused on including lots of diverse characters in the book. Was that something that was important to you?
Thank you so much as yes, including and promoting a diverse range of characters is incredibly important to me. And even more so since the Brexit referendum in UK (which still really depresses me!), so anything I can do to counter-act that in celebrating diversity in children’s picture books is something I absolutely feel I need to do. Although that spread took me the longest it was one of my favourite spreads to illustrate! I’m glad you like it – it obviously paid off! I really enjoyed getting into my imaginary inclusive world of different characters, imagining their personalities, nationalities and ages, some who are even based on friends and family I know.
Not only did I imagine my character as mixed-race, and wanted to celebrate this but the Worry Expert (who appears later in the book) is actually based on my Auntie Zehra in India who, in many ways, is my substitute mum I turn to for advice and support.
I also wanted to include different family dynamics in my illustrations. You may spot a baby who has two dads. And it’s not that clear whether the main character’s parents live together or not. Perhaps they do, but I purposefully didn’t illustrate the parents together to allow children from split families to relate to the character in the book. Both these details can create healthy discussions when reading with your child. This is what is brilliant about illustration, as you can bring the story to life with these added nuances.
That’s lovely to hear how you made a point to champion diversity and I love that The Worry Expert is inspired by your auntie! All these little details really make the illustrations connect with us as readers. Did you always want to be an illustrator?
Actually no I haven’t! At art college when I did my foundation course at 18, I understood to be an illustrator you needed to be able to create small, neat and detailed drawings, which really wasn’t me. I actually trained as a fine artist, happier working with mediums like charcoal or concrete with a bit of performance art thrown in. I later on desired more regular income so worked as a graphic designer for 10 years.
It wasn’t until I had my first child 12 years ago when I was buying amazing picture books that I actually considered it and thought what an amazing job it would be (and it is!). Two author-illustrators who inspired me were the fabulous Emily Gravett and Oliver Jeffers who I still very much admire now. I have them to thank for my career change, UAL Book Illustration Short Course at Chelsea (where I did a short course in Book Illustration in 2009 and where I now teach) and also Suzanne Carnell at Macmillan Children’s books who believed in me and gave me my first picture book contract after being highly commended for The Macmillan Prize.
Do you ever find you have any illustrator-related worries? What advice would you give to someone trying to build a portfolio to become a picture book illustrator?
Absolutely! A bit too often actually – we are only human! But as I gain more experience, I find ways to overcome this better. I have found my illustrator friends a fundamental lifeline, so having a network of friends to share ideas and support each other emotionally I have found invaluable. I am a social person but working as an illustrator can be very isolating, especially in 2020(!) so this has been essential to me.
Take some courses! There are so many online courses you can do at the moment to help you develop. You can never stop learning – I love being a student! I’m currently doing a writing course at City Lit, and I frequently do workshops with Orange Beak Studio.
I would also recommend doing observational drawing. Looking back at some of my early sketches of children drawn from my imagination, they appear quite stiff but observational drawing really helped this and then you have an illustrated library of information in your brain you can tap into.
What is it you want to say? What and how do you like to draw? What are you passionate about? What’s in your gut? Students starting out can be desperate to ‘find their style’, but that comes naturally.
My style has changed little bits over the years, and that’s ok. But I would say what is consistent about my work is simplicity and humour (where relevant). I don’t like to over complicate my illustrations with too much detail. I sometimes have wondered whether that is me being a bit lazy(!) but simplicity has always been me. What are you?
And finally – patience. Publisher and agents are busy people, but they are really nice too, so they’re worth the wait! But it’s hard sometimes. So it’s best to get on with another pretend project while you are waiting for a reply. And go for walks (or runs), drink tea and eat cake – at any points in between!
Thank you so much, Zehra, for all that wonderful advice and for sharing the back story of illustrating The Worrying Worries. I’m sure this book will be a comfort to many children (and adults) all over the world!
The Worrying Worries was published by Andersen Press, 7 January 2021
The Problem with Problems was published by Andersen Press, 5 March 2020
Don’t forget to join in with the rest of the blog tour!
Zehra Hicks is an author and illustrator who after studying Fine Art at University, worked in the theatre for a few years, then worked as a graphic designer for about ten before having her first child which introduced her to the wonderful world of picture books – and that was it! When he was 9 months old, she did a short course in Book Illustration at UAL Chelsea (where she now teaches) and later that year she was highly commended for Macmillan Prize for Illustration with The Boy Who Hated Toothbrushes (Macmillan), a book she started on the course. Now she works full time as an author-illustrator and tutor and she is currently working on her 11th book. All Mine! (Two Hoots) was nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal. Her work is published with Andersen Press, Hodder, Two Hoots and Macmillan Children’s books. Her books are published in over 20 territories.
I am very grateful to the publisher for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book. This voluntary review contains my honest opinion