WHEN I first went to meet illustrator and author Laura Smith I wasn’t sure what to expect.
I had read about her strangely-named children’s book characters – Mr Fhoo, hard-working and in charge of his fellow Fhoos, and Smithbott and Chadlet, two mischievous witches – and in my mind I envisaged an eccentric with an over-active imagination living in a hut in the middle of the woods.
In reality, 25-year-old Laura lives in a very normal flat in Ryhope with her partner Steven Robertson.
Despite always being creative, the former Farringdon school pupil opted for a more secure career as a personal trainer after studying sport at college, but now she has decided that the world of illustration and writing is where she wants to be and she is giving it all she’s got.
“I never intended to be a writer. I just wanted to create my own illustrations and everything else just happened. I had worked on briefs during illustration courses and I did a foundation degree in art at Sunderland University, but I really didn’t enjoy doing illustrations for other people.
“I didn’t like creating something that I would never create myself.”
Mr Fhoo is the first in a series of children’s books that Laura has designed under the name of Popple’s Tales, and I was fascinated to know what Mr Fhoo was like and where he had come from.
She said: “Mr Fhoo doesn’t live in our world, he lives in the Forest of Woo. He is in charge of all the other Fhoos because he uses a tree called the rump tree to find answers to questions and be more knowledgable than the rest of his tribe.
“The Fhoos look after our chickens and make sure we get our eggs, and the series is about the adventures Mr Fhoo gets up to along the way.”
As she explained, we both laughed. I think it is one of the strangest conversations I have ever had and Laura could understand why I looked so perplexed.
Through fits of giggles she tried to make the idea of the Fhoos clearer, she said: “There are naughty Fhoos in the tribe and one of the stories is about how they turn Mr Fhoo’s world upside down and he has to fix it.
“It sounds strange, but when you read the book it all becomes clear. I try to put a few little messages in the story about being good and not being naughty, but generally I keep it very light-hearted.”
She added: “I’ve tested them out on a few of my younger cousins and the feedback has been great. I think the main reason is there is quite a lot of toilet humour – it seems to appeal!”
Having learnt a bit more about the characters in her book, I wondered if they were inspired by anyone in particular, “I can’t tell you that” she laughed. “But I hope to a degree my personality comes through.
“I do joke to my best friend that we were like Smithbot and Chadlett in school, and I use aspects of things that I used to find funny when I’m writing them.”
Laura has been drawing since she was a child but she’s not the only artistic one in the family, she explained: “I’ve always enjoyed drawing and as my grandfather was an illustrator it just seemed like the natural thing to do.
“Strangely I’ve been drawing Mr Fhoo since I was young – I used to just feel the need to draw ugly little men.
“I used to draw him running and being out of breath saying ‘fhoo’ so that’s where the name comes from.”
Originally an illustrator, creating images comes naturally to Laura, but I wondered how she found putting her stories into words as well as pictures, she explained that sometimes it was easier to draw the characters and add the words later.
She said: “With Fhoo, the character already existed, usually I just have an image in my head that I want to draw and I create everything else around that.” Laura, whose stories are aimed at children between four and seven, has decided to self publish her first book as she believes it is an easier way into the market.
She is launching the first book in the Mr Fhoo series on Saturday and she can’t wait to see the finished product, which she won’t see until the day before.
“I want to get a name for myself,” she said. “Then hopefully I can get in front of a publishing house and they will be able to see what I can do.
“I’m using an independent company to print the book and I’ve started up a website where I can sell the books from. I’m hoping to get it into as many places as possible and get it noticed by everyone.”
She added: “I’m so excited, I just want to see it as a finished book. I only ever used to draw and write in my spare time. Since I have started doing it properly with an aim to finish the books I have really committed to it. Mr Fhoo is the first book I’ve finished and it’s taken a year.”
Mr Fhoo is not the only character running through Laura’s imagination, he has been quickly followed by two witches, and she assures me there are more to come.
She said: “I enjoy creating the characters and getting the story going, but the most exciting bit is getting the idea in the first place – I just have to write it down no matter where I am or what I am doing – I’m constantly making notes.”
Laura has been a personal trainer since she was 18, so to give up her consistent income was a gamble. She said: “It was quite daunting at first. There is that worry that this could all fall flat on it’s face, but hopefully that won’t happen.
“I spent five years trying to work out how on earth I was going to get into it and I got to a point where I got sick of trying to figure it out.
“If it hadn’t been for Steven saying you can do whatever you want, there’s no way I could have done it – he said ‘just go for it’, so I did.”
Laura has been inspired by the king and queen of children’s books, Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton, but her favourite book as a child was Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark Little Bear by Norbert Landa, Kirsteen Harris-Jones.
She said: “It was always the illustrations that did it for me, not the story. The expressions on the bear’s face made me really enjoy reading the book as a kid.
“And that’s what I want children to get from my books. I just want them to enjoy them. They are a bit silly and I try to put in a few words that are a bit different so they will ask what they mean and learn as they read – but other than that I just want them to have fun reading them.”
l The Popple’s Tales book launch takes place on Saturday at Revolution, Low Row, Sunderland, from 2pm to 6pm.
Kids and adults are all welcome to see Mr Fhoo for the first time and enjoy a reading by author and illustrator Laura Smith.
For more information call 0191 640 2300. To find out more about Popple’s Tales go to www.popplestales.co.uk