Mrs Wordsmith is a literacy company that uses entertainment—notably, games—to teach children key concepts such as vocabulary, phonetics, and the process of writing a fictional story. Determined to intrinsically motivate children to learn, the content creators at Mrs Wordsmith take a radical approach to education with an impressive catalogue of print and tech products. Best known for Word Tag, an adventurous word learning game that increases vocabulary, Mrs Wordsmith is continuously releasing newer and better products into the market.
Mrs Wordsmith selects words to teach via a machine-learning process which is curated by a team of writers and pedagogists. The illustrators are presented with the task of visualizing each word to help convey its definition, meaning, and uses in a sentence. Essentially, each chosen word—which tends to be more sophisticated than the average person’s spoken vocabulary—is scrutinized, explored, and portrayed in some very wacky, humorous, and memorable ways.
Artist Nicolò Mereu studied Art History at UC Berkeley and Animation at the National Film School in his native Italy. Nicolò started his career in animation at Cartoon Network in London and went on to work for BBC, Universal and other studios, until he found an illustrator job at Mrs Wordsmith, a company where his love for etymology, cartoons and storytelling would find one single outlet for his talents. Nicolò has since pitched new projects and helped develop the products of Mrs Wordsmith. He ensures that humour permeates every aspect of the content. Now the Associate Creative Director of the company, Nicolo recently discussed his work via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): When did you first discover your talent for artwork and how did you break into the industry?
Nicolò Mereu (NM): I grew up in an artistic household – my mum is a dancer, and my dad is a clown. I was always encouraged to draw, so I don’t think I discovered it, it was with me since the start. Before finishing film school, I received an offer to work at Cartoon Network in London. I moved a couple of weeks after graduating and was catapulted into the fast-paced world of broadcasting. It was my break in the industry, but it was not the right job for me – involving a lot of motion graphics and very little drawing. Making the transition towards a job that better suited my interests was a slow process until I found Mrs Wordsmith. This was an incredible opportunity to grow in the right direction and involved working with a team of international talents, including Craig Kellman, who has worked on so many animation blockbusters, including Madagascar and Hotel Transylvania.
MM: You grew up in Italy, so did you learn English when you were young or later in life?
NM: English is the primary second language taught in Italian schools, but I also lived in California for two years as a teenager. This experience gave me a lot more confidence to express myself in a foreign tongue.
MM: What was it about working with Mrs Wordsmith that so inspired you not only to draw, but to create entire projects?
NM: I find words very powerful, whether they describe a niche concept or a broad set of ideas. Talking about words in multiple languages and finding common traits and points of difference is a constant source of inspiration. The projects I have kickstarted so far were born of personal interest, but they were always made with (and improved by) the wider team.
MM: How do you know which words to teach and which of your products/games have been the most popular thus far?
NM: It’s a two-step process. First, we use data to identify larger sets of useful words (such as words that often appear in exams or are commonly used in textbooks and fiction). Then, our team of writers and curriculum specialists curate a final list, making sure there is a human touch to the selection.
MM: How do you think up the humorous illustrations that you select?
NM: Different artists draw quick sketches of each word, and then we have a meeting where writers and artists choose the best sketch and provide feedback on how to improve it before we finalize the illustration.
MM: What kind of feedback have you gotten about your offerings?
NM: We usually get enthusiastic reviews from teachers, parents, and children – which really motivate us.
MM: Be honest, have you learned any new and unusual words whilst working this job?
NM: As a foreigner, and coming from a Romance language, the words I find hard are usually simple, 4-5 letter words used colloquially. The most recent word that I learned was “waft”.
MM: What has been the best thing about working in the entertainment-education industry so far?
NM: The knowledge that we are having a lasting impact on a young person’s love for learning and chance of academic success.
MM: How do you hope Mrs Wordsmith evolves over the next five years?
NM: I hope our characters enter people’s collective imaginations, like ones from Sesame Street or Peanuts – I would love to see a wacky TV show that pushes a broad vocabulary.
MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to discuss?
NM: We are working on new digital products as well as new lines of books. I am especially excited about our new app, Readiculous, which will tackle phonics and early literacy. This will be released at the beginning of the new year.