There are many routes to publication and Debut Journeys aims to celebrate them all. This month Mario Ambrosi talks to Nishani Reed whose Nabil Steals a Penguin, illustrated by Junissa Bianda, is out now from Nosy Crow.


Hi Nishani. Where are you now and where did you write your book?

I’m sitting at my desk at home with a cup of rosehip and honey tea, which sounds fancy but tastes like hot Ribena. Where DID I write my book? I was in an upside-down world called a “lockdown” and I don’t remember much about this time because my memory has conveniently deleted it for me. But I was almost certainly indoors.

What’s the book about? 

Nabil Steals a Penguin is a rhyming story about a penguin called Pierre who loves spicy food. Bored of eating fish all day at the zoo, he meets Nabil who offers him some of his delicious biriyani lunch. Of course, Pierre just has to have more of Nabil’s mum’s incredible cooking, so he dives into Nabil’s bag before Nabil can stop him! Nabil ends up back at home with a real-life penguin to hide from his parents, which is a bit stressful but also somehow very fun. Exactly like writing rhyming picture books!

It’s brilliant to see more children’s books on the shelves that normalise characters from marginalised backgrounds. I do think there’s room for more funny ones though. The South Asian families I knew growing up (including mine) were incapable of taking themselves too seriously and I wanted to bring some of that hilarity and drama to the mix.

Tell us about your route to publication...

I wrote Nabil Steals a Penguin to entertain myself and my kids, but I’d always wanted to write books, secretly, deep down. So I worked up the courage to send the story to a few agents and was politely ignored. But then my husband noticed that Nosy Crow had an open submissions window for underrepresented picture book writers so I sent it to them too, because why not?

Six months later (by which time I had completely forgotten about it) I got a phone call. I assumed it was the school office calling to tell me that one of my kids had a cough, because that was the only reason anyone ever called me. So when it was Alice, my now editor, I was extremely confused. I remember she said she wanted to “make me an offer” for my story. She said this totally seriously, as if there was a big queue of publishers on my other lines. That still cracks me up.

So that was all very outrageously lucky, wasn’t it? I spent the next six months expecting to be told it was all some kind of administrative error. When I finally realised that it was really happening, I started writing more. And I haven’t stopped since!

Cover of Nabil Steals a Penguin, by Nishani Reed, illustrated by Junissa Bianda

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I have a full-time job as a publishing lawyer which I squish into four days to leave Fridays free for writing. But at the moment those Fridays are jampacked full of school visits all over the country to promote Nabil Steals a Penguin (turns out this is a huge part of the job!). I also have two children and a dog, so I spend most of my time looking for things like water bottles and poo bags and trying to make sure I don’t forget to feed anyone. Oh, and naming things! Nobody told me how much time I would spend sticking my children’s names on to items of clothing and random objects.


What was the biggest bump in the road when it came to getting your book out into the world and how did you overcome it?

The biggest obstacle by far was my own lack of self-belief. I had literally none. I tried some bits of writing in my twenties but I had no idea what I was trying to say, and it felt directionless. Whenever I wrote anything, I’d come back to it the next day and think, why would anyone want to read this? After a while, I stopped completely. I was stuck like that for so many years. But when my oldest child was two, I heard myself saying stuff to him like “just have a go” and “give it a try” and thought, what a hypocrite! And I imagined what it would feel like to look him in the eye at some future time and say, “I wanted to write books but I didn’t think I could do it so… I never tried.” They say a blank page is scary but, for me, that was way scarier. So I wrote a story for him instead. And that was Nabil Steals a Penguin!

Any tips for budding writers hoping to follow in your footsteps?

On your iPhone, go to Settings → Screen Time  App Limits and set a 30 minute daily limit on any social media platforms you’re on. These days you do need to be on social media and following relevant publishing accounts (plus it’s fun to make new writing friends) but don’t let these platforms suck you in with addictive rubbish or negative content. Your brain is a climate: it needs minimal pollution to be able to create fresh thoughts.

What’s next for you?

More picture books (watch this space…) and maybe, hopefully, some chapter books? I might need to find an agent too. It’s a strange place to be, published and unagented. It’s like the time I took my dog, Elsie, to an agility course. All the other dogs were zipping around with laser focus, whereas Elsie… well, she was over the moon to be there but she had absolutely no idea what was going on, so she just sort of bounced about at random and crashed into things. Now I know exactly how she felt.

*Header image: Ell Rose and Tita Berredo.


Nishani Reed is a children’s writer. She lives in Godalming with her husband, small children and oversized dog. Her debut picture book Nabil Steals a Penguin, illustrated by Junissa Bianda, is out now. Nishani can be found on Instagram/Twitter/X: @nishanireed and via her website:


Ell Rose is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures
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Tita Berredo is the Illustrator Coordinator of SCBWI British Isles and the Art Director of Words & Pictures. 

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If you would like to feature in a future Debut Journeys, please email Mario Ambrosi at

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this and although I am a self publisher, I can relate to Nishani as a lawyer and working mum from an ethnic minority background. Thank you.


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