Sometimes fairy tales come true
Children's author, illustrator and Laureate na nOg Niamh Sharkey has just seen her Hugglewugs transfer to Disney Junior. Joyce Fegan spoke to her
'I would never have dreamed that, when I was making this book in my attic in Skerries, it would become a Disney series showing in 150 countries all over the world," says children's author, illustrator and Laureate na nOg, Niamh Sharkey. Niamh's book – I'm a Happy Hugglewug – was transformed into a 52-episode series, Henry Hugglewug, for Disney Junior; the first episode airs on February 8.
"It's Disney magic," exclaims the phenomenally successful Sharkey, who started out "plodding the streets of Dublin looking for work" and has gone on to win multiple awards and to having a Grammy-winning actress and a former Spice Girl bring her characters to life in cartoon form.
Her picture book, which she wrote and illustrated, has been made into a cartoon series here in Dublin by twice Oscar-nominated animation studio Brown Bag Films and stars Brenda Blethyn and Geri Halliwell as the voices of two of its characters.
Growing up, Niamh's interest in animation was as simple as loving the Muppets, but she also had a deep desire to "just make books."
"My parents aren't artists and when I was in secondary school they wanted me to do a science and a business subject to play the safe route," explains the Irish Children's Laureate.
However, when it came to Sharkey blazing her own unconventional trail post-Leaving Cert, her parents rushed in behind her. "I have to thank my dad; he used to go to all the colleges around the country with my ginormous portfolio to help me get in," reflects Niamh. And when she became a mother herself, her own mum would take her baby daughter out for a walk as Sharkey worked between painting and feeds. Hard-working is just one of many adjectives that could be easily attached to this creative dynamo.
On graduating from DIT with a degree in visual communication, she "literally rang up every design company in the phonebook". Those calls were hard, she says, as she didn't have a vast amount of self-confidence.
In spite of the small number of design companies and her perceived lack of confidence, she got work illustrating for national newspapers and designing book covers for Mercier Press. "I kept saying, 'I think you need an illustration here,' so I eventually wore them down".
Before long, Mercier had her illustrating covers for children's books. Sharkey took a year out and while she was in Australia she received a letter that her parents had forwarded on to her.
She was 23. An English publisher had been travelling in Ireland and spotted one of the covers she'd illustrated, in a shop in Dingle. The letter said they'd love her to illustrate a book and so the future Laureate na nOg created her first picture book while living in Tasmania.
This was her lucky break, she claims. Niamh did another book with that publishing company and both of them won awards: the Mother Goose and Bisto Book of the Year. Not satisfied with just illustrating picture books for children, she wanted to write them, too, and it was at this point that she moved to Walker Books, where she created I'm a Happy Hugglewug. As opposed to constantly pushing her way to get ahead, it seems her solid work ethic and raw talent have been the driving force in her impressive career trajectory.
That talent was next spotted by Helen McAleer, a woman with a background in TV who was brought in to view the properties in Walker, to see if anything would translate well to television.
From a massive warehouse she walked out with one book: Niamh's tale about the Hugglewugs. Skip ahead a few months and bring the scene to Dublin, Sharkey was working with Brown Bag Films putting a pilot together after receiving much needed funding from the Irish Film Board.
Just like the one book that was pulled from the warehouse, it took only one pitch and the cartoon series had a distributor. "Disney were the first people we showed it to," says Niamh.
She'd become a published author by her early twenties, a winner of two prestigious awards by her late twenties, in 2012 President Higgins conferred her with the two-year tenure of Laureate na nOg and by 2013 her characters and imagination had come to life on television screens in 150 countries across the world.
All of this has been done while becoming a wife and a mother-of-three. "It's like a dream come true," muses Niamh. She pauses on the word 'true' just long enough for you to know that this woman appreciates every morsel, grain and gram of her hard-earned success.
"It's surreal. From plodding around Grafton Street with my portfolio to having Brenda Blethyn saying to me 'Niamh, I don't mind, I'll do my lines a hundred times, tell me what you want me to do'."
And how did she do it all? "I can't even really remember how I did it and at one stage I had three children under four, but I just found a way around it.
"I just did it. I just kept going, going and going."
Henry Hugglemonster is on Disney Junior from Feb 8.