Keeping the children smiling

It began, really, with work on Rainbow - the children's TV show featuring know-it-all Zippy and laid-back Bungle. Dozens and dozens of books later, Nicola Smee's inspiration shows no signs of drying up.

It began, really, with work on Rainbow - the children's TV show featuring know-it-all Zippy and laid-back Bungle. Dozens and dozens of books later, Nicola Smee's inspiration shows no signs of drying up. STEVEN RUSSELL met her

IF you've had a child and a library ticket over the last 15 years it's highly likely you've enjoyed a Nicola Smee story.

It might have been one about Freddie, a pre-schooler with faithful bear in tow who grapples with issues like getting dressed or going swimming, or one about another little lad who pops through the catflap to explore the world. Or it could have been a tale called Finish the Story, Dad.

More than 100 titles have emerged from her home and studio - a former village shop near Tiptree where she's lived for 30 years - if you tot up all the various editions and paperback formats. “I've been at it a long time,” she laughs over an 11 o'clock mug of something hot, “so there's quite a lot out there.”

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They've sold more than respectably and they're consistently popular choices in UK libraries, thanks to the cosiness of her illustrations, warmth of her characters and rhythm of the language.

“I'm quite pleased,” she says modestly. In fact, that borrowing rate is something to be particularly proud of. There's a £6,000 ceiling on payments made under the Public Lending Right, which rewards authors each time a book is taken out. But for that limit, Nicola would actually be getting closer to £12,000 a year.

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So, what's the trick, then?

“I've no idea,” she smiles. “I have no idea. I do what I would like to pick up, and what would appeal to me as a child. I think you have to have a bit of a child still in you.”

It's written somewhere that Nicola, now 58 and soon to become a grandmother, dreamed up stories to divert her own lively children. Yes, she says; it's true. “I had three naughty boys to entertain. They're all elderly gentlemen now!” Well, between 30 and 35.

Nicola's father was in the army and she consequently went to “probably 10 different schools”. At one time they lived in Libya. Boarding followed at the age of nine: a convent school in Cheltenham.

“Boarding school makes for a great 'other world': your own secret world - a hotbed of imagination.” At 14 she was asked to leave because of “various high-jinks. Nothing serious”.

The family moved to Birmingham, Nicola's father working in the car industry, and she transferred to a day school. She admits to being the kind of child who would be doodling rather than concentrating on bewildering maths and science problems.

At art school in Birmingham she blossomed; then worked in a design studio and for an advertising agency in London.

She married Michael at the age of 21. He had studied at Colchester School of Art in the early to mid '60s and had gone on to work as scenic artist at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Then came a decade for Thames Television and London Weekend Television.

The couple were living at Teddington and had started their family. Thames wanted someone to illustrate stories told on Rainbow. Nicola drew for the children's TV show for about five years from 1973. “That sort of gave me confidence and got me used to working to a deadline, and it sort of built up,” she says.

“I used to do it when the kids went to bed. If I was on a deadline, which I always was, it got easy then. You'd get past the pain threshold of being tired. If you continued and stuck at it, after midnight you seemed to get a new lease of energy. With the pressure on, and two or three small kids, that was the only time, really - but a magic moment. And, of course, your ego is massaged if someone wants your drawings and is going to pay you!”

The first published book, Rex QC, came in 1983. The illustrations were Nicola's, but the words someone else's. “I thought 'Hang on. This is crazy. Why don't I do my own story?' The first book I did that was written and illustrated by me was called Down in the Woods, about a boy who goes through the catflap and has fun. It had a little character named after my oldest son, Oliver.”

And it's gone swimmingly since.

In 2001 Sleepyhead was short-listed for The Sainsbury's Baby Books Award, and No Bed Without Ted was a final-six baby book in the 2005 Booktrust Early Years Awards.

Some of her tales have featured on television ­- on shows such as Play School and Playdays.

Successful, then, by anyone's measure. Nicola, herself, is a bit self-deprecating. “Well, 'noted',” she says of her recognition in award schemes. “Not 'top' (of the pile) but running along nicely, which is where I prefer to be.”

Some of her children's books are in rhyme, others not. Whatever format is chosen, the language has to precise - just because it's for babies and children doesn't mean you can afford to be slap-dash. “It can't be clunky. Children's books have to be so specific. There are so few words in them and you have to get the flow right. It musn't seem effort-ful. You have to work hard on them, but it's enjoyable.”

Nicola's next books are out soon. Funny Face is about the emotions you go through when it appears that a bear has designs on your ball - and finishes with a mirror in which children can look at their own expressions.

Publishers are always looking for ideas that will make a seamless jump to other territories. Funny Face, for instance, will also be published in countries such as Japan and Spain. In France, it's called Frimousses.

Clip-Clop, her other new title, evokes a familiar childhood rhyme. “I was trying to work out what my kids loved, and all kids love being put on a knee and singing 'This is the way the ladies go.' So I did a book a bit like that - though they're other animals that want to ride on the horse.”

And after that there are more in the pipeline. “You're always working 18 months/two years ahead.”

What's the thrill?

“You're in another world, which you have control of. When you're really absorbed in it, it's a real buzz. The idea that you're initiating it and actually doing it is just wonderful for somebody who thought they'd never have a proper job.”

Is that true? You did, after all, work for a design studio and ad agency.

“If you weren't very good at school and were hopeless at maths and had a blockage about certain things, you think 'Join the grown-up world . . ?!'

“If I didn't do this I would have got another job, of course. I might have been extremely successful at something else . . . I can't imagine what it would have been!”

In common with many creative people, she would love to sell more copies but would balk at the kafuffle a high profile would bring.

“I like to be in my own world. I think having a best-seller, with your name up in lights . . . the pressure of doing a follow-up must be awful. I'm really happy at just jogging along!”

It's hard to make a living from children's books, though, isn't it?

“It's very precarious and it's very competitive, but I've been very lucky because I've got a husband who works! So it's not as though if I didn't get money one month the bills wouldn't be paid. But over the last 15 years I could have supported myself - but in a small house.” She smiles. “You know, frugally. Just about!”

It's not just children's books that Nicola works on. She's produced series of greetings cards, for instance, and created illustrations for national magazines to complement articles on issues such as health and exercise.

“I've done some illustrations for Ebury - a grown-up book about babies. And I've done illustrations for a Great Ormond Street Hospital book where they wanted to alleviate their rather heavy photographs of women having babies with more light-hearted illustrations. So I vary it and it's enjoyable.”

Her output and range tends to give the lie to Nicola's claim to be undisciplined by nature. “I'm very disciplined when I'm in a corner with a deadline, or the fear of bills!” Ideally, she'll start work in her studio, just off the kitchen, by 8 o'clock - though 7.30am is better - and get a good run going.

It's an extremely artistic household. Michael, who from 1978 was senior lecturer and head of visual studies at Colchester School of Art and Design, has recently retired and paints in his own studio in the house.

Unsurprisingly, the three sons have inherited creative genes. Oliver is art director for the London Illustrated News Group. Milo is a drummer with a band called Chrome Hoof - to whom Clip-Clop is dedicated! - and who is this day teaching drumming in London. Leo is on tour with a heavy rock band, Cathedral.

“Anybody who is into heavy rock will know Cathedral,” says his mum. “He's toured since he was young: he will be over in America and Japan in the next few months. It's wearing a bit now. It sounds great, and it's a lot of men's dream, but it's not good for relationships for one thing.”

Nicola's studio is light and airy, with relaxing views of the garden and squirrels darting about. A washing machine shares some of the floorspace. Tall arched windows - similar to the one on Play School - came from a former Victorian waterworks. She won't need to buy or borrow books to entertain that first grandchild when he or she arrives: the shelves are full of her own children's titles and other books.

On the sofa are a couple of Giles annuals. Nicola adores the work of the late Suffolk-based cartoonist. “The characters were just so fantastic. I don't know many people these days who illustrate like this man.”

When she's creating a new book she will sketch out a grid of the action, like a film-maker's storyboard, “so I can get the pace of it and look at it from a bird's eye view to see if it works”.

Using quite a thick paper, almost a light cardboard, Nicola will make tentative drawings in pencil and ink in the lines when she's happy she's got it right. Only then is it time to apply the watercolour.

“That's the icing on the cake - when you can really relax and go to town because you've done all the graft. The line's the important thing; and getting the expressions right.”

There are a couple of copies here of Clip-Clop, bearing different covers. Apparently the Australians wanted a blue background. America was happy with white, but did opt for the title to be in eye-catching red. Different strokes for different folks.

Nicola would be quite happy to continue writing and drawing into her 90s.

“I'm continuously amazed that I'm still getting work,” she laughs. “There are so many upcoming and really good artists; why would they (the publishers) want someone with 50 books already? I've had my day, sort of thing. I'm really pleased and happy that I've got two books out this year.

“I've had some lean years. I also do paintings; I might go that way - or I might do more grown-up books later on. I intend to continue, because that's what I do - what I love doing.

“I'm bemused and thrilled that it's still happening!”

LOTS of people dream of writing children's books. Whenever she's asked for the secret recipe, Nicola Smee advises would-be writers to run with their own ideas, rather than trying to second-guess what a publisher wants.

“It's got to be original and something that comes out of you; something with an original voice. There are so many people trying to get into it that if you think 'I like that; I'll try to do something similar,' it's hard.

“There's no point copying someone else. You have to have your own style. It's originality, really (that sells).”

(blob) Nicola Smee's two new books, due out in the next couple of months, are: Funny Face, published in early April by Bloomsbury at £5.99, and Clip-Clop, published in May by Boxer Books at £10.99.

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