Collaboration Spotlight: Sharna and Olu
With the Collaboration Spotlight Series, we create a positive image for young girls to refer to, by having conversations with different writers and illustrators. This month we have been doing Q&As with various writers, to get to know more about them and their work. Here, we are showcasing all the questions we have asked Sharna Jackson and Olu Oke, the author and illustrator of Good Reception,
part of the Joyful, Joyful collection of stories.
A glorious colour-illustrated anthology for 11+ celebrating joy, showcasing over 40 talented Black writers and artists from across the world. Curated by British Book Awards Illustrator of the Year, Dapo Adeola, with a foreword by the award-winning Patrice Lawrence. Joyful, Joyful is a book to sing about!
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Good Reception is your latest collaboration. What was the inspiration behind this story? What discussions did you have on how to bring the story to life with the illustrations?
S: I was a bridesmaid three times before I was twelve (apparently, that means I’m never getting married, but that’s cool) and I can still remember how fun they were for me. I loved being reunited with my cousins from around the country, getting dressed up and eating the finest foods. I loved those times and wanted to bring some of that to the page. First, I wrote the story, and then I saw the amazing illustrations by Olu. After looking, I definitely made tweaks to my words because the images were better!
O: Writing and illustrating children’s literature can be compartmentalised. So, I didn’t have any conversations with Sharna about her story. I had Art Directors (Helen and Jo) who I discussed the work with once I had proposed an initial set of illustrations. This may sound dull, but it was actually really exciting! It meant I could create images directly from the story. I was also really nervous to hear what Sharna thought about my interpretation.
When did you discover your love for art /writing? What was that like?
S: I always wanted to write! I knew for sure when I was about seven. My parents bought me a diary for Christmas and instead of getting me a fun, colourful journal, they got me an entrepreneur’s book with lots of empty pages. After writing about school dinners for about a week, I wrote my novel. Nero the Hero. It was not my best work–and it was inspired by what I was watching on television–but I loved it. That’s when I knew. It took various years before I was confident enough to write for others, though.
O: I have always liked pictures in books. I have dyslexia so I found learning to read quite difficult, but I loved going to the library and looking at pictures, having stories read to me and listening to them on tape. (Ask your big people what a tape cassette is, as it’s now ancient technology) I’d always doodled and made up stories but it was not until secondary school in Year 9 that I really discovered my love of ALL things ARTY.
The discovery that I was ‘arty’ was extraordinarily free. The Art Room was a space where I didn’t have to struggle. Where everything was up for interpretation and they gave me the power to make (and justify) my own choices. Where there was something new to learn and some new skill to perfect.
What advice do you have for children interested in writing and illustration?
S: If you are writing stories, poems and ideas, you are a writer, just like me.
My top tips are to:
- Always carry a notebook and a pen with you so you can always write ideas down. I always forget things. It does not have to be fancy–just yours.
- Look up and around–noticing what’s happening around you. It might spark inspiration for something new.
- Start with a story you know and love, then change three things about it–the main characters, where it occurs and one key thing about what happens. Then you have an idea for a new story!
O: My advice is to submerge yourself in life and every creative experience you can, read books, watch films, go to the theatre, visit galleries, listen to stories and not just modern things. Investigate what your oldies read, watched and listened to when they were young and then listen to that stuff too! Write and draw as much as you can every day. Practice all the time you never cease practising, even when you are a professional.
What mediums do you create your work in?
O: I work with pen and ink and linocut. I’m mainly a print marker. Using a flat cork surface or wood to crave my designs, also I draw and screen print with a letterpress. I enjoy experimenting with different materials.
Good Reception is your first collaboration. What was one of the best feedbacks you received for this book?
S: Best feedback was early from Dapo Adeola, the editor of the book. He loved Good Reception, and he said it made him think about new ways in which he wanted to write, too. That was flattering and kind.
O: The feedback has been AMAZING! Adults are happy to have this ‘coffee table’ style book to read and gift. Children are inspired and curious to see a book full of stories that reflect their own experience. It is a major landmark in British Children’s publishing. To have a book like this, full of talented and contemporary authors and illustrators, gathered together in this positive anthology. It has been a real privilege to be part of Children's literary history.
Who were your favourite authors/illustrators growing up?
S: I loved all kinds of books and stories when I was growing up. My favourite book was Ruth Thomas’ The Runaways. I also loved a strange medical encyclopaedia I read so often the hardback cover fell off.
O: Roald Dahl, I love his irreverence. How he wrote baddies, who were proper bad and life wasn’t always perfect. I also loved fantasy stories like The Hobbit (Tolkien) and Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula Le Guin). My favourite illustrators were Arthur Rackham and Brian Froud, because I loved the world of fairies and monsters. Also Maurice Sendak because he is just… brilliant!
Describe your creative space. And why is it special to you?
S: I live on a boat, and my office is at the front, in the pointy bit–officially called the bow. I painted the room dark blue, so it feels like night time, all the time, and I love that. Within the room there are toys, candles and a little bed for thinking. A friend designed this bed, so it’s special to me. Sometimes I write from my bed or sofa if I don’t want to sit up straight.
O: I’m fortunate because I have a studio at home, which is at the front of my boat. It’s full of art equipment, books and machines. It has a stove in one corner and a comfort armchair next to it which is for family members when they come to visit. The ceiling has 4 massive windows, so even on grey days, the natural light floods the space. This space is special to me because it is where all the thinking, mistakes and doing gets done.
Quick Fire Round
What is your most-used emoji?
S: The celebration one–the one that looks like a cone with streamers coming out of it. That, or the skull for when someone tells me a funny joke or I’m shocked.
What’s the first career you dreamed of having as a child?
S: A photojournalist OR someone who carried a briefcase somewhere.
O: Being an Author and Illustrator of Children’s Books.
What was something you have done that made you feel extreme happiness?
S: Adopting a stray Podenco puppy from Portugal named Miles. Also, my last book, The Good Turn, was on a billboard in central London. It was so exciting!
O: Dancing to music with my children.
About the writer
Sharna Jackson is an award-winning author and curator who specialises in developing socially-engaged initiatives for children across culture, publishing and entertainment. She was recently the Artistic Director at Site Gallery in Sheffield and was formerly the editor of the Tate Kids website. Sharna's debut novel, High-Rise Mystery received numerous awards and accolades including the Waterstones Book Prize for the Best Book for Younger Readers. Sharna lives on a ship in Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
About the illustrator
Olu Oke has been an illustrator and printmaker for over twenty years. She lives on a Dutch barge with her family and a fearless cat. When she was little, she would peel wallpaper off the walls around her house and secretly draw behind it.