Gill Sutherland goes to a happy place as she talks to creative dynamo Evgenia Golubeva about her new children’s book, I Am Not A Mouse. The book is being launched with a creative workshop in Waterstone’s, Stratford, on Saturday, 8th February. Everyone who buys the book will receive a free drawing of themselves as their pet name, illustrated for them by Evgenia.
To enter children’s illustrator, animator and writer Evgenia Golubeva’s world is to fall backwards through time to more innocent days. It’s a world inhabited by acid-bright cartoon characters with big appealing puppy eyes, cute and quirky monsters and animals, walking rainbows, singing clouds, doughnut-headed people, funky elves and cheeky ghosts – a world of pure imagination, as Willy Wonka might have sang.
In the physical world she lives in central Stratford-upon-Avon, with her husband Myles McLeod (also a writer and who works with his illustrator brother Greg under the Brothers McLeod name) and their five-year-old daughter.
As we chat over coffee in her sunny and welcoming dining room-cum-studio Evgenia (Ev for short) attempts to quiet Astra, her awesomely cute one-year-old dachshund who’s barking at the fearsome strangers (myself and photographer Mark) who’ve invaded her territory.
Ev’s CV is ever so impressive: she’s written episodes for BBC’s Hey Duggee, Disney’s Best Bugs Forever, Channel 5’s Digby Dragon, Nick Jr’s Becca’s Bunch and many more. She’s also illustrated books, designed characters and is an experienced director, making several award-winning animated shorts for children. But she’s never actually written a children’s book herself. Naturally, being the creative force she is, Ev has resolved that with I’m Not A Mouse, her first picture book, which is published on 1st February.
Speaking of how the book came about, Ev says: “Growing up, my mum always called me by my nickname, Mouse, which I hated. About five years ago, after my daughter was born, I wanted to make a short film for children, but I wasn’t sure what it would be about. I always have lots of ideas and it was very hard to pick one to concentrate on. I thought, ‘right, I need to tell a story from my own experience, my own childhood’.”
I Am Not A Mouse duly became a charming short cartoon, which picked up a raft of international awards. “But,” continues Ev, “I always dreamed of having my own picture book published – previously I had only illustrated a couple of books for other people. So I bought the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which lists every publishers in the UK, and wrote to just about all of them! Eventually publishers Child’s Play got in touch and, after seeing my animation and illustrators, said they liked my style, and wanted to go ahead and make the book version of I Am Not A Mouse.”
Picking up a copy of the book as we chat, I realise how much I miss flicking through a picture book. With my own children now teenagers, such escapism has long since, er, escaped me. The story is simple: Olivia really doesn’t like her nickname Mouse – mostly because it gets her into some sticky situations! How can she persuade her mum to stop using it? What follows is a gently humorous voyage of discovery. The illustrations are bold, brilliant and happy… and I spot a few familiar faces. “Isn’t that Myles?” I ask Ev, as I spy a familiar-looking be-quiffed blond dude on the page.
“Yes that’s Myles! And there’s my niece and my friend Husam from Syria,” says Ev, as she points to various characters. “I like to sneak in little hidden messages.”
As is perhaps befitting of a children’s artist and writer, in person Ev is warm and smiley… and keenly clever. She speaks an incredible six languages (Russian, English, Italian, German, French and Spanish), and besides voyaging extensively in a creative universe, has also lived and travelled around the globe, lending her a worldly wisdom.
Speaking of how she came to Stratford, Ev explains: “I was born in Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, then lived and went to university in St Petersburg, where I studied directing for animation. After I graduated I got a job as a writer for a kids TV show, and did that for a couple of years, before living in Italy for a while. A Spanish friend loved London, raving about the thriving art scene and how multicultural it was. I’d never been before so I thought ‘why not?’ I packed my bag and went. I really enjoyed it, it’s so nice to be surrounded by people from different parts of the world speaking different languages.”
After a few more stops around Europe, and meeting Myles at a film festival in France, the couple came to town. Ev continues: “When Myles and I decided to have a family we decided to move somewhere quieter. I thought it would be nice to go somewhere smaller, but which still has a creative community, like Stratford.”
Next up, Ev is working with Myles on a children’s miniseries (it’s still hush-hush so can’t reveal more details). “We’ve done lots of writing together,” explains Ev, “and Myles does voices for my short films, so we’re quite collaborative, and will help each other if we’re struggling – and he’s not usually far away, he works upstairs, and I’m downstairs.”
She is also hoping to write a chapter book for older children, and has a number of other projects bubbling under. I suggest her brain must be crammed full of stories and characters clambering to get out.
“Yes! My head is immersed in that cartoon fantasy world,” says Ev. “A lot of the stories come from my own childhood. I love Russian folklore. I grew up listening to fascinating stories and fairy tales about forest spirits, mermaids, house ghosts and many more. I spent my summer holidays in Siberia surrounded by amazing forest, so that was a big influence.
“We go back to St Petersburg every year, my daughter is bilingual so we try and support that – she goes and spends lots of time with my mum for a few weeks to make sure she speaks Russian… And my mum still calls me Mouse!”