Former call centre worker Steve Antony is now enjoying success as a children’s author. He told MARION SAUVEBOIS of his long-held dream to see his work in print

FOUR years ago Steve Antony‘s characters were mere doodles cheekily drawn during his nightshift at a call centre.

Fast-forward to a crammed New York City Barnes & Noble in January 2015 where Steve is preparing to read his second bestselling book Please Mr Panda to an excited army of children.

Like in the best rags to riches story, all it took was a recession and a perfectly-timed redundancy for the 38-year-old from Old Town to realise his childhood dream of becoming a successful illustrator.

“I was at a crossroads,” he explains. “The call centre was relocating to Reading and I thought ‘Do I move and continue with this job or do I take this opportunity to pursue illustration, knowing that it is a bit a leap of faith?’ I knew I had to be sure and prepared to work extra hard.

“As far back as I can remember I have been drawing. As a child, I loved losing myself in my imagination, creating characters and the worlds they lived in, creating stories for them. It’s always been part of who I am. As I got older I realised how tough the industry is.

“I contacted magazines, comic book companies and publishers to see if they would publish my work. I had countless rejection letters. Even though I was discouraged at times, I never doubted it would happen. Even after nine years at the call centre. I never gave up. Even if I wasn’t published now I would still be drawing.”

Steve spent his early childhood in Grange Park before moving to New Mexico at the age of eight. He returned to Swindon when he was 16 years old and enrolled at Cirencester College before studying Advanced Art and Design at Swindon College. He graduated in 1999 with an HND in Illustration.

As far as he can recall, Steve only ever wished to ‘tell stories through pictures’ for a living. But it is only when one his teacher asked him to illustrate a book she had written that he truly found his calling. Keen to gain some experience, the teenager even contacted Marvel Comics looking for an internship. He was gently turned down but did not dwell on the setback.

After qualifying from college, he was hired at a water company call centre in Swindon where he would stay until he took voluntary redundancy in 2010. All the while, he knocked on doors, contacted publishers, editors and agents. Despite mounds of rejection slips, he never gave up hope of a big break.

“While customers moaned down the phone to me, I would be sat there doodling. I was listening to them,” he hastens to add, “but you go on auto-pilot. I used to show my drawings to my friends at work.

“I think I wasn’t ready when I graduated in 1999. But I took redundancy and this time I felt ready.”

Taking a gamble, he applied for a Masters in Children’s Book Illustration in Cambridge. He studied part-time, commuting six hours to the city each week.

Thanks to one of his tutors, he was signed by an agent. A few months later, in February 2013, he presented his work including The Queen’s Hat to industry heavy boots at his graduation show. Within days six publishers were courting him.

He signed with Hodder, which published The Queen’s Hat in May 2014 and his second book Please Mr Panda in January this year. He was also offered a contract with Oxford University Press, which published another story, Betty Goes Bananas in August 2014.

“It was overwhelming at the time. You hope for one person and get six interested in meeting you. I was taken by surprise.”

The Queen’s Hat has garnered critical acclaim and was even nominated at the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2015. As for Please Mr Panda, it was picked by Barnes & Noble in January as its picture book of the month and read across its 465 branches in the US.

Steve was racking his brain for an idea for an assignment (‘write a story relying on illustrations’) when he stumbled upon a photograph of the Queen online holding on to her hat on a windy day back in April 2011.

“Immediately, a funny story unravelled in my mind about the Queen chasing her windswept hat all around London. I envisioned the book as a sort of pop arty picture book that features iconic British imagery, like Big Ben, the Union Jack, double decker buses and umbrellas.”

In his second book Please Mr Panda, Steve extols the virtues of sharing. While humorous, his stories always contain a message not to mention concealed characters and subtext to keep young readers and their parents guessing.

“The beauty of illustration is that you can tell a different story through pictures. In The Queen’s Hat I have hidden characters. You can add subtext that children may not discover when they first read it. It adds more depth. I think it’s important for the story to have a purpose and level of intention. A book has to spark a conversation.”

His distinctive style and simple colour pallet have been praised the world over but both may have something to do with his colour-blindness.

“It’s easier for me to have limited colours but it also benefits the stories. The colours I choose are specific to the story. For example in The Queen’s Hat I used the colours of the Union Jack. It’s influenced my style, not hindered it.”

Since 2014, the prolific children’s author has written Green Lizards vs Red Rectangles, which is due to be released in November 2015. He has also completed a sequel to The Queen’s Hat, The Queen’s Handbag.

A year after the global success of The Queen’s Hat and Please Mr Panda which have been released in France, Brazil, Japan, the US, South Korea, Canada and Spain, Steve’s new-found recognition is still ‘unfathomable’ to him.

“Being in New York in January reading my book to a group of school children and knowing it is being read in all these other countries is unfathomable. I am so grateful to be doing this as a job. The Waterstones award nomination was awesome. I feel like I’ve won, just being nominated.

“I don’t take any of it for granted. I go back a few years and see myself in a call centre wondering if I would be doing the job I wanted to one day. I try to enjoy every moment and not to look too far in the future.”

To win a signed copy of The Queen’s Hat email

1 Robot by Jan Pienowski: Robot was my first pop-up book and I totally wore out all of the paper mechanisms.

2 The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats: The Snowy Day was a milestone for featuring the first African-American main character in a full-colour picture book. I studied this book at uni and it made me realise just how positively impactful picture books can be.

3 The Arrival by Shaun Tan: The Arrival is wordless book about a migrating man. The mesmerising, atmospheric illustrations are awe-inspiring.

4 All My Friends Are Dead by Avery Monsen and Jory John: A simple, dark comedy book. I love the adult crossover appeal.

5 Mr Men: I like a good character brand. I was obsessed with them as a child.