Star Interview with Richard Blackledge: Sheffield illustrator paints a gateway for children to be lifelong readers

Children's illustrator Lydia Monks.
Children's illustrator Lydia Monks.
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For parents with children of a certain age, there’s a strong chance the colourful books illustrated by Lydia Monks are a bedtime reading staple.

Lydia’s amusing, distinctive, collage-constructed artwork has graced the pages of several multi-million bestselling series, from What The Ladybird Heard and Princess Mirror-Belle, dreamed up with Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson, to a new run of stories following the young animal pupils of the Twit Twoo School.

Children's illustrator Lydia Monks.

Children's illustrator Lydia Monks.

Each day the mother-of-two can be found in her studio in Sheffield - a compact space at Yorkshire Artspace’s Persistence Works on Brown Street in the city centre - industriously crafting her projects with paint and pencils.

“Sometimes I wish the days could be longer,” she says.

“It’s where I’m happiest - painting while listening to an audiobook.”

Of course, like all jobs, Lydia’s has its vexing moments. Picking up a drawing of a hedgehog, she remarks: “I’ve been asked not to do them again as they’re seen as a UK animal. I think, well, we have giraffes. Badgers, too, are quite controversial.”

Her latest book, Mouse’s Big Day, tells the tale of a bashful rodent who overcomes her worries to - eventually - enjoy her first day at school, taught by a reassuring owl, Miss Hoot.

Lydia’s story, too, offers encouragement to shy children everywhere. An ‘introverted’ but fiercely creative youngster, she followed her talents to the position she now finds herself - regularly addressing thousands of junior readers captivated by her pictures.

“It’s kind of funny,” she admits. “I wasn’t very good at putting myself forward for anything.”

Her outlook was altered, however, by a family tragedy. When Lydia was 15 her mother died following a two-year battle with an aggressive form of breast cancer and she felt she ‘had to become more independent very quickly’.

“It was completely life-changing. I had to fight for myself, it made me much more feisty, almost. I couldn’t be shy and retiring.”

Lydia, aged 45, grew up in Northampton, the oldest of two girls - her sister, Julie, is also an illustrator.

“I used to draw all the time. I mainly used to draw horses, or I’d sit watching TV drawing, or in my bedroom. At school I was good at art, and English, and I won competitions, so it was there from an early age.”

She studied at Kingston College in London, and after leaving drew for national newspapers such as the Guardian and Times on a weekly basis.
Publishing her first book, however, proved a struggle.

“For my final project at college I did some illustrations for a Roger McGough book - Bad Bad Cats. Someone from his publishers approached me and suggested I did the real thing - I illustrated a few of his books after that.

“I was trying to get into picture books, but found it really hard, so I thought I’d write a story to show the kind of thing I could do. No-one liked it.

“After two years of knocking on doors and getting rejected I put it away and thought ‘Forget it’.”

But Lydia decided to approach one more imprint, Egmont, who asked to see her story - ‘and of course, they published it as it was’, remembers Lydia. The book, I Wish I Were A Dog, won the bronze Smarties prize for 1999.

“I’ve just worked continuously ever since.”

She moved to Sheffield around 15 years ago with her husband - they have since separated - and now lives near Forge Dam in Fulwood.

“I like the fact you can come and work in the city and go home to the countryside, almost. That’s the magic of Sheffield that not many cities have. I feel a bit spoilt.”

Lydia juggles work at her studio with the school run; she has two daughters, Ava, 12, and Scarlett, 10. Not surprisingly, the girls are ‘always reading something’, but Lydia quickly adds: “They’re not crazy readers or bookworms.”

There’s an air of modesty and unpretentiousness about Lydia. She’s understandably proud of her achievements - the awards, sales and books translated into a dizzying number of languages - but doesn’t claim to have ‘any big moral ideas’ for her audience.

“I just want to entertain them, really. From having my own children, you pick up what they are interested in, what they worry about and find funny. I just want them to have fun reading. If I can make them laugh, that’s quite nice.”

Artwork is always hand-delivered to the publisher after a disaster 10 years ago when a whole book, Falling For Rapunzel, disappeared in the post on the way to America.

“The package arrived but there was nothing in it. I had to do it all again, it was devastating.”

Each of the Twit Twoo stories will be about a different character - some are based on the personalities of Sheffield children Lydia knows from school. The writer is trying to find time to diversify, too - Lydia was involved in the set design for a theatrical version of What The Ladybird Heard, and painted an elephant for the Herd of Sheffield sculpture trail.

She’s also backed the campaign against the felling of street trees in Sheffield; tote bags are sold bearing her artwork on the theme.

“It seems a bit mad in this day and age,” Lydia reasons.

“It kept putting pictures in my head that I couldn’t resist.”

Working with Julia Donaldson is a pleasant experience, she reveals, even if the deadlines are tight, three months being the average.

“She’s very good, she just lets me get on with it and doesn’t direct me on the characters. I feel very privileged.

“I got a lovely letter from a school in Russia the other day - it’s amazing the books are out there and children all around the world are reading them.

“It’s easy to illustrate someone’s story. You feel the pressure a lot more to write one. You so much want it to be right.”

n Mouse’s Big Day is out now, published by Macmillan, priced £11.99. Lydia will be reading and signing books at the Broomhill Festival on Saturday from 3pm in the Upper Room at St Mark’s Church. Tickets £3 on the door, proceeds to Broomhill Community Library.

Lydia Monks sees her books as a potential gateway to children becoming lifelong readers - and warns against the dominating influence of devices such as tablet computers.

“You hope that it gives them a joy of reading from early on. You don’t want it to be boring.

“They do so many literacy tests at school that you just want it to be fun.”

But there is ‘a lot of competition’ from technology, she says.

“I have a rule in the house where my children can’t have any screens in the bedroom. Otherwise it’s very hard, with the telly and the iPad.

“Reading is a quieter moment after a busy day - it’s nice to cuddle up and read something before you go to bed.”