Travel sketches;Children's books;Interview;Niamh Sharkey

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
Geraldine Brennan interviews illustrator Niamh Sharkey

Niamh Sharkey has never regretted interrupting a trip round the world to work on her first picture book - she will soon need a spare backpack to carry all her awards.

The 26-year-old Dubliner has recently collected both the Books for Children Mother Goose Award for the best new illustrator of children's books published in the UK and the top Irish award, the Bisto Children's Book of the Year.

Her illustrations for Tales of Wisdom and Wonder by Hugh Lupton were commissioned while she was in Sydney and planning to travel in South-east Asia. Tessa Strickland of Barefoot Books had been to the west of Ireland on holiday, spotted Sharkey's book jackets in a shop and was keen to recruit her.

Sharkey researched the seven tales from a range of cultures (including French, Russian and West African - but not Australian) in Sydney museums and libraries, then moved to Tasmania to paint. "I was daunted at first - it was the first time I had done this amount of painting on one project," she recalls. "I was working 18-hour days. I use oils on a gesso background, which is time-consuming but I love the texture."

For the Cree Indian tale of "The Curing Fox" she used details from an 18th-century Cree coat found in a library book. "Fish in the Forest", the Russian story of a gossip, has a background of tittle-tattle in Cyrillic script.

The English folk tale, "The Pedlar of Swaffham" borrows a palette of earthy medieval colours from Breughel, with a 14th-century wooden London Bridge. The characterful dog and chorus of magpies - one for sorrow when the pedlar is broke, two for joy when he comes into money - points to the riotous animal tug-of-war in Sharkey's second book, The Gigantic Turnip, which contributed to her Mother Goose success.

This story of a farming couple who grapple with their monster vegetable from dawn to dusk is for younger children and the statement is bolder and louder.

If the turnip is stubborn on a human scale, the farmers seem to be planted in their kitchen garden, with their shoes breaking into tendrils. The vegetable plot is influenced by Klimt and is definitely organic, with cross-sections showing activity below ground.

"I'm always looking for a different perspective," says the artist who grew up on Maurice Sendak and Dr Seuss and is now influenced by the colour and graphic quality of Klee and Kandinsky.

It's no surprise that her current project, which I left her tending lovingly back home in Dublin, is Jack and the Beanstalk, coming this autumn from Barefoot.

'Tales of Wisdom and Wonder' retold by Hugh Lupton, illustrated by Niamh Sharkey, Barefoot pound;12.99'The Gigantic Turnip' by Aleksei Tolstoy, illustrated by Niamh Sharkey, Barefoot Beginner pound;9.99. For details of paperback offers for schools, e-mail or fax 0171 359 5798

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