Sophy Henn on Bad Nana: A Comic Book with a Difference

Posted on 6th June 2018 by Martha Greengrass

Author and illustrator Sophie Henn's latest children's book was inspired by wanting to create a comic book for girls that wasn't just pastel pink and full of boybands and make-up tips. The result is, Older Not Wise: Bad Nana, an action packed celebration of silliness and fun, featuring a maverick, mayhem-causing grandma who is anything but a sweet old lady.  Here, Sophy Henn introduces her and offers an illustrator's guide to how to draw your own Bad Nana character.

When I started my MA in Illustration, as a VERY mature student, my aim was to create a picture book and I knew exactly what that book was going to be. A treasury of short stories and poems describing a little girl’s journey through her neighbourhood and all the wonderful (and not so wonderful) people and places within it. Lovely. And it was while I was busy with this plan I took my daughter to buy a comic. We stood in front of the shelves (AND SHELVES) of comics and searched for something she would enjoy. We were searching for something for a late KS1, early KS2 kinda gal whose other interests included reading, laughing, T’ai kwondo, drawing and puppies. Nothing too out of the ordinary, though admittedly T’ai kwondo isn’t for everyone but as that wasn’t a deal breaker we felt confident we would find something.

Twenty minutes later we were still standing in front of those shelves completely confused as to why all the ‘girls’ magazines aimed at this age group were predominantly pink, full of must haves that needed to be purchased (one magazine totalled over a £1,000 of MUST haves), swoony boys, OMG embarrassing stories and even diet tips. Yes. Diet tips. 

We left with a copy of The Beano and while The Beano is great, I was left feeling fairly furious that my wonderful 7-year-old daughter now felt a bit like she didn’t fit in because she didn’t want to wear make-up or think boybands were dreamy. There is clearly a market for these magazines and (other than a nagging feeling that some of them seemed to be training young girls to feel insecure about their looks so they became lifelong consumers) I really don’t have a problem with them, but why wasn’t there an alternative? 

Suddenly my treasury idea felt a bit redundant and I funneled my feelings of injustice into my new MA project…..a comic for KS1/2 girls that was to be empowering, reassuring, interesting and HILARIOUS! I wanted to create a comic that almost any girl (or boy) could find something of interest in, that was full of things you could do for free and just for fun, that was a springboard for the reader’s ideas and creativity, that celebrated their individuality, showcased characters that were just like them and was, in places, just plain silly. Yes, imagine that… not made over, dreaming about boys or embarrassed, but SILLY!

My comic ended up being called Pickle with its figurehead Pickle Lily, a 7-8 year old girl, featuring throughout. There were articles, ideas, lists of silly things to do and a cast of characters each with their own comic strip, Pickle Lily’s mischievous grandmother, Bad Nana, was among them. A maverick Grandmother causing mayhem at village fetes, on bus journeys and the like. I wanted to show an older woman having fun and not conforming to the stereotypes of old women children are often presented with. Sometimes we make a snap judgement of older people simply because they are old. But in reality they have lived full lives packed with all sorts of stuff…amazing stuff, serious stuff, boring stuff, world changing stuff and silly stuff. Through Bad Nana I wanted to show a glimpse of a cheeky, playful side to older people we sometimes assume they have lost or, worse still, never had. I felt this would be reassuring to younger children looking ahead, a little sign that there’s always fun to be had.

Bad Nana had 3 whole comic strips and provided me with many chuckles/retirement plan ideas as I put my MA project together. Then as my course drew to a close I created a picture book for the Macmillan prize that went on to become my first ever actual book. And then I made a few more. HOORAY! 

But Bad Nana was never far from my thoughts, mainly because I am very much hoping she is the future me, but also because she is a strong, relevant character, who also makes me laugh. She started to develop and I started to see new possibilities for her and what she had to say.

I realised I really wanted to keep avoiding those old lady stereo types and create a strong, relatable, older female character, who was still having fun. I knew Bad Nana was not going to be passive or sweet and she wasn’t going to be darning any socks, but she wasn’t going to be less nurturing or loving than any other grandmother. Bad Nana could misbehave because of her many years (who is going to tell her off?), but as an old lady she would know when to misbehave. Underneath the whoopee cushions and eye rolls there would be a moral code to her high jinx! Bad Nana would stand up for those who weren’t able to stand up for themselves, take bullies down a peg or two, say all the things we wished we were brave enough to say AND enjoy a good practical joke on the way. Strong, funny and thanks to her vast life experience, brimming with empathy.

Another of the key ideas behind Bad Nana came from that feeling of being a bit of an outsider at school. Around Jeanie's age cliques and groups form and being popular or unpopular becomes a big deal to children. And whilst Jeanie has good friends neither she nor they are in the popular group, making them extremely aware of the social hierarchy in school, and their place within it. This can be an very challenging time for children, causing anxiety, sadness and even self-doubt. So through Bad Nana I wanted to show the flip side of being outside the popular crowd. She is most certainly different, she doesn’t conform to the norm, she is utterly herself and not in the least bit concerned about her popularity. And my hope is that it might be a tiny bit empowering for children to see a woman feeling that way as they navigate their agonisingly self-aware years, it certainly will be for Jeanie. Through Bad Nana’s attitude I hope the reader can see the joy and fun in being different, the freedom you can have when you don’t conform to the norm and that sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe in, despite what the bullies and bossy boots' say. GO #BTeam! 

As an additional bonus, get some tips on how to create and illustrate your own comic as Sophy Henn teaches you how to draw Bad Nana's cat, Liberace.


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