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Meeting the Tiny Owls in their tiny nest

posted on 03 Oct 2017

Meeting the Tiny Owls in their tiny nest

I was delighted to be invited to interview the people behind ‘Tiny Owl’ as a result of a conversation with my author friend, Beverley Naidoo who is currently working with this creative small successful publishing company to produce what sounds like another really interesting picture book.

This was an exciting adventure to Southwark, a part of London that I had never visited before. I got off the tube at Elephant and Castle and after asking several people for directions, soon found myself in the heart of The Pullens Estate, built between 1870 and 1901. I didn’t know any of its fascinating history at the time, which is well documented, but nevertheless gawped in awe at the very distinctive four storey residential buildings with their steep central stairwells. Although they are now clearly well maintained, I couldn’t help imagining the Dickensian noisy bustle of ordinary lives lived in such close proximity where everybody knew everybody’s personal business. But I now understand that this was part of the vision for building the estate which was to become a very close supportive community where people could live close to their workplace and benefit from being connected physically and emotionally. An informative local history site explains that the estate originally comprised 650 flats which surrounded 4 separate yards of workplaces for small traders and craftspeople, of which 360 flats and 3 yards remain. The yards ‘represent an original Victorian example of live/work space as, originally, each ground or first-floor workshop opened into one of the 2 flats situated behind it’. It seems that there was an impressive diversity of businesses represented in the area in the last century, although many of the buildings eventually fell into disrepair under the ownership of the local authority. In 1979, the estate acquired a new lease of life as a thriving hub for small artistic and community projects and this has continued to make it a very desirable and creative place to live and do business. When I visited it was a very hot May afternoon and I was intrigued to see that several residents had brought chairs out into the street and were passing the time of day in the sunshine. The informal friendliness and air of possibility was tangible as I wandered towards Peacock’s Yard where the office of ‘Tiny Owl’ publishers was located.

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I eventually found myself in a shady little cobbled courtyard that had rather a fairy tale feel about it, entered through a doorway which was next to a busy florists shop and made my way carefully up the very steep, narrow stairs into the outer office. There I was greeted warmly by Delaram Ghanimifard, co- founder who took me through to meet Karim, her husband and co- founder, both originally from Iran. I also met Ken Wilson-Max, the art director who seemed a very cheerful chap but was soon engrossed working on his designs on the computer. There are two other members of this team, Sophie Hallam, the Commissioning Editor and Alice Ahearn, Publisher’s Assistant who weren’t around when I visited and I couldn’t help but wonder how they all fitted in comfortably. I can only guess that they all get along very well together and co- exist cosily as a little professional family in a tiny room packed with office furniture, draft illustrations on the walls, overflowing bookcases and an atmosphere of intense creative business fraught with tight deadlines. I caught myself marvelling at how so many exquisite picture books could emerge from such a limited space. 

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Delaram and I decided to have our conversation back downstairs over a long cool drink at a table in the courtyard and we spent a happy hour talking about what makes this distinctive publisher so special.

Why the name?

I really like the distinctive logo and name that they had chosen and had already spotted on their very informative website how it came about. Delaram explained that it was originally designed in Iran and perfectly summarised what they were all about because it encapsulates childhood fun, aesthetic beauty and wisdom that they believed that all good picture books can offer.

They have now been based in these premises for almost one year and really like the friendly community atmosphere with its eclectic range of small businesses. Before having a physical space to work from Delaram and Karim had based their publishing business at home which wasn’t ideal but they were determined to make it work.

The publishing dream

They are clearly an enterprising couple who have worked very hard to establish the company and Delaram explained that this was because she and her husband had always been passionate about the importance of traditional stories. They had first come to live in England in 2002 as Karim was a postgraduate student and eventually returned to live here in 2010 when Delaram began her PhD in Sociology. During their time living here they very much enjoyed the prevalence of high quality English and American children’s picture books that were more easily available. This inspired them to try publishing something that was a bit different but of equally high quality. Karim and Delaram had lots of connections with Iranian children’s authors and illustrators, so they decided to build on this and to publish books that would remind them and others of their wonderful cultural heritage. They also wanted to introduce all children to universal stories as depicted by Iranian illustrators who came from an artistic tradition that was very different to those who trained in the UK. The content and style builds on many different philosophical layers that challenge children to think deeply. Delaram told me about how important it was for children to learn about different artistic traditions from a very early age and how she used to take her own young son to an inspiring set of workshops provided at the Tate Gallery in London. It is always great to find a kindred spirit who values developing aesthetic appreciation in young children and we talked for a while about how understanding art was not always given enough attention in schools. Delaram agreed that developing children’s confidence to create their own pictures was part of what they hoped would be inspired by enjoying and sharing beautiful picture books published by ‘Tiny Owl’.

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One of the biggest challenges has been ensuring that these distinctive books get sufficiently noticed as they are in competition with much bigger and resource rich mainstream publishing houses. On the other hand – this is their strength because, like other small niche publishers, they can stay true to their original principles and remit. This clearly gives a great deal of satisfaction and is worth all the hard work, hopefully made less onerous as their team grows bigger. But of course success breeds success and as they have now published sixteen titles, they have a high standard to keep up. Getting their books into mainstream bookshops is starting to happen and making sure that ‘Tiny Owl’ is represented at big Book Fairs and Literary Festivals is also an important way to increase their reach.

Any favourites from those you have published so far?

This was probably an unfair question for me to ask because each book that they publish is evidently a labour of love from start to finish. After a brief hesitation, Delaram explained that ‘Little Black Fish’ held a special place in her heart because the original story about determination and freedom is one that she knew as a child and had been one that she had told to her own children many times. It was originally written by Samad Behrangi and was widely considered to be a political allegory which was banned in pre-revolutionary Iran. The excellent translation by Azita Rassi with strikingly bold illustrations by Hans Christian Andersen award winner Farshid Mesghali have made it a huge bestseller and one that can be enjoyed by children of all ages.  

Are there any particular books that have influenced you and your philosophy?

Delaram explained that she has always loved reading and asked for some more time to think about this question. I now know that ‘Masnavi’ and ‘Divan’, which comprise the collected works of the 13th century Persian poet Rumi have held an important place in her heart ever since she was a teenager.

What do you think is the future of children’s books?

They are all very optimistic about the future of the printed book and the need for children to handle real books as being a vital sensory experience. Like many of us they are deeply troubled about the rapid closing of libraries and concerned as to whether all children will get to see a range of books from different cultures when they are at school. They are starting to think more about how they can make links to the curriculum and produce teachers’ notes as a way of ensuring this.

They clearly have access to a rich seam of Iranian artistic culture to continue drawing from which makes their picture books really unusual. As well as this, they are also very positive about the amount of talent that there is in UK art schools and so are actively seeking out potential new artists by visiting degree exhibitions.

One last climb up those very steep stairs to be presented with a generous bag of beautiful  books, several of which have since been reviewed on The Letterpress Project (links to Bijan and Manije; Tahmineh’s Beautiful Bird and A Bottle of Happiness).  I left the rather magical Peacocks Yard feeling very encouraged by the vision and enthusiasm of the ‘Tiny Owl’ people to continue to produce splendidly crafted picture books that will have universal appeal, for adults as well as for children of all ages.

Karen Argent

October 2017