With a passion for music, writing and keeping our ‘inner child’ alive, children’s author Natalie Reeves Billing talks to Fab UK features writer, Sue Smart, about her life and latest book.
Lockdown has created many challenges for families with young children, making the launch very timely for Natalie’s picture book for children, My Mummy Is A Monster.
This upbeat book is the first in the Monstrous Me collection, which Natalie wrote and Lisa Williams illustrated. In colourful and entertaining ways, it shows children (and maybe reminds adults) there are two sides to every story.
Natalie says: “My hope is that the story can not only be something fun to read but something that can really help families struggling under pressure at the moment – so that even when we all feel a bit like our children are monsters and vice versa, we understand a little bit more why this is the case.”
Where did you start your journey as a writer?
From a young age, I always knew I wanted to write. In primary school, I entered writing competitions and for years I constantly worked at being a better writer. I would lock myself in my bedroom and disappear into my imaginary worlds and write about them.
“We toured around the US for a few years”
When I was a student, I became the lead singer in a band and wrote many of our songs. Incredibly, our band was given a record deal in Los Angeles so we toured around the US for a few years. Initially I wanted to do the front person ‘thing’ but when it came to showing off on stage, I was quite shy and it took a long time for me to convert into the pop star they wanted me to be.
Unexpectedly, the record company went bankrupt just before our album was ready to be released, so we came back to live in the UK. We were devastated and the band split up. I tried it out going solo for a while but my heart was a little broken and I needed to do something else for a while.
What I did not realise was the song writing was the bit that was filling me up; I had confused the song writing with the need to be a celebrity. I am much more comfortable talking about my life and experiences in front of other people but as for dancing and performing, I am glad I am out of it now, although it was a wonderful and almost surreal experience at the time.
What brought you to writing for children?
Music and creativity have been such an important part of my journey to writing children’s books – and songs are small stories. Ever since I had my children, I have been making up stories for them and because I seem to have a gift for rhyming and I have been doing it so long, my stories tend to come across in rhyme rather than in any other format.
“Writing was a need from really deep down”
When my daughter told her school teacher about some of my story ideas, she said I have to put those ideas down properly in a book. I decided to do that and show her. It was nerve wracking as it was so different from anything I had done. That was almost three years ago and from there I started to create books. Writing was a need from really deep down and I now have hundreds of stories on my computer to cherry pick from.
I realised I wanted to concentrate on light-hearted, beautiful and innocent interactions like when you are a child and discover for the first time how things work and that everything is possible. I want to go to that space at this point in my life and for the moment, focus on children’s picture books.
What was your inspiration for your latest book, My Mummy is a Monster?
There was a very definite moment when I was inspired. It had been a very long day and I was struggling to take my ‘work hat’ off and put my ‘mum hat’ on. In that moment, I was quite agitated and I was quite short with the kids.
My six-year-old daughter said to me: “You always talk about how there are two sides to a story – but there aren’t – there’s only yours”. I was about to get angry but I realised she had hit on something – there are two sides to the story and it is not just my side or my daughter’s side, it is our side. That was the seed. It made me think, ‘wow, I need to do the two stories together for my book’.
As a result, the book has two narratives. It gives two sides of the story with the same conditions, same scenarios and same characters but with totally different viewpoints as to what happens, which is quite unusual.
I read an article about literacy levels dropping and how children are disconnecting from books, which is sad, so I made it more interactive. There are objects to find and hidden meanings in the illustrations, such as the reflections in the water showing reality as opposed to what the narrator is saying.
What do you hope this book will do for children and adults reading it?
The story is all about perspective and how we can warp our perspective based on how we are feeling or if we are not able to look at things from another point of view. It is important for children to understand why parents and adults do what they do, and equally important for parents to understand why their children feel that way.
When I worked at the local school as a volunteer, I found the biggest impression I was able to make with those kids was to be able to illustrate (in a non-preachy way) a narrative that gave kids a jumping off point for further debate. The teachers loved that as they did not have anything that they could use in that way.
“Reading together gives a window of time
to enjoy family life away from screen time”
Not only do I hope children will learn from this, I hope families will take quality time out together to read it. I do not want it to be a passive experience as is the case with many books; the kids just read them and the parents zone out. Reading together gives a window of time to enjoy family life away from screen time and I really like that, especially now during the pandemic. Everybody is so uncertain about where we are going to be in the next year, how we are going to make it through to Christmas with limited funds or whatever else is going on.
Having a book which light-heartedly delves into how mummy is feeling and why she is a bit snappy offers the chance for kids to understand it has been a bad day for mummy, as perhaps she did not sleep well and is tired. And it is ok for parents to feel overwhelmed. Children are more capable of understanding than we realise and sometimes they just want to know. I think honesty is really important when it comes to getting that trust with kids.
What’s next while we are in coronavirus lockdown?
I am already writing my next book in the Monstrous Me series, as well as working on a pilot scheme called ‘Gifted with Love’ (which we hope to operate on a wider scale in time) as part of my social enterprise ‘Split Perspectivz’.
During lockdown, my family and I have been having fun acting as explorers in our own backyard. We have done some digging with hand tools, looking at rocks and soil, and according to an archaeologist we called in, we have very possibly discovered a Roman road! Needless to say, we are all very excited and hoping to make even more discoveries.
And when lockdown is over?
Life after lockdown can be whatever we make it! I will cherish every moment I spend with friends and loved ones, and never again take those things for granted. The pause has given me a strong sense of priority, and helped me to see what life truly is about. Sometimes we find that out by overcoming adversity.
Natalie’s latest book, “My Mummy Is A Monster” is available in paperback, eBook and as a limited edition hardback book from www.lollipoplodge.net/store.