Children’s illustrator and author Nick Sharratt talks to Northern Soul
It’s not every day you chat to someone who has sold 40 million books.
Nick Sharratt may not be a household name but his illustrations are known the world over. As a children’s author and artist, he has written and illustrated some 260 books, including favourites by Julia Donaldson and Jeremy Strong as well as the much-loved Tracy Beaker series by Jacqueline Wilson. A long-time collaborator of Wilson’s, he’s also a bestseller in his own right. Now he is returning home to an iconic Manchester building where, as he tells Northern Soul, he spent many happy times as a child.
“I used to go into Manchester Central Library a lot, especially on a Saturday morning. I have fond memories of the building and I have always loved it. I went in there when I was working on school projects and I also spent a lot of time in the arts section at the top of the building.”
Sharratt lived in Manchester between the ages of 12 and 19. He went to secondary school in the area, including a stint at Altrincham Grammar School, before going on to do a year-long art foundation course at Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University). This weekend he’s back in the city to lead a drawing workshop at the library as part of the Manchester Literature Festival.
The softly-spoken illustrator tells Northern Soul that he is looking forward to making the journey from his home in Brighton back up north to Manchester.
“I’ve done lots in Manchester over the years, including many library visits across the city. It’s always really good fun. If everyone brings along some pencils and paper on Saturday and something to lean on then we will draw some of our favourite characters, and even invent some brand new ones, and have lots and lots of fun in the process.”
Looking back, Sharratt reflects on his time at Manchester Poly. “I remember the foundation year at Manchester very fondly. It was a great time. I experimented by trying all kinds of art and then I was absolutely sure that it was illustration that most suited me.
“It was also a brilliant opportunity to wander around Manchester and do lots of location drawing. This was the beginning of the 80s when lots of buildings that are now lovely, shiny and renovated were still derelict and empty, and I remember spending a whole day drawing. Manchester has changed a lot since my days there. I always like coming back and seeing how the city is thriving.”
Before going any further, this Northern Soul writer would like to declare right here and now that she owes a huge debt of gratitude to Nick Sharratt. He is something of a hero in my household, having entertained, soothed and distracted both stressed parents and children over the years with his wacky sense of humour and eye-catching illustrations.
For us, it all began with Timothy Pope and his bequiffed dad, somewhat reminiscent of a cartoon Morrissey, and their epic adventures at their local municipal space, the humorous Shark in the Park. In latter years we graduated to Wilson’s Tracy Beaker and Hetty Feather books and also to Sharratt’s guide to drawing Wilson’s characters (How to Draw the World of Jacqueline Wilson). In fact, daughter number one is so inspired by the work of children’s illustrators such as Sharratt that she wants to pursue a similar career. It’s wonderful to think that she could be following in Sharratt’s esteemed and award-winning footsteps.
When I tell Sharratt how much his work has meant my family, his typically modest response is a humble thank you. I get the impression that he is genuinely touched, despite the fact that his iconic artwork sells in the millions and can be seen on our TV screens and in bookshops and libraries all over the country.
“It gives you a real buzz,” he says. “It’s still very exciting to see my latest book on a book shelf in a shop, but the most wonderful thing of all is when I spot a child on a bus or a train who is engrossed in a book that I have illustrated, that is the best thing in the world.”
Sharratt is known for his wacky sense of humour and I am curious to know if his recipe for success comes from consulting kids on what they’d like to see in a book.
“I don’t have children so I can’t always run my ideas past them. I think what is essential when it comes to writing for children is that I haven’t grown up myself. My sense of humour and outlook on the world isn’t that different to what it was when I was younger. There’s quite a strong element of instinct involved and I think I do have a pretty strong memory for what I liked when I was younger.”
Sharratt has just brought out his first chapter book (a storybook for young readers usually aged under ten), a task which filled him with nerves until he was offered some tips from Wilson.
He explains: “I’ve been working in children’s books for 25 years and it has taken me all this long to produce a chapter book. Writing doesn’t come as naturally to me as drawing. I always got rather wound up trying to do sustained writing. I took a tip from Jacqueline and I just did a little bit of writing every day. I started writing the book on a train journey from London to Edinburgh and once I’d written the first chapter, then, to my huge relief, I discovered that I was actually quite enjoying myself. I’m hoping to do some more chapter books, if this one goes down well.”
So, what is it like being able to call legendary children’s author Jacqueline Wilson a friend?
“It’s lovely! I have to say that sometimes you illustrate a book for somebody and you don’t meet them. There are one or two writers I’ve illustrated for who I have never met. It was very good to meet Jacqueline right at the beginning of our working relationship, before I even illustrated her book. That was a very good thing to do.
“We met and I was a bit shy. Jacqueline said that the character in her book was quite lively and loud so she didn’t know if I was going to be the right person for the job. But she noticed that I was wearing fluorescent yellow socks and so she thought that ‘maybe he’s got a slightly wilder side’. She’s bought me a few pairs of yellow socks over the years, as a reminder of that.”
Northen Soul Awards 2017
The Northern Soul Awards 2017, hosted by Lemn Sissay MBE, will celebrate and reward cultural and artistic excellence in the North of England.