Nima Patel is a psychology graduate, parenting coach, children's author and former primary school teacher, with a family background of over 30 years' experience in early years education.
Cally Johnson-Isaacs studied illustration and works in the arts, initially as a 'master cute' artist for Hallmark Cards before going on to pursue her dream of illustrating children's books. She works from her seaside cottage in Northumberland. Find Cally on Instagram at @callyjanestudio.
The Best You (Little Tiger Press)
In The Best You, author and parenting coach Nima Patel encourages children to think about not what they want to be when they grow up, but who they want to be, reminding us not just of children's talents but of the personal qualities they can develop and express as they grow up. Illustrated by Cally Johnson-Isaacs, this is a warm and thoughtful book that can be shared individually, with groups and in assemblies.
Q&A with Nima Patel and Cally Johnson-Isaacs
Author Nima Patel and illustrator Cally Johnson-Isaacs introduce their picture book, The Best You, and suggest ways it can be used to encourage children to become their best selves.
1. Can you tell us how you developed the qualities you need to be a great author / illustrator.
Nima: The skills and qualities I developed in the classroom during my time as a primary school teacher have undoubtedly supported my writing. Teaching really helped me to understand the diverse needs of children and way to effectively communicate with them. For example, my experience in conveying information to children has helped me to articulate my ideas better, in order to engage my young readers.
Cally: My journey towards becoming a children's book illustrator took a unique path. Immediately after graduating, I was offered a position in a greetings card art studio. Working alongside seasoned professional artists, I gained invaluable hands-on experience.
The studio environment exposed me to diverse styles, techniques and the nuances of visual storytelling. I spent many fun-filled years as an artist in the greetings card industry and not a single day felt like 'work'
2. What do you most enjoy about working on picture books?
Nima: The most rewarding part about working on picture books is the impact they have on children. Though picture books are simple, they have the potential to carry powerful messages which can contribute to a child's learning, development, and future self.
Cally: I enjoy capturing imagination, collaborating with authors, connecting with young readers, and exploring diverse themes - all of these aspects bring lots of satisfaction. However, the ultimate highlight is seeing the final printed book. It's a moment of pure joy to witness my artwork come to life in a physical form for children and their families to enjoy together.
3. What inspires you to be creative?
Nima: I would say that my creativity comes from a deep sense of curiosity. I am always observing the world around me and feel inspired by people, nature, and different cultures. This always sparks new ideas and perspectives. In addition to the world around me, moments of stillness and introspection during my daily meditation practice gives me clarity and increased awareness, which positively inspires my creative process.
Cally: I draw inspiration from various sources, including nature, literature, yoga, personal experiences, collaborative music sessions with friends, daydreaming and hikes or beach walks with my chihuahua, Jasper. Keeping a sketchbook close allows me to record creative ideas whenever inspiration strikes.
4. What sparked the idea for this picture book Nima, and why did you want to include a letter for the grown-ups at the end?
Nima: During my morning guided meditation one day, the teacher asked a thought-provoking question, "Who do you want to be today?" This struck a chord with me, as even in adulthood, I had never really thought about this. Growing up, the emphasis had always been on what I wanted to be rather than who I wanted to be, a sentiment shared by many others too. As I reflected on this, it made me realise that nurturing this introspective exploration should be a more central focus in childhood. Encouraging children to think about their character from an early age is crucial and needs greater attention.
5. Cally, what did you love about illustrating The Best You? How important was it to make every child feel included through your illustrations?
Cally: I loved illustrating The Best You because it allowed me to showcase the uniqueness of every child. I particularly enjoyed creating the cast of cute characters. Making children feel included through my illustrations was crucial. I aimed to create a friendly world, embracing diversity and ensuring young readers feel valued by the images they see in the book.
6. Why do children need this picture book in their lives? How would you like to see The Best You being shared with them, and taken further?
Nima: The Best You quite simply offers a new, unique, and valuable perspective - children are encouraged to think about who they want to be when they grow up rather than what they want to be. This small but powerful shift in perspective can be transformative for children as it emphasises the importance of developing traits of good character first and foremost.
I would like to see The Best You being shared with children in educational settings and incorporated into lesson plans, assemblies, and reading programmes. I also want to see parents and caregivers reading the book with their children as it will undoubtedly provide many opportunities for meaningful discussions about identity, values, and aspirations. Ultimately, I would love The Best You to become a catalyst for empowering children to embrace their unique qualities so they can strive toward becoming the best versions of themselves.
Cally: The Best You is more than a book about career choices; it's a celebration of qualities like kindness, strength, passion and determination. It helps children discover and empower themselves. This makes it an essential addition to a child's world, promoting not just a love for reading but also a sense of wonder about who they are.
To take it further, I believe art projects or workshops will be beneficial. These activities will reinforce the book's themes and encourage children to ask questions and explore. A lovely hands-on way for them to soak in the book's values, building confidence and empathy.
7. What were the biggest challenges for you in creating The Best You?
Nima: Despite my background as a teacher, at times it still felt challenging to break down complex ideas into simple text that was accessible, engaging, and enjoyable for children. The writing process required me to immerse myself mentally in their world, meeting them at their level of understanding.
Cally: I enjoy illustrative challenges. For example, maintaining an engaging narrative or meeting deadlines without compromising on the quality of the work. Ultimately, being a part of creating 'The Best You' was incredibly rewarding. Seeing the final product come together, vibrant and full of life, made every hurdle along the way worth it!
8. Which sections are you happiest with in the finished picture book, and why?
Nima: I absolutely love the sport stars page and I think Cally has done a great job with the illustrations here! The message emphasising that it's okay to fail resonates with me personally, and I believe it's something many children need to hear. In a world which often views failures or mistakes as a bad thing, this page aims to shift that perspective and encourage a growth mindset. In reality, mistakes and failures can be a huge springboard for our learning and personal growth if approached in the right way.
Cally: One of my favourite pages in The Best You is the opening scene where we are introduced to the characters. I like their unique personalities and the posing of the question they grapple with throughout the book. I also love the dynamic double-page spread of the gymnast scene as she flips across the pages. Another standout for me is the firefighter scene. I love the turning of the entire book to a portrait view, creating a sense of height for the children's daring rescue of the cat.
9. Are you working on other picture books? What other kinds of work do you enjoy doing?
Nima: The Best You is the first book of a three-book deal, so there are a couple more in the pipeline. In terms of other kinds of work that I enjoy, I am very passionate about personal development. I strongly believe that if we can all prioritise our personal growth, we can show up better in the world and make a positive impact. One day, I would love to write a book for adults too - perhaps delving into topics like trauma, past patterns, and relationships.
Cally: I'm currently working on some exciting picture book projects and can't wait to talk about them later in the year. Apart from my work in illustrating picture books, I also create illustrations that promote self-care, I share them on my popular Instagram page @callyjanestudio. Beyond that, I create merchandise and produce art prints and other products for sale. In addition to my professional endeavours, I find joy in creating personalised illustrations for friends and loved ones.
10. Which kinds of creative activities bring out the best in you?
Nima: I grew up listening to Bollywood music and I still love dancing to it. Though I used to regularly attend classes, nowadays even a little dance in front of the mirror is enough to bring out my vibrant and energetic side and make me feel happy! Additionally, I love getting creative in the kitchen and experimenting with new recipes. I find it really therapeutic, and it helps me to switch off from the world.
Cally: I find that painting and character development really bring out the best in my creativity. Additionally, collaborating with others, whether in brainstorming sessions or joint projects, adds an extra layer of inspiration and brings fresh perspectives to my work.
Another outlet for my creativity is playing music, singing songs and writing poetry - you can catch me reading my poetry at gatherings every month and performing songs at music sessions at least once a week at folk and acoustic sessions in Northumberland. It has boosted my confidence, brought fulfilment, and introduced me to many talented friends.