Irish Illustrator Niamh Sharkey’s cute character is more popular than ever, writes Ed Power
NIAMH SHARKEY is one of Ireland’s most successful children’s authors. She has written and illustrated a succession of bestsellers and is the creator of Henry Hugglemonster, the hit Disney animated series.
But Sharkey has struggled, too. In her 20s, she was toiling in a shoe-shop to pay the rent, while illustrating in her spare time.
“Working as a children’s book illustrator can be a hand-to-mouth existence,” Sharkey says. “At one stage, I had a job measuring people’s feet.
The owner was very kind: there was a room upstairs where I could go to draw. One moment I’d be on the shop floor, the next upstairs illustrating.”
The sacrifice was worthwhile: Sharkey’s book, I’m A Happy Hugglewug, became a hit — and was picked up by the Disney Junior TV channel, which wanted a new children’s franchise.
I’m A Happy Hugglewug was transformed into Henry Hugglemonster, which is one of the buzziest properties in children’s television (it returns next week for a second season).
Henry Hugglemonster is a roguish five-year-old who has a kind heart and a propensity to get himself into (very innocent) trouble.
Sharkey was inspired by her childhood, growing up in a riotous household in north Dublin, and Henry was based on an irascible younger brother.
“When I was a kid, I loved The Muppet Show and [Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic] Where The Wild Things Are.
Those were big influences. I also grew up in a really big family. I wanted a book that was like a day in the life of a monster family, with this five-year-old monster in the middle of the craziness,” she says.
Sharkey is intimately involved in Henry Hugglemonster. She executive produces the series, which is scripted, storyboarded and animated by Brown Bag Films in Dublin.
The only outside input is the voice-acting, which is recorded in the UK (because the show is bankrolled by Disney UK, the accents are British).
The story of how Sharkey went from toiling in a Dublin shoe-shop to the summit of the children’s TV industry is sprinkled with serendipity. She was backpacking around Australia and received an urgent call from her parents, at home in Malahide.
“I’d been trying to break into children’s picture-books,” she says. “There aren’t really any publishers in Ireland, apart from several Irish-language specialists.
I’d done some covers for Mercier Press in Cork and then gone travelling around Australia.
“A British publisher happened to come across one of my books at a store in Dingle — she got in contact with Mercier, who contacted my mother, who eventually tracked me down.”
The publisher had a proposal: she wanted Sharkey to design a cover for a storybook, with a deadline of three months. It was a huge opportunity — however, Sharkey, on the other side of the world, had no obvious means of getting home.
“I was in Tasmania, at this point,” she says. “I ended up staying in a hut and illustrating my first book. This was 1996, so it was really old-school. I’d fax my drawings back to get the go-ahead. There was no tweeting or instant-messaging.”
She had soon graduated to writing, as well as illustrating. The success of her first title, The Ravenous Beast, allowed Sharkey to quit her job at the shoe-shop. After that came I’m A Happy Hugglewug.
Here, the story again takes an unlikely twist. “Disney wanted a character to turn into a television property,” she says.
“The executive went into a warehouse of children’s books and emerged with mine. It was about a family of monsters, which appealed, I think. They took one look at the picture and went, ‘That’s the one’.”
The success of Henry Hugglemonster represents a major triumph for Brown Bag, which was already a player in children’s animation.
The studio was founded in 1994 by Cathal Gaffney and Darragh O’Connell, both of whom had worked at the now-defunct Sullivan Bluth animation company in Dublin.
Brown Bag’s other big hits include animated series Octonauts, Doc McStuffins and Peter Rabbit (which won three Emmys last year).
The distinction is that these shows were adapted from pre-existing intellectual properties: Hugglemonster was Brown Bag’s first opportunity to create a franchise of its own.
“It is very much a hands-on collaboration with Disney,” says Sharkey.
“They are involved day to day. We brainstorm the ideas in Dublin, write an outline, which we share with Disney. We might go through four or five versions of the script.”
While a major international success, Henry Hugglemonster has not turned Sharkey into a millionaire. As creator and producer, she is appropriately compensated — but won’t be moving into a Magic Kingdom-style palace quite yet.
She feels she has a good understanding of why Henry has become such a success. The show speaks to families — parents as much as children, and to children of varying age groups.
“My dream is for it to be like The Muppet Show, where brothers and sisters and parents sit down and watched it together.
“Henry is pre-school, but we want to engage with lots of different age groups. Kids love a good story — and that’s what we are trying to do here, tell good stories.”
The second season of Henry Hugglemonster begins on Disney Junior on Monday.
Animation once again: Irish studios conquering cartoons
On February 2, the studio will debut its new series Nelly and Nora on RTEjr. Rights have already been sold to BBC (CBeebies) and Germany’s ZDF. A tie-in sequence is to published in association with London’s Walker Books.
Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon has just received its second Oscar nomination for best animated feature for Song of The Sea, pictured (it was also nominated for 2010’s The Secret of Kells). Song of the Sea features voices by Davie Rawle, Brendan Gleeson and Lisa Hannigan.
JAM is best known for its hit, Badly Drawn Roy, the sweet tale of an 11-year-old animated boy living with his family in Ireland. Originally a short film it was later turned into a TV series, Roy. JAM has also worked on an adaptation of the popular children’s book Tilly and Friends.
Brown Bag Films
In addition to producing Henry Hugglemonster, Smithfield-headquartered Brown Bag has had considerable success with Octonauts and Doc McStuffins.
The latter has won praise for addressing race and gender stereotypes (the central character is African-American), with Time magazine naming it one of the most influential kids properties of all time. Worldwide sales of McStuffins merchandise were €500m in 2014.
With a full-time staff of 70, Boulder’s portfolio includes the Emmy-winning Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and Cartoon Network’s The Amazing World of Gumball. It recently secured funding for its first feature-length project.
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