Picture this


The Big Draw is the world’s biggest celebration of drawing. It has grown into a month-long festival throughout October all over the UK. In this blogpost we celebrate those talented people without whom books would not be the same. 

“Yes, that’s right, children, the illustrator draws the pictures.”

How often is that heard in a primary classroom?  Is that all the illustrator does?

Here at Coventry English HQ we know there’s more to it than that. Good illustrators take words and bring them to visual life, adding their own special idiosyncrasies and quirks. We’ve chosen a few of our favourites to share with you.

Picture books transport us to worlds beyond our imagination. We love illustrators like Satoshi Kitamura, who is able to capture emotions seamlessly in colour and with pace. In Angry Arthur the whirlwind of destruction throws you across the page, while in Millie’s Marvellous Hat the riot of colour and detail invites you to sit, look, stay a while and ponder.  This is what we want in a book, one that excites emotion and gives us something to think about.

Jeannie Baker‘s books use collage to tell their tales. In Window the story of environmental change is told by looking through the same window over a period of 24 years. Written text is minimal – reserved for birthday cards on the window ledge, vehicle signs and advertising hoardings. Two narratives can be read in this text though: the story of a boy growing up and the story of an environment changing over time. In this text images reign – they tell the story, with words used only to fill in any gaps left by the images.

Christian Birmingham’s illustrations work in a more traditional illustrative manner, of supporting the role of words in telling a story. The Impressionist quality of Birmingham’s style makes his drawings ideal companions for traditional tales and children’s classics. Lavish versions of Sleeping Beauty (retold by Adele Geras) and The Snow Queen (retold by Naomi Lewis) owe much of their allure to the stunning artwork produced by Birmingham, which transports the reader to imagined worlds inhabited by witches, princesses, heroes and magic. Our blogpost To Infinity and Beyond features more on Christian Birmingham.

We love to share picture books with children, but we also know that the adult wants some entertainment too. One of our favourite illustrators is the fabulous Emily Gravett.  Her earlier books are particularly good for grown-up giggles, for example Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears. Children love the story, and adults sharing the book will feel just as entertained, as Emily inventively uses everything from the ‘nibbled’ cover to the back pages and even the publisher information to add to the story.  You have to devour every element of the book to get the most out of it, and will want to return again and again to lift flaps and unfold maps. You’ll find something new every time.

In recent years a lot of these picture books have made a long-awaited venture into KS2. Books like Flotsam by David Weisner, Varmints written by Helen Ward and illustrated by Marc Craste, and The Arrival by Shaun Tan, have introduced KS2 children to the world of the beautiful, the unexpected and the strange – visual texts to stimulate thinking and provoke writing. Children move from ‘But there are hardly any words!’ to fascination and real depth of thought.

The amount of thought that goes into an illustration will never be obvious to us readers, and that surely is a measure of its success. How long does it take to choose the right colour, composition, expression? Illustrations don’t just show the author’s narrative but can also interpret their thoughts and feelings. Just think of Michael Rosen’s Sad Book illustrated by Quentin Blake, a masterpiece of empathy. The illustrations hold your hand through the text, giving you more when you need it and leaving it blank when you don’t.

So no, they don’t just draw the pictures.

Take a look at our collections of picture books for Foundation StageKey Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 on Pinterest for lots more beautiful books.

 Originally published on LoveToReadToMyClass.Wordpress.com 12th October, 2012

Neil Armstrong: Celebrate his legacy with a picture book


At some point in every child’s primary school career they will learn about the Earth, Moon and Space. It’s a topic that excites and one that I’ve enjoyed teaching many times over the years. Alongside the science of our solar system there’s usually an opportunity to look at the exploration of space, the journeys that have taken place and the possibilities for the future. Like many other primary school teachers I’ve often combined the topic of space with biography writing, knowing that the life of Neil Armstrong inspires so many children to read and write. It comes as no surprise then at how saddened I was to hear of his passing earlier this week.

As a modern-day adventurer, Armstrong leaves an incredible legacy for children: showing how dedication, team work and bravery can lead to phenomenal results. He was a quiet man, who never exploited his celebrity, instead choosing a life of teaching and learning at the University of Cincinnati. To a generation of children (and particularly boys) growing up in the 1960s and 1970s he was a hero – an icon who shaped their play, inspired their reading and shaped their aspirations.

As one of those children touched by the achievements of the Apollo 11 team the first book that I reached for on hearing of Neil Armstrong’s death was The Sea of Tranquility by Mark Haddon, illustrated by Christian Birmingham. This beautiful picture book is an autobiographical account of Mark Haddon’s childhood – growing up as a little boy fascinated by space and the lunar missions.

Christian Birmingham’s beautiful illustrations capture the young Mark Haddon making a scrapbook called The Journey to the Moon; playing with a model space rocket; gazing out of his bedroom window at the moon. It is though, the carefully placed references in the visual text that make this book for me. On the first page Haddon is pictured wearing a blue and white striped t-shirt with a red pocket. Later in the text he is seen saluting for a photograph next to this t-shirt – now being used as a flag – as he ‘claims’ the snow-covered garden. In the same image we see an echo of the lunar landing in Haddon’s bootprints left in the snow. The t-shirt motif is used again later in the text – but where I shall leave for you to discover yourself.

Neil Armstrong has taken his last step on the Earth but his incredible journey to the moon remains an inspiration to children all over the world. He will continue to be a figure children want to read about and write biographies about. The Sea of Tranquility provides an autobiographical account showing them just how much Armstrong’s adventure to the moon inspired a generation of children who might just be their mums and dads.

Years ago there was a little boy who had the solar system on the wall” Mark Haddon

Rachel Clarke – Director, Primary English Education Consultancy Limited

Mark Haddon is best known as the author of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.”

Mark Haddon’s thoughts about The Sea of Tranquility

The Sea of Tranquility – Amazon.co.uk

We have written about Christian Birmingham here.

First published 27th August, 2012.