Tell us briefly about the inspiration behind writing Henrietta’s World.
Henrietta the Hippo was a childhood creation of mine aged about nine. I would draw a lot of cartoon animals and write short stories around them. She is basically my inner child, as I too used to visit my own imaginary worlds each playtime with my school friends. In my books, Henrietta visits fantasy worlds with her friends through a magical hopscotch.
Did you always want to become a children’s author?
I am a HR manager, and by night (and on weekends) I am a children’s author. It is time consuming but Henrietta is totally worth it. I wanted to be a children’s author from a young age, because I find children’s literature to be fun and nothing’s impossible in [those worlds].
However it wasn’t until one of my friends encouraged me to go for it last year, when I actually did and published Henrietta’s World, The Chocolate Kingdom in November. I have not looked back since. It’s a childhood dream come true for me.
Have any of the characters or plots been modelled after incidents/people from your life?
Many of my characters are inspired by friends and family that have supported me through my year-long publishing journey. For example, in The Chocolate Kingdom, the princess and the dragon were inspired by my niece and nephew who live in the UK. Please note, I am not insinuating that my nephew is a dragon.
What’s the most gratifying thing about writing for little children?
Learning how children react to my stories and characters. One of my readers dressed up as Henrietta at school for World Book Day — that made my week! It’s also really rewarding when my five-year-old nephew gives me tips on cool super powers for my new book coming out this month. His favourite character is Tommy the Toucan, and he wanted to him to have a really cool super power. Let it be said, I took his advice.
How have the illustration of your books helped bring Henrietta’s world to life?
Illustrations are such an integral part of children’s books and finding the right illustrator was initially quite a challenge for me, as I had never done this before. I had an idea of what I wanted, and I went through about five or six freelance illustrators until I found Mabel Chong; she just gets Henrietta’s World and is in sync with my imagination. I had to learn that I couldn’t stunt the illustrator’s imagination as it wasn’t just my vision but also their interpretation of my story.
In a world where kids are more likely to reach for a phone or the laptop instead of a book what role does children’s literature play?
While that is true, I believe there is still very much a demand for children’s literature. A popular reading time for children is generally at school or before bedtime. Plus, children’s books are often available in eBooks or audiobooks too. I also intend to add additional short stories to my website soon.
As a child, who were some of the children’s authors who had a huge impact on you?
My favourite author is (and probably always will be) Jacqueline Wilson. I love her characters and how relatable they are. Everyone who loves her books will know who Tracey Beaker is. I like how she could relate to children and her books are ones kids keep reading again and again. I even read she has released a new book about Tracey Beaker as a single mum, I really must buy a copy.
Do you feel the recent years’ children’s ability to imagine and make believe is on the decline?
No, I just think there are too many distractions about these days. This is one of reasons why I write children’s books, to encourage them to be imaginative. The one thing I like about books is that you can read it with a parent and enjoy it together as a more intimate bonding experience for the family. There are no rules or timings about when, you can stop and start reading and books are open to endless interpretation and possibilities.
What are the challenges of writing for children?
I think it is the same challenge for all authors, no matter who their audience is — it’s the writing part. I have tons of ideas, but actually writing the story, that is the hard bit. Some days I just sit and stare into space waiting for the words to come. It’s quite funny actually. I sit somewhere outside till I’m inspired or chat with a friend or my sister during which my nephew might have ideas he’ll suggest. Writer’s block is just a waiting game.
Does Henrietta have fans outside of the UAE?
I am originally from the UK, so Henrietta most definitely has fans back home as well as the UAE. Following on social media is quite spread. The only feedback I’ve received that’s different from my UAE and UK readers is that I should write a book about visiting Dubai. I think it is a great idea.
What are the magic ingredients that create the perfect children’s book?
For me, you must have good characters, add in a bit of learning, and don’t forget to be silly now and again. Books need to be fun, so children will read them again and again.
What role do your books fulfil in a child’s life?
Henrietta’s World is all about using your imagination. You don’t need anything else really. Use your imagination and go out and play. That’s all I want to tell parents and kids through my books. I do also like to include some interactive pages to help encourage learning too. For example, in Planet Zaytooloo, which is out later this month, Henrietta and friends help the local superheroes with their recycling and learn about the 3 R’s of waste management.