Accidental Route into Making Picture Books by Nadia Shireen

 Nadia Shireen is an award-winning author and illustrator of picture books and chapter books. We asked Nadia about how she started out and her advice for those who are starting out now. Enjoy!

My route into becoming a picture book maker was offbeat and almost accidental. After a few years of working in magazine publishing, I started to take evening classes in illustration. This was mainly because I was constantly doodling over the sheets of paper I was supposed to be editing (distracting for all concerned.) 

Anyway, these evening classes led to me eventually undertaking a part time MA in children’s book illustration at Anglia Ruskin University in 2008. I was, to be blunt, a bit of an oddball on the course. Trying to juggle a career as a freelance journalist with no formal art training meant that I found it a bit of a struggle, and I got heroically behind with the coursework. A career in picture books wasn’t something I was even contemplating at this point.

But the course was invaluable in so many ways. For a start, thanks to the tutelage of experts and practitioners (such as Martin Salisbury, John Lawrence, Pam Smy and James Mayhew) I learnt to love picture books and appreciate how word and image can collide to create magic.

However, there were also the dreaded regular group crits, when everyone would take it in turn to nervously share their works-in-progress to the rest of the group. You could expect to: 

1) Receive tentative feedback from friendly peers    

2) Receive constructive feedback from informed tutors

3) Try not to cry

And someone would always, always cry. The many caring, generous and encouraging compliments seemed to bounce off the surface of our brains like hail on a tin roof. The criticisms? Now those guys would burrow into our souls, destined to stay there forever. 

To make things even more complicated, the next month we would maybe get a different kind of constructive feedback from a different tutor, which sometimes totally contradict the previous critique. This cause a bit of a tailspin. Whose feedback should you believe? Whose opinion could you trust?

Though it didn’t feel like it at the time, we were learning an invaluable lesson. As a picture book maker, you soon realise that the best projects are a collaborative effort. With a bit of luck, the team you are working with share the same end goal – to make the best book possible. I work closely with fantastic editors and art directors, who add immense value to every book I make.

This means that you need to learn to park your ego at the door and take critique on board. It also means you need to develop and trust your own judgement. Because inevitably down the line, people will not agree. There may be a difference of opinion over a sentence, or a page layout, or the colour of a bear’s nose. 

Now, to further expose myself as a bit of a twerp, my knee-jerk reaction to any proposed editorial or art change might be “No way! These are MY perfect words and MY beautiful pictures and nobody else is going to change them! So there.”

This is not a helpful reaction.

A wiser reaction might be to ask oneself why does something need to change… and is this particular solution the best one? If you’re able to really easily articulate exactly why something needs to be the way it is, then you’re probably right. It’s all about being able to explain the reasons behind that gut instinct. 

Yes this can sometimes be tricky, but it is a skill that can be developed and honed. And really, it’s about learning to cut through the noise of many opinions and trust your own judgement.

If, on the other hand, you can’t really drum up much of a reason as to why a particular sentence/drawing/bear nose cannot be changed, it may be a sign that you need to loosen your grip and allow things to evolve with the guidance of smart people who want to help. 

I’ve definitely felt sad about losing drawings or plot beats that I was really attached to. But pretty much every time I have done so, taking on board someone else’s feedback has resulted in a much better book. 

Everyone’s experience of making a picture book is different, of course. But in mine, any success I have had is shared with the editors and art directors I have collaborated with. 

So my advice would be to try not to be scared or discouraged by thoughtful critique. Instead try to embrace it, gently grapple with it where necessary, and high-five your ego for waiting politely outside. 

Nadia Shireen is a picture book author and illustrator. Her books include Good Little Wolf, The Bumblebear, Billy and the Beast, Barbara Throws a Wobbler and most recently, Geoffrey Gets the Jitters. 

She also writes and illustrates the Grimwood series for older children. 

Find out more at and follow her on Twitter (or X as some people call it now) and Instagram here.

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