An interview with Irish author-illustrator Nicola Colton
Nicola Colton is an Irish artist and author originally from near Killeigh Village in Offaly, who now lives in Bristol. Her first picture book, A Dublin Fairytale, was Hodges Figgis’ bestselling children’s book of the decade and won the Literacy Association of Ireland Award. Jasper & Scruff, her first fiction series as author and illustrator, was a Guardian book of the month. We LOVE Nicola's latest book A Dublin Christmas, which was published by Gill Books in October, and were delighted to chat to Nicola about it. Learn about Nicola's creative process and how her mam made a surprising cameo in this book. Discover Nicola's favourite festive movies and find out who took the bite out of the Christmas tree cookie...
What inspired this story and what do you hope children will take from it?
I wrote the book in early 2020 just after Christmas when I was still feeling festive and wanted to stave off the January blues by writing a cosy story. I was very close to my gran when I was small and we had a special relationship. She sadly passed when I was seven and was the only Grandparent I had the chance to get to know. Time with her was cherished. Helping her make bread, listening to her stories in front of the fire and watching Bosco with her after school are some of my favourite memories. She was a very warm and generous person who could light up a room. She would have invited the whole village into her house if she could, there was always a constant stream of people coming into her front room to chat and drink tea. This story was a way of spending time with her in a way. I hope that children see that even though they may feel small sometimes, they are powerful. When all is dark around you, there is a special magic in staying positive and following your inner light. And it can light the way for others too.
Dublin looks so beautiful in this book! Did you make sketches of real buildings to prepare for the book or did you base your images on photos or from memory?
Thank you! I am based in Bristol now but I lived in Dublin for eleven years and it is a place close to my heart. As I was illustrating this book during the second lockdown, I, unfortunately, couldn’t go back to visit friends in Dublin or my family in Offaly. All of the images were created from reference and my memories of what places feel like. It really brought me so much comfort to work on this book while I wasn’t able to go back to Ireland. It was almost as good, visiting in my imagination. It wasn’t until I had handed in the final artwork that I realised I had included my mam in the book. Orla’s mam looks just like mine when I was growing up. It was a really nice surprise. My subconscious was obviously working away in the background and conspiring to find ways to connect with my family.
How did you choose which parts of Dublin to include?
The National Library of Ireland is one of my favourite places in Dublin. I always try to visit it when I’m back. Their Reading Room is so stunningly beautiful and I love their permanent WB Yeats exhibition which is full of magical items and references to Irish mythology, with a particular emphasis on fae lore. It inspired the scene with the fairies springing to life from the pages in the books of the Reading Room. I also had to include the iconic lights on Grafton Street. It’s the most festive place to be in Dublin at Christmas and I spent a long time trying to capture some of the sparkle and beauty of the chandelier lights in that scene.
We love the wishing office – how did you get the idea for this?
Thank you! I love the idea of a magical world existing just next door to our own. I still believe in magic, I refuse to let go of it. I feel if only we knew the right words, or tapped on the right stone or had the right guide, we could have a glimpse of these secret places. Posting letters to Santa and Christmas cards to loved ones is a special part of the festive season, so it seemed like a perfect way of sending a wish out into the world. I really loved creating the scene of elves diligently sorting wishes and working hard to make sure they have a chance of being fulfilled.
There are lots of Christmas crafts in the book – baking, making decorations and even the cards on the mantelpiece look homemade. Are you a Christmas crafter yourself?
I dip in and out of different types of crafts. I’m not really good at any of them but I do enjoy them and that’s the most important thing. My favourite is papier-maché and last year I tried needle punching for the first time which I found very relaxing. I think crafts can be a great way to bond with friends and family. A few years ago I learned how to make a Christmas Wreath at my friend’s house. Her mum was teaching us in front of the fire surrounded by baskets of berries and pine cones which she had foraged that morning. We had a great time chatting and making a mess. What the wreath looked like at the end was the least important part. Being creative together is a lovely thing.
Your colour palette, with all the teals and pinks, is gorgeous and really unusual for a festive book, where greens and reds tend to be more typical. How did you decide on it?
I really wanted there to be a strong contrast between the nighttime spreads where Dublin is in darkness and the bright indoor scenes of the family altogether. To me, Christmas is all about colour. I love the combination of pink and red together and how pink pops next to teal. I wanted those family scenes to be bright and festive but didn’t want to limit myself to traditional colour palettes. I spent quite a while picking colours that would retain their vibrancy when printed and combinations that would work well together. The night scenes were a new challenge for me, I hadn’t done many before this book. But, once I figured out what shades to use, I really enjoyed creating them.
When you’re writing a book, do the stories or the images come to you first?
I always write the text first. I’ve learned from experience that it’s the most important thing to get right at the beginning. I have to get the words to flow with each turn of the page and make sure to have the correct story framework in place before starting the illustrations. Otherwise, for me, it can all fall apart quite easily. When the final draft is done and I’m storyboarding, I may edit the text or add in words so that the images and text work more in harmony. I also plan the spread layout as I’m writing the text so I have a map to refer to when it’s time to storyboard.
How do you create your illustrations?
I use a variety of techniques. This book was created using a combination of pencil drawings, digital brushes, digital colouring and hand made paint textures. I used quite a few techniques on the Christmas tree in particular. It’s like an extra character in the book, being a mirror for Orla’s emotions at various points and also a source of comfort for her throughout the story. I wanted the tree to be as rich, vivid and layered as possible.
What are your own favourite festive stories and films?
I really love Planes,Trains and Automobiles (even though it’s technically more of a Thanksgiving Day film!). It’s hilarious and I love the odd couple dynamic between Steve Martin and John Candy. I watch Elf, Home Alone and The Muppet Christmas Carol every year and cry every time Tiny Tim is on screen! I also absolutely adore Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs. It’s just stunning.
Who do you think took the bite out of the biscuit on Orla’s Christmas tree? My kids are very curious about this!
Great question! I really enjoyed drawing Orla decorating the tree by herself. I have very vivid memories of decorating the tree when I was small and only being able to reach one side. I remember hanging baubles and tinsel to create one glorious, glittery clump down low on the tree, where I could reach. I suspect Orla took a bite out of the cookie while she was decorating the tree. She was improvising with cookies as she didn’t have Gran’s gingerbread garland that year but they were too tempting not to taste. I think it was very restrained of her to leave some of her cookie for the tree!
Thanks so much to Nicola for kindly sending us her book and taking the time to answer all of our questions. I hope you enjoyed reading the answers as much as I did. If you'd like to learn more about Nicola's gorgeous new book, here's our review of A Dublin Christmas...
What's it about?
It's Christmas Eve in Dublin and Orla is decorating the tree while waiting for her gran to arrive. Gran has been stuck at the airport because of a storm. Suddenly, all the lights go out. Can Orla restore the true spirit of Christmas and rescue Dublin from darkness? With the help of some fairy friends, she just might.
What can we learn?
Elaborate gifts aren't what makes Christmas special. The people we love, and the connections we have with them, are what make this time of year so magical.
What makes this stand out? This is an uplifting and original night-before-Christmas tale, with diverse characters and gorgeous illustrations.
About those illustrations... They're amazing! I love the colour palette and how attractive our capital city looks. There are lots of cute details in the images, which my children love. They're mad about Orla's lopsided Christmas tree with pieces of lego and half-eaten cookies dangling from its branches. I love how the tree isn't perfect either! My kids also enjoy looking at the handmade cards on the mantelpiece and finding all of Orla's dinosaur toys, of which there are many!
The fairies and elves are delightful and full of personality, and the wishing office is an inspired touch. We love watching the wishes as they whoosh and whiz around it. I was very excited to see a shop called Switz Swoo & Co. Ltd. This brought back wonderful memories of seeing Santa at Switzers and its famous Christmas window when I was a child. It's since become Brown Thomas, but you can watch a video of Santa arriving at Switzers in 1982 (via a giant roller-skate for some reason) here.
Why we love it...
A Dublin Christmas celebrates the simple things that matter most and demonstrates the transformative power of kindness. The text is as beautiful as the images, with the city described as a 'sea of inky shapes' at one point and a 'sea of twinkling lights' at another.
Lots of favourite Dublin landmarks feature and it's fun for Irish children to see so many familiar places in one book. I love how the story reminds us of what's really important and proves that wishes can come true. And it's brilliant how it highlights how grans really are the best!
Why you need it...
This is a fantastic book for all children but it's even more perfect for those living in, or with a connection to, Ireland. Get this for your own family and send it to Irish relatives and friends living abroad too! A fabulous story for sharing with excited young readers as Christmas approaches, which helps us appreciate the little things that light up our lives.