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Ten Questions with James Mayhew

A picture of Illustrator James Mayhew who has created the LGBTQ love story Nen and the Lonely Fisherman with author Ian Eagleton

It is the last day of our June boxes today and we have had a bumper month of sales. But we knew that this month’s beautiful boxes were going to be popular so we bought in a few extras, so we have some left! And that is because we had the wonderful Nen and the Lonely Fisherman in our 4-7 boxes, a magical story about same-sex love. Written by Ian Eagleton and illustrated by the wonder and legend that is James Mayhew (Illustrator). Not only did Lynsey get to interview him on an Instagram Live, you can watch that here, we also grabbed him to answer our ten question. So much loveliness from the incredible James Mayhew….

Why did you start illustrating books for children?

I think as an artist, it’s the world best suited to my work and I’ve always loved the capacity for art to tell a story.

How did you get your first book out into the world?

My First book, Katie’s Picture Show was a student project, and I never expected it to be published. But after graduating from my degree (Maidstone College of Art, 1987), I took it to show the first publisher who agreed to take a look – and that was Orchard Books. In those days it was all phone calls and real appointments. I saw a junior designer who loved the idea. She then showed it to the publisher herself, Judith Elliott. I was very lucky, they snapped it up! In some ways it’s easier now, with the internet, and lots of illustration courses. But in other ways it’s harder – illustration has become far more competitive I think.

Why did you want to illustrate this story?

As soon as I read Ian Eagleton’s wonderful text Nen and the Lonely Fisherman, I just KNEW I had to illustrate it. As someone who struggled to come to terms with his sexuality for many years, I can see the damage that is done to young people by only providing exclusively heterosexual stories for them. This was such a wonderful opportunity to work on a project to help the next generation. It was also a catharsis for me. Despite all the advances in gay rights, I still don’t feel safe holding my partner’s hand in public. it felt very powerful to draw Nen and Ernest holding hands.

Do you relate to any characters in your stories – which ones and in what way?

Several characters in books I’ve worked on, mean a great deal to me. In Joyce Dunbar’s Mouse and Mole books, although I’m not the author (I illustrate them), I consider Mole to be almost autobiographical, his characteristics are so similar to mine. I love drawing him! In Nen and the Lonely Fisherman, I identify very much with Ernest, not quite fitting in – and being creative with recycling!

What’s your favourite book and why?

Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson. She was the first writer to capture some sense of the loneliness and longing that I felt. Moomintroll’s unrequited love for Snufkin always seemed more truthful than his mock-romantic encounters with the Snork Maiden. I didn’t analyse that at the time, but I think, at some level, I recognised myself in Moomintroll’s neurotic, anxious and fallible character, and also in his capacity for hope and love. I adore all the Moomin books, but this is, I think, the best of them. I’m very drawn to cold worlds, snowscapes, and the Northern Lights.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

Always an artist of some kind!

What do you want children to get from your books?

Many things, every book is different. From Nen I want them to gain and understanding, and empathy for a same-sex love. I want that validated not only for those who may end up identifying as LGBTQ+, but also for those who don’t, so that they understand, and treat those who are different with kindness.

Best advice you’ve ever been given?

You don’t have to be the same as everyone else.

Finish this sentence for us…Reading from diverse bookshelves….

… is the only way forward, for a better, kinder world.

A message to readers of your book?

I really hope you enjoy Nen’s story, and learn how powerful kindness can be. I also hope you enjoy the illustrations, and exploring, imagining Nen’s undersea world!


If you want to get your hands on a copy of this book, and lots of other goodies, get in quick and buy yourself a one off or a subscription box from here.

We wrote a blog post on other children’s books featuring same-sex love.