Welcome to our stop on the Nelson (Mandela: First Names) blog tour! We are thrilled to share an interview with both the author, and illustrator as well as share Joseph’s review of the book. Let’s get started.
When we were approached to be involved in this blog tour, we jumped at the chance to take part. We love non-fiction books in this house and believe in the importance of teaching children about Black historical figures especially since the National Curriculum still only minimally covers Black History. While this will hopefully start to change soon, it’s up to parents to ensure their children are getting a fully rounded education and exposing them to books about prominent Black historical figures such as Nelson Mandela, is one of the easiest ways to supplement their learning.
Nelson (Mandela: First Names) is an illustrated biography of Nelson Mandela, the world’s most famous freedom fighter, from the editorial team behind Horrible Histories. This series invites children to get on First Name terms with fascinating figures from history and today, showing them that ordinary people can grow up to do extraordinary things. Nelson is written by Nansubuga Isdahl and illustrated by Nicole Miles and published by David Fickling Books.
This amazing book by Nansubuga N. Isdahl is one of many books about Nelson Mandela but what sets this one apart from the rest is that it has a family-friendly feel with lots of illustrations. I thought that it was a very interesting history book and I would definitely recommend it. I liked how the book shared facts from Nelson’s early life as well as some of his more well-known achievements. It felt like it took us on a journey as we discovered everything there is to know about the great man that was Nelson Mandela.
I think it’s important that people are educated about all aspects of history and knowledge that has been tucked away and this book shared extra facts and trivia that are less commonly known. I particularly liked learning what Nelson Mandela was like as a child and how he felt when he first went to a big city.
I like how the information was displayed in an easy to understand way that will not be confusing to younger children. In my opinion, the book was enlightening and was very informative; it gave me facts I didn’t learn in school. I suggest that this book should be read by people of all ages and would be useful to use in schools to make learning about Nelson Mandela even more interesting.
– Joseph (age 12)
We were lucky to be able to interview Nansubuga and Nicole about how they approached working on the book, a bit about their backgrounds and what is coming up next for them.
Interview with Nansubuga Isdahl, author
How long did it take to write the book?
Hmm! This is a hard question to answer only because I was writing it while working at my full-time job (which also involves writing). I think I was able to crank out a first draft within six to eight weeks and then the editing process happened over several months.
Was it hard to research Nelson Mandela’s life?
It wasn’t, actually. Luckily, he wrote a book about his life, The Long Walk to Freedom, which I used as my primary source. Also, because Nelson Mandela is such an international figure, there is an incredible amount of information about him in the way of books, movies, articles, papers, etc. In fact, I knew quite a bit about him before I started researching for the book because I was living in South Africa at the time and I’d always had an interest in him. I’d also seen at least two movies about him years before. And as the child of Ugandan immigrants in the US, Nelson Mandela always hovered as this icon of freedom.
How did you choose what to include in the book? Was there anything you had to leave out?
The process of choosing what to include in the book was really about balance. I wanted to create an accurate and fair portrayal, but I also wanted to create something that was engaging and appropriate for children. I think because Nelson Mandela was such an important figure and has a lot to offer in terms of helping children think about equality and leadership, I chose to focus more on Nelson the political figure and less on Nelson the man. That is to say, when there were choices to be made about what to include – I focused more on those aspects that were relevant to the apartheid struggle and his role in it and less on his family life, although they were obviously hugely important as well.
What was your favourite fact that you found out while working on the book?
Well, there were so many. But I think my absolute favourite fact (if you could call it that) was that Nelson had a flair for the dramatic. For example, he was known to be a great entertainer in the courts when he worked as a lawyer in the early days of his career. I think I was so struck by this because for a person who was dealing with such weighty things throughout all of his life⎯life and death things, really⎯to also be able to laugh and to have the ability to make others laugh underlined his humanity. It was as though to say, “We struggle. But yes, we laugh and celebrate too.” This thread of humour ran throughout his life, from his early days through his time as president. We often forget that people who make such great sacrifices (e.g. being jailed for 27 years) are also human. And humour is a fast bridge to seeing one’s humanity.
How difficult is it to write about historical people for children? Especially when the person has been through hard times?
I’d have to say for this book, it started out as a difficult process and then became much easier. One thing I have observed, though, is that there is humour in almost all situations, even hard times. I think you just have to find the kernel of humour and try to use it with sensitivity, which just takes practice and time.
You also wrote a First Names book about Beyoncé! Was it easier or harder to write about her compared to Nelson Mandela? Did you find that you had more of a responsibility to get Mr Mandela’s story right?
Beyoncé was more challenging only because less has been written about her and also because she is alive. I think I actually felt more of a responsibility to get Beyoncé’s story right because there was already a clear narrative about who Nelson Mandela was.
If you were to write another book about a historical figure, who would you choose?
Hard question, and I kindly reserve the right to change my mind, but for the moment, I’d say someone totally off the radar like Taytu Betul, the Empress of the Ethiopian Empire.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I’ve always wanted to write, but never thought I’d be a writer. It’s funny how things work out.
What advice would you give to children who want to become a writer?
Literally, just do it. Put that pen to paper (okay, those fingers to the keyboard) and go. And read! I am a much better reader than I am a writer. Oh, and imagine. Use your imagination deeply.
What projects do you have coming up next?
I have a couple of middle grade novels that I’m writing at the moment and I hope find their way into the world soon!
Interview with Nicole Miles, illustrator
How long did it take to draw all the pictures for the book?
Several months. There were notes on what illustrations were needed and where they would be fitted into the manuscript, but everything else was up to me to work out the compositions and make everything clear so the illustrations were helping to support the text and not distracting from it or too separate from it. After the sketch stage, I refined the roughs incorporating the feedback from the sketches. And then there was a third pass in response to the feedback to the cleaned up roughs. For most of the illustrations, these finals were truly final, but for a few trickier illustrations there were some more little amends needed here or there on the finals for one reason or another.
What are your favourite tools to use?
My iPad. It allows me to work quickly and fluidly in much the same way that I would on paper, but I’m able to make adjustments and try things out much more easily (and with less mess!).
Was it hard to choose what bits of Nelson Mandela’s life to illustrate?
Not at all. It was worked out ahead of time which illustrations were needed and where, so by the time I was brought in I didn’t have to worry about that part. I think the scenes that were chosen were great. They’re dispersed pretty well throughout the book so there are no long gaps without any visuals, but no pages are crowded either.
What was your favourite image to draw in the book?
That’s really hard because I enjoyed different parts for different reasons. I don’t think I could pick a single favourite…especially as there are around 150 illustrations! But I enjoy any scenes with a lot of people because those are just visually very interesting to me (like on page 16, 53, 88, and 113), but anything with scenery really helps ground the illustrations (like pages 6, 18 &19, 49, and 147), which is also fun.
Have you always wanted to be an illustrator?
In short, yes. I’m interested in a lot of things and, before going off to university to get my BA (Hons) in Illustration, I actually entertained the idea of studying International Relations, but I’ve always had illustration as one of my main interests and I don’t think my love for it has ever really wavered. I am fortunate that I was never dissuaded from it and that it’s been accessible for me. It’s a career path that takes a lot of work as well as a lot of luck.
How did you get started illustrating books?
To be honest, I’m never entirely sure how to answer this. A lot of the “how”s in illustration (and probably in freelancing in general) feel a little murky. As a freelancer, you put out a lot of feelers and promotion stuff, and most of us are regularly(-ish) posting stuff on social media… It’s sometimes hard to know where things end up coming from. I try to remember to ask where people found my work, but there’s often so much else to discuss at the beginning of a project that the question sometimes gets lost. But I think because my work features a lot of characters, when I started to play with adding more dynamism to the characters and occasionally scenery around them, it helped Art Directors to see a place for my work in publishing and I started receiving offers for book work. I don’t think the shift in my work alone would have brought any projects along if I weren’t also putting things out there though. For Nelson, David Fickling Books just found me and got in touch. Since signing with an agent in June of 2020, that’s how most of my book projects come to me now. But even then, I try to participate in my agency’s regular promo campaigns (which are usually pretty fun anyway).
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to get into illustration one day?
I really think it helps to know individuals and their specific situations before being able to give any meaningful advice because general advice is just so…general haha! And I still consider myself at the start of my career so I don’t have decades of advice or anything, but I guess I would say firstly that going to an art university is not necessarily that important, in my view, for getting into freelance illustration (or really illustration in general outside of academia), so I think that’s optional. Although I did get a degree in Illustration I don’t think it’s needed, in and of itself, to make a career in this industry. It’s more important to look at the world around you and take influences from a broad spectrum of places and eras while still being aware of what’s going on in the industry so that you can create stuff that is both unique to you and presented professionally. Many people gain that from being in the university environment, but it is possible to create that environment without the university price tag.
Don’t worry about style. At all. Younger people in particular are always super sceptical about this point thinking that they need to focus on finding a style without realising that, the same as one’s handwriting, everyone already has a style. It’s not something you have to put effort into finding; it’s something you develop naturally the more you focus on what the work itself needs to do.
Oh, and try to confront your weak spots head-on. Finding solutions to what you’re not so great at is one of the fastest and most interesting ways to develop in my opinion. I guess that’s all more concerned with the craft…
As for getting into the industry, I don’t think it’s necessary to be on all social media in existence, but it helps to pick at least one place to post regularly(-ish) as well as sending promo emails to art directors. If they don’t feel your work is quite right yet, that’s fine. Keep sending regularly (every three to six months) and developing your work.
Which other historical figure would you love to do a book on and why?
So so so so many people! I’ve been doing a lot of reading for Black History Month (US) so people who immediately spring to mind right now are Thomas Sankara, Walter Rodney, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Frantz Fanon, Angela Y Davis, Assata Shakur… A few years ago, when I found the moving music of Franco-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour, I wanted to know all about his life. I’m also currently reading a book about Palestinian writers called Pay No Heed to the Rockets in which Mahmoud Darwish comes up a lot (among other fascinating people) so I think he would be really interesting to find out more about too. The more I think about the question, the more people pop up haha.
Where else can we see your work?
My website (nicolemillo.com) and my instagram (@nicolemillo) are the best places to find my work (with the latter updated more frequently).
What projects do you have coming up next?
I illustrated Walking for Water by Susan Hughes which is based on the true story of a little boy in Malawi who realises the world is quite different for him and his twin sister and that is coming out 1 June. In the autumn of this year the first book in Joel Ross’ funny Alley & Rex middle grade series is coming out. I’m also illustrating Viviane Elbee’s I Want My Book Back about a dinosaur-obsessed kid who just wants his library book about dinosaurs back, which is out in spring 2022. Then autumn of that year sees Groundhog Gets It Wrong hitting shelves. I’m super excited about all these fun book projects that I’ve been able to work on and there are quite a few non-publishing projects that will be popping up too. My Instagram is probably the best place to keep up with that sort of news 🙂
Thank you so much Nansubuga and Nicole for your generous time answering our questions and to David Fickling Books for providing us with a copy of Nelson (Mandela: First Names) for us to review.
Nelson (Mandela: First Names) is out now.