The World in Multicolour

Making space to dream: an interview with Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl

in: Children's books

This week, I asked Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl some questions about her new picture book, Sleep Well, Siba and SabaShe talked about the challenges and joys of writing and the kinds of stories she wants to write about Africa. She also reveals something unexpected about her own dreams…

Congratulations on your first picture book, Sleep Well, Siba and Saba! What would you like your readers to know about you?

Thank you so much. I think one thing that I’d like readers to know is that I find writing painfully difficult, even though I write professionally (within the international NGO sector) and creatively.

What is Sleep Well, Siba and Saba about? What inspired you to write this story?

Sleep Well, Siba and Saba is in many ways about finding the beauty in the unknown, and even the unknowable. I like to think of Siba’s and Saba’s dreams in the book as special, inexplicable gifts they were given. The book is also about making space to dream–both literally and metaphorically. In a much broader context, the book is about expanding the notions of what life is like for ‘African’, in this case Ugandan, children. Often times children’s stories set in Africa focus on dearth–lack of water, lack of opportunity, lack of food. I wanted to focus on universal experiences like dreaming…. and losing things! I was inspired to write the story to create space for a broader narrative about the African/Ugandan experience. Also, I went through a stage in my life where I would dream things, and they would happen the very next day. I could not explain it and still cannot explain it. Finally, and most importantly, I was inspired to write the book so that I could capture a personally sentimental picture of Uganda that could be shared with my own children, namely my daughter, Nsaba.

What message do you hope children will glean from your story?

I think the message is simple: your dreams are powerful and they can be actualized.

You were born in the USA, worked in Uganda, and now live in South Africa. Can you tell us how these cross-cultural and multilingual experiences have shaped your outlook on life? 

My experiences across continents and cultures have shaped my outlook primarily by reinforcing this notion that we are all living, breathing beings moving through this life together. Our connections are rich and often unexpected and our lives are deeply woven together. And as strange as this may sound, the frustrations that I have experienced in every single country that I have lived (with both people and place) have served to strengthen my affection for this wonderfully beautiful human experience we share. There is no perfect person, no perfect place, no perfect culture, no perfect life. We are bound together in that.

What are three things you think everyone should know about Uganda where Sleep Well, Siba and Saba is set?

Well, excuse my biases, but Uganda likely has the most delicious produce (fruits and veggies) on the planet. It is also delightfully verdant and since Ugandans love to have a good time – you will too if you visit the country!

What do you think of Sandra van Doorn’s illustrations for your book? Do you have a favorite illustration?

Sandra managed to capture my own dreams in her illustrations. That is to say, I wanted a magical feel about the book–in both sound and image. This was a dream of mine. Sandra conjured up a magical world that extended far beyond my own imagination. In short, her illustrations are remarkable. My favorite illustration is that of Siba and Saba losing their sweaters. In this one, it’s as though Sandra drew a scene out of my own life. When I saw the illustration, it felt like I was looking at a memory. Now imagine that.

We love the dreams of Siba and Saba. Can you share with us one of your dreams for the future?

I dream unabashedly of meeting Michelle Obama!

Your prose has a soothing rhythm that makes it a pleasure to read aloud. Can you tell us more about your writing style?

I find longer form writing very challenging (although I do plenty of it for work). I also don’t have very much to say, in general. When I do have something to say, I like to say it in as pithy a form as possible. For many years, I could only write poems (creatively). Given that, I think brevity and rhythm characterize my writing style.

Do you think it’s important that children have access to books that represent cultures other than their own?

Absolutely! I love the notion of books as both mirrors and windows. The window (seeing other cultures, places, experiences, etc.) is just as important as the mirror (seeing your own culture, place, experience, etc.). Imagine being five years old and having access to 10, 20, 30 different cultural experiences through literature. That level of enrichment and engagement is invaluable. Ideally a child has access to both–the window and the mirror. We need to see others and be seen.

And finally, can you give our aspiring authors any tips for their writing? 

Get very clear about what you want to say (sometimes that may take years) and how you want it to make you and others feel. The ‘feel’ is the most important thing in my opinion. And then, proceed without caution.

Thank you, Nansubuga! You can buy a copy of Sleep Well, Siba and Saba here.

The second photo was taken at a Sleep Well, Siba and Saba storytime event at  The Alligator’s Mouth bookshop.




in: Children's books

Sleep Well, Siba and Saba is published today!


Forgetful sisters Siba and Saba are always losing something. Sandals, slippers, sweaters — you name it, they lose it! Each night, they dream about the things they lost that day. Until, one night, their dreams begin to reveal something entirely unexpected…

An inspiring story about achieving your dreams by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl with enchanting illustrations by Sandra Van Doorn.

Buy your copy by clicking this link!

‘This stunningly illustrated picture book offers a snapshot into life for two sisters growing up in Uganda, with a delightful story that rejoices in the precious details of the sisters’ day to day lives as well as with their hopes and dreams for the future.’– Books for Topics

‘A gently captivating story told with a sweet poetic cadence that must be savoured again and again. The delicately drawn illustrations are rich with details that celebrate the everyday uniqueness of ‘the Pearl of Africa’. What a gem!’– Doreen Baingana, award-winning children’s author

‘The tale of Siba and Saba is heartwarming and inspiring all in one go! In truth, I want to read this book every night and then fall asleep with it in my arms and dream of my future and what I can look forward to experiencing and achieving. Simply stunning!’ – Alexis Filby,  librarian and author of popular blog Book Monsters

On dreaming a bigger future: an interview with Sandra van Doorn

in: Children's books

The book birthday of our newest African title, Sleep Well, Siba and Sabais still a week away but the lovely and whimsical illustrations of Sandra van Doorn have already received rave reviews. Today I asked Sandra about her illustration style and the inspiration behind her dreamy illustrations. She also told me about how working on Siba and Saba led to a project for The Book Bus. Read on to find out more!

Can you introduce yourself to your readers and tell them some of your favourite things about France, where you were born, and Australia, where you live?

I was born in Guebwiller, a pretty medieval town in The Alsace, France. The thing I Iove most about France is that it is such a visual feast – all that prettiness everywhere from architecture to patisserie & floral design, I love that. But on a smaller, more personal scale: French bookstores are incredible. French culture has a great appreciation of illustrated books which means beautiful books are not just a part of your childhood — we have large sections of illustrated books for grown-ups too. It’s wonderful.

Did you enjoy illustrating Sleep Well, Siba and Saba? What did you like about the story?

Yes, very much. I knew I wanted to illustrate the story even before reading the full manuscript. Alice Curry (Founder of Lantana) mentioned dreams & sisterhood in a brief email and it sounded really special. My drawing style sits somewhere on that perplexing, blurred line between reality and strangeness so from an illustration perspective Sleep Well, Siba and Saba was a beautiful project.  On a more general note, I particularly love the idea of dreaming a bigger future than your reality — Siba & Saba do that so well! It’s such a positive message to children from all walks of life.

We think it’s fantastic that your illustrations for Sleep Well, Siba and Saba raised money for The Book Bus, which promotes mobile libraries for communities in Africa, Asia, and South America. Can you tell us more about this initiative, how it came about, and how The Book Bus helps bring books to children who need them?

The opportunity for fundraising came about via The Resource Capital Funds Foundation who awards grants to employees and their family involved in charity work. My husband works for RCF, and when we found The Book Bus, thanks to Alice, it made sense to apply for a grant in support of people who believe in improving literacy in the world. Education is key to children growing into intelligent adults, who will consequently create and live happier lives. The funds granted will allow The Book Bus to introduce Happy Reader books to 10 African schools in 2017.

Can you tell us how you go about creating your illustrations? What materials do you use?

A story always starts with a series of doodles, mixing up reality and unusual things – which evolves into a full image. Then I let it simmer for a little while and work on something different, and trust the process. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea and get up to draw!

I mainly work with dry pastels (Derwent pencils, Rembrandt sticks and Pan pastels for larger areas such as backgrounds) but often times other mediums find their way on my paper: crayons, markers, gouache, paper collage. And of course, I work digitally too; it’s useful to create page layouts and I am known for bringing my characters to life in GIFs.

Has living in different countries influenced your illustration style? Do you think you have a particularly European style, or have your illustrations been influenced by your life in Australia?

Living abroad is the most profound undertaking. Everything around and within you changes. Your world becomes bigger and that flows across everything you do. My work feels European because essentially I was raised and educated there but at the same time I am often told there is a playful quirkiness about the illustrations that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. Perhaps that is the result of multicultural living?

How did you approach illustrating a story set in Uganda? Were you nervous that you might misrepresent Ugandan culture in some way?

Yes! Nervous and excited all at once. I knew nothing much about Uganda so I spent many days watching documentaries, collecting photos, reading about Uganda. It was like travelling without ever leaving my studio. But it would have been overambitious to try and grasp the magnitude of Ugandan culture so I am grateful for Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl’s (the author) input.  Her cultural advice and guidance was of utmost importance. In fact, the book quickly became an amazing collaboration between writer, illustrator & editor — something rather unusual in the industry.

Have you learnt anything about Uganda that you hadn’t known before?

I learnt everything about Uganda. Discovering the extensive avifauna of Uganda prompted me to introduce as many birds as possible in the illustrations. It was also important to showcase Uganda’s wonderful landmarks such as the Mountains of the Moon, shimmering lakes and waterfalls.

Do you think it’s important that children have access to books that represent cultures other than their own?

Absolutely. Introducing cultural diversity at an early age is probably at the very core of shaping healthier minds towards embracing our multicultural world. And reading becomes that much more interesting. There is so much to learn from others!

When you are not illustrating picture books, what other type of artwork do you create?

I absolutely love creating papier mâché sculptures! They would make such an amazing complement to a picture book. I imagine something halfway between art installation and theatre performance.

And finally, do you have any tips for aspiring illustrators?

A good approach for this industry is a strong blend of passion, discipline, persistence. And having some fun!

Thanks Sandra! You can find out more about Sandra and her wonderful artwork here, and to buy your copy of Sleep Well, Siba and Saba,  please click here.



Alice Curry Shortlisted for the Kim Scott Walwyn Prize 2017!

in: Publishing

We are very proud to announce that Alice Curry, our Founder and Publisher, is amongst the quintet of incredible women nominated for this year’s Kim Scott Walwyn Prize! These women are ‘forces of nature’ in publishing and stand out ‘for their passion and determination to affect change’.

What is the KSW Prize?

The Kim Scott Walwyn Prize celebrates the professional achievements of women and the promise they bring to the publishing industry. It is open to any woman who has worked in UK publishing for up to seven years. The Prize honours the life and work of Kim Scott Walwyn, who was Publishing Director of Oxford University Press before she died in 2002. The Society of Young Publishers (SYP) runs the award in partnership with the Publishing Training Centre (PTC).

What the judges said

The judges ‘had a very hard job deciding who to shortlist from a field of young, high-achieving and self-motivated women. The five we selected are outstanding not only for how much they have achieved in a very short time, but also for their passion.’

Why they chose Alice

Since her return to the UK from New Zealand and Australia, where she lectured in children’s literature, Alice Curry has spotted an opportunity in the market and capitalised on it: founding Lantana Publishing, a small independent children’s publisher committed to working with members of black, Asian and minority groups in order for diverse voices to be published. Driven by the social imperative of celebrating difference and increasing representation across children’s books, she has developed a forward-thinking programme reflecting our multicultural society, and several titles have already garnered awards. As well as the challenge of running a small independent company, Alice has also developed a strong outreach element of the company, recently donating 2000 books to children in Cameroon. Although Lantana Publishing is only still in its infancy, it seems set for a strong future with Alice Curry at the helm. 

Who are the other nominees?

Amy Durant (Publishing Director, Endeavour Press), Candice Carty-Williams (Senior Marketing Executive, Vintage), Sarah Braybrooke (Managing Director, Scribe UK) and Zeljka Marosevic (Co-Publisher, Daunt Books Publishing).

The winner will be announced at the awards ceremony on May 9th. She will receive £1000 (sponsored by SYP) and a two-day training course at the PTC.


Katrina and the Lantana team