Nishani Reed lives on a steep hill, which means that her garden is taller than her house! She spends a lot of time up there watching the pigeons on the roof and coming up with funny stories for children. Her first picture book is Nabil Steals A Penguin, illustrated by Junissa Bianda. Nish is also an intellectual property lawyer, but none of her picture books contain legal advice. Her next story will probably be about pigeons on a roof.
Junissa Bianda is an illustrator from Indonesia with a passion for art! Rarely do you see her without a coloured pencil and a sketchbook to hand; she was known for scribbling on her friends' school notebooks. Junissa has a graduate degree in Children's Book Illustration from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, USA. She now lives in Indonesia with her mom, five siblings and two cats.
Nabil Steals A Penguin (Nosy Crow)
When Nabil visits the zoo with his family, he is surprised to discover a penguin, Pierre, who is bored of fish. Keen for more of Nabil's spicy biriyani, Pierre sneaks into Nabil's back and comes home with him - but what will happen when mum finds out?!
Find out more in this video with author Nishania Reed, who shares the first few pages of Nabil Steals a Penguin with us!
Review: This rhyming text is a fun book to share with children; Pierre the penguin ends up in a rucksack, sailing across the sea and eating biryani rice! Can you believe that?
Q&A with Nishani Reed
Find out how lawyer Nishani Reed discovered her talent for writing children's books; why a news story helped inspire Nabil Steals a Penguin; and how she drew on her own love for Asian food in the story.
1. You're a lawyer by day - so what got you writing picture books for children?
I've loved writing for as long as I can remember. At school, I used to write funny stories for my friends' birthday presents, which I would print out, hole-punch and put in a ring binder. So I've always been a comedy writer with lawyer tendencies. I was also into musical comedy, poetry and rap, and those are all just ways of rhyming words for adults.
Fast forward to 2020 as a mum in a pandemic, writing rhyming stories for my kids seemed like the obvious way to keep us all entertained! I was more entertained than they were, to be honest. Children don't love half-finished stories on Word documents with no pictures. It really cheered me up though, and it still does. I write sensible things all day in my lawyer work so it's fun to come up with complete nonsense the rest of the time.
2. What happens in Nabil Steals a Penguin, your debut picture book, about a biriyani-loving penguin?
Despite the title, Nabil doesn't really 'steal' a penguin. He would never do that. His real mistake is sharing his delicious lunch with Pierre, a hungry penguin who's bored of eating fish all day at the zoo. Once Pierre has tasted that biriyani he HAS to have more, so he dives into Nabil's backpack before Nabil can stop him…
The story follows Nabil's slightly stressful and very silly adventure as he tries (and fails) to hide the penguin stowaway from his parents. The twist is that Nabil's mum IS cross when she discovers Pierre back at home - not because Nabil has stolen him but because he hasn't offered him anything to eat! Of course, the story ends with a delicious curry feast and Pierre being welcomed into the family.
3. What inspired the story in which a family welcomes this new member? And why did you decide to make Pierre a penguin?
It's strange how ideas develop. At the time, there were loads of news stories about children stealing animals from zoos. Every time I read one, I thought: how?! How does a small child manage to pick up a real-life animal, put it in a bag and get it all the way home? The only possible explanation had to be that it was the animal's idea in the first place. But why? Probably because the child had better food. And biriyani is the only food that I would hide in someone's backpack for, so the story practically wrote itself.
Pierre had to be a penguin because they tend to hang out in open-air enclosures, so it would be easier to escape - plus, penguins are funny! I have no idea why he was French though.
4. How did the rhyming text develop and what were the challenges?
The biggest challenge with rhyming stories is the meter: making sure that the rhythm of the line matches the way you would naturally emphasise the words when speaking. Otherwise, the reader of the book ends up stumbling over words, and no tired parent needs to be dealing with that at bedtime.
The problem is, sometimes when you've been working on the text for too long (going "da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM") your brain can trick you into thinking that the meter is working when it isn't, so you do have to get someone else to read it out loud to you. That's my husband's job. He's a lawyer too, but his more important job is "da-DUM" checker.
5. As well as a great story, what would you like your young readers to take from Nabil Steals a Penguin?
Always welcome guests into your home with loads of delicious food. And if you try to hide stuff from your mum you had better be ready for the consequences if she finds out, because she will. These are both very important aspects of South Asian culture.
6. Is it important that picture books can also make children laugh? Which part of the story made you chuckle the most?
YES! If children find the stories funny, they will associate books with pleasure at the very age when their amazing brains are forming most rapidly. There's a place for striking and poignant picture books too, but I think the funny ones are the key to early literacy and a lifetime of happy reading.
In the early drafts, Pierre was more sophisticated and used more French words, which was funny to me but admittedly not that accessible to little ones (and see above for why this matters) so those jokes were mostly edited out. I do like it when Pierre mistakes Nabil's stuffed toys for freakishly small zoo animals though. I'm glad that bit stayed in.
7. The illustrations by Junissa Bianda are gorgeous - do you have any favourite characters or spreads?
I know, what a talent she is! Every single spread makes me happy to look at, but I adore Pierre's expression when he says he's bored of eating fish all day. His sulky little face is perfect. The part that really took me by surprise was the cake! I could never have imagined how extra Junissa would go on that spread. It is a thing of beauty, and my four-year-old's favourite illustration ever.
8. Do you have any suggestions for how to take Nabil Steals a Penguin further in homes or classrooms?
The conversations I've had with my two after reading Nabil have mostly been about food: favourite food, food from around the world, trying new food - such important topics for this age group. We have also talked about how to express ourselves respectfully when we aren't so keen on a certain food, especially when we're a guest in someone else's house or eating food from a different culture. In my family, we are NEVER allowed to call any food "weird" or "disgusting". It amazes me how many people grow up without learning this basic courtesy.
9. Do you have more picture books about Nabil planned? What are you writing currently?
I hadn't thought about writing another story in Nabil and Pierre's world, but it would be fun to see what other adventures they might have together. Right now, I'm writing a chapter book for early readers inspired by my dog Elsie, who looks like an enormous ball of black wool. I'm also editing my second picture book for Nosy Crow - watch this space!
10. What does a favourite day out the office look like for you - and does it involve cooking?
During the school holidays, we go and stay with my parents in Manchester and it's brilliant! The kids play football in the garden with my dad and help my mum make roti. They're starting to understand themselves as mixed race and it's with my parents that they get to enjoy their "South Asian half", mostly through the food we eat. I have a confession to make though: I'm not a great cook. I'm much better at baking. Not to show off or anything, but my chocolate brownies are very special.