In my last blog post I explained that this Christmas season I’m looking to support small businesses and independent traders. I’m delighted to share some of my favourite brands and gift ideas for wildlife lovers — and today’s spotlight is Button and Squirt.
With Black Friday fast approaching, this year — more than ever — it’s important for consumers to consider their shopping habits and look to more local, independent and/or ethical brands.
Personally, I’m keen to support individuals, artists and creatives (some of those most affected by the current pandemic) and of course if those businesses in-turn make a commitment to supporting wildlife and conservation charities; then all the better!
I was excited to chat to Ria, the woman behind Button and Squirt to find out about her love of animals, her business journey and her motivations for the brand.
Meet the animal illustrator behind the business…
“I’m Ria, I’m mummy to Dexter and Axel the inspiration for everything here at Button and Squirt,” the About Me page of the Button and Squirt website explains, “even the name; those are their nicknames that my Dad gave them when they were born.”
With animals, art, children’s education and family at the centre of this delightful small business, it’s exactly the kind of brand I’d love to support over the festive season.
I chatted to Ria (shown here with her award from The Toy Fair 2020) to find out more…
Kate: Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat to me, Ria. First off, where and how did your passion for wildlife begin?
Ria: I have loved animals for as long as I can remember. Ever since I was small they were the most important thing to me.
I loved to watch documentaries but my dad had to cover my eyes whenever anything got eaten as I couldn’t bare to see any animal get hurt.
I don’t really know where my passion came from, it was just something that was in me, I felt drawn to nature and felt a real connection to the creatures within it. I used to love to stay up late at night hiding in the garden waiting for the hedgehogs to visit us. Searching for bugs and watching the birds was always part of my daily life.
I actually dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, but when I said that at school I was told that wasn’t something I would be able to do because of where I lived, and so over time I left that dream behind and I thought that my future would be detached from that passion, and instead I focused on my love for art and design.
So, how did Button and Squirt come into being?
Honestly it was all down to my little boy, Dexter. From the moment he could show an interest in anything he was obsessed with animals. Seeing his growing passion really stirred my passion back up. He wanted to know everything and was particularly interested in the weird and unusual animals.
He would ask me to tell him about all different animals and then started asking me to draw him pictures of them as well.
I had already started ‘Button and Squirt’ but I was selling T-shirt’s; I started to combine the drawings I was doing with my T-shirt designs, then I started to share my illustrations along with some facts about the animals.
From quite early on I had this idea for a set of cards that would teach kids about the animals in a fun way.
I wanted to create something to teach kids about the amazing animals we share the planet with, to help them to fall in love with nature and to inspire them to want to protect them for the future.
So one day I decided to go for it. I was entirely inspired by my kids, by the things they loved and the way they loved to learn. We home educate and another thing I am passionate about is kids learning through play.
My boys (Dexter and Axel) picked out the animals for me to draw and that first set of cards was totally filled with love from all of us.
The boys continue to inspire everything I do and they are totally in charge when it comes to selecting the animals.
If you ask Dexter, he says that the Amazing Animals cards are all down to him, he picks the animals and tells me all about them and ALL I do is draw the pictures.
I love that they know how important they are in the process.
That’s awesome. What has been the most rewarding part of launching the business?
I think there are two sides to this. One side has been seeing how proud the kids are of what I have created, and seeing how much they get out of the range, they are my biggest fans and you can often find them either playing one of the games or reading the fact cards.
Also the fact that working for myself means that I have full control over the work-life balance, and get to spend every day with my boys.
Then on a more public side of things my heart could literally burst when I see kids interacting with what I do, and I get to see first hand that spark appear in their eye.
At a market I used to do each month there was a little girl that would visit each month with her parents, she bought a pack of cards on one visit. The following month she came running up to me and was bursting with excitement to tell me how much she loved blob fish and how she didn’t know about them until she had my cards. Standing talking to her for those few minutes I felt myself beaming, what I was seeing in her was exactly what I dreamed my cards would do.
I have lost count of the times I have spoken to kids at events and told them about a cool animal like the panda ant and watched as the excitement fills their face.
Receiving messages from customers telling me how my cards have inspired their kids to do projects, or get their school doing related work, or make changes in their lives to help the planet is just an amazing feeling. Honestly those moments are the absolute best.
Just seeing my work actually making a difference is a feeling I cant even describe.
It’s something to be very proud of indeed. Which Button and Squirt products or designs have been most popular?
I think my original set of fact cards still remains the most popular set. It’s had a couple of make overs since the beginning but the basis has stayed the same. It’s full of some of my absolute favourite animals and because its where everything began it will always have a very special place in my heart.
Generally I find that people love the more unusual animals. For any of the other products I make like mugs and face masks I find that people are always so excited to see that I do so many different animals, the kind of animals that usually get overlooked are what I love the most.
Then probably the second most popular is one of the newer sets, the amazing sharks fact cards, I knew I wanted to shine a bright light on how amazing these animals are to bring them some love instead of the standard fear that so many people feel for them.
I wasn’t really sure how the set would go down but I knew it needed to happen, and honestly its been received so well it makes me so happy.
I also need to give a massive shout out to The Shark Trust who not only stock the set but also helped me to check it over before production, an act of kindness I will forever feel so grateful for.
That’s great to hear — I love sharks! What is your favourite animal?
Ok, so I love a lot of animals, my absolute favourite is a Narwhal, I have always loved whales and dolphins and when I first saw a photo of one it was instant love.
I have a real soft spot for the more unusual animals (as may be obvious) Aardvark, anteater, prehensile tailed porcupine, pangolin, okapi and tapirs are also animals that have stolen my heart. But to be honest pretty much all animals are amazing to me.
Very cool. How do you choose the animal species you use for the Button and Squirt designs and fact cards?
So, I have already mentioned one part of this — my kids.
We watch a lot of nature documentaries and have a house full of animal books, I watch to see what animals get a reaction out of them, which ones get a wow and I also ask them what I should do next, they really are at the heart of what I do.
Sometimes something that has happened in our life will inspire which species I choose, or even an entire theme for a set of cards.
For instance with the amazing extinct animals cards, that set is entirely inspired by Dexter and the first time he learnt about the Tasmanian Tiger.
We were watching a show about them, he was completely in love, he turned to me and asked if we could visit Australia and see them.
At which point I had to explain that we wouldn’t be able to do that as they are extinct. He sat for a moment and said ‘like the dinosaurs’ so I said yes, he sat a little longer, but there are photos and videos of them’.
So I explained that they had gone extinct more recently, he asked why, and I explained the reasons and how it was basically down to humans. He was devastated. The idea that not only could animals alive now be at risk of dying out forever, but that it could be because of people just totally shocked him.
He has known about and understood extinction for a long time, but he had never connected it to a real threat to animals that are alive now, it was just something that had happened to the dinosaurs millions of years ago.
A child that was already passionate about animals and wanted to protect them suddenly became even more passionate about it.
Seeing that reaction, the way that connection made everything come together for him and ignite that passion made me decide in that moment that I needed to create a set that would teach about some of the amazing animals we have lost forever.
Of course it contains the wonderful Tasmanian tiger, and Dexter sat and helped me pick out lots of the other animals in the set too, covering animals lost thousands of years ago to some lost in recent years in an attempt to show kids that this is a very real threat that can and is happening all around us.
As well as taking inspiration from the kids, I also follow my own love, I am and always have been naturally drawn to the more unusual animals, the ones that don’t normally get the love that they deserve.
In what ways do you hope the Button and Squirt fact cards, activity books, etc. will inspire children?
My hope with everything I create is that I am producing something that is first and foremost fun, that kids will actually want to look at and use.
I want them to be able to learn from the cards at different levels, so to begin with they can simply just get used to the animals, learning their names, identifying them as they are pulled from the set, then as they continue to use them they can learn the facts about them, until they can challenge each other and the grown ups in the room to see who knows the most about them.
I believe that learning about animals, from the fact that they really do exist even when you can’t believe it (I’m looking at you pink fairy armadillo) to finding out all the amazing things that they do is the first step in protecting and conserving these animals for the future.
People won’t protect something they have no idea about, so by arming kids with this knowledge I hope that we are creating a future full of adults that will actually care about the animals and make them a priority.
As a species we need to give more time to our natural world, and by showing kids what’s out there I hope I am helping to inspire them to spend more time in nature, to seek out more information and to learn about more amazing animals. And I hope that they carry that knowledge and passion through their lives and inspire the people around them as well.
That’s amazing, I have a huge respect for that philosophy. What do you hope the future will bring for Button and Squirt?
Right now I hope to be able to continue what I have been doing already, I have a lot more ideas for new fact cards and card games, and of course more of the colouring books to match the cards.
I have started to bring in a few other items to sell alongside the things that I make so that I can become a bit of a one stop shop for all your young animal loving gift needs.
I hope to work with more charities in the future, I would love to create specific sets of cards that are sold through a charity and through myself with a percentage of the sale going to the charity. I have always wanted there to be a charity element to what I do and was so happy to finally begin donating to wildlife charities through the wonderful work for good recently, I now donate 5% of all sales on my website.
As well as that I hope to expand my list of stockists, I really see getting Button and Squirt stocked into more outlets as the best way to spread the amazing animals love and reach more and more kids.
I would also love to look to doing something with schools, to create something that they could use within the classroom to teach kids about all of our amazing animals.
Basically I want to continue to spread the love for the amazing animals that we share the planet with. I want to keep drawing and keep creating and keep inspiring. If I can achieve that then I will be very happy.