Beatrice Alemagna's Unique and Charming Picture Books October 31 2018Alemagna manages to retain a recognisable aesthetic through all of her work, but for each new book she utilises different materials. Her illustrations have used collage, cutouts, paint, textured paper, transparent elements and coloured pencils.
Lesser Known Masterpieces from Your Favourite Illustrators November 08 2017
A Drink of Water, illustrated by Quentin Blake
The nature of children's books and childhood memory means that we often associate our favourite illustrators with just one book or series. Quentin Blake's recognisable inky illustrations will forever be associated with Roald Dahl, and Shirley Hughes' soft style immediately stirs fondness for her well-known Alfie series. But illustrators usually create masses of work in the span of their careers, and some of the most accomplished work from our favourite illustrators lies in books you might not have heard of yet! Here are some of our favourite lesser-known books from the most iconic illustrators of the last century.
Best known for Alfie
In 1968, Methuen commissioned the artist Shirley Hughes to illustrate the fourth collection of Dorothy Edwards’ My Naughty Little Sister stories, which began as a series of popular radio broadcasts. The series' author Dorothy Edwards loved Hughes’ illustrations so much that she was asked to re-illustrate the earlier collections for reissue, and the most well-known image of My Naughty Little Sister is now Shirley Hughes' depiction of her.
This work was a breakthrough success for Hughes, who went on to illustrate over fifty books, including her own massively popular Alfie series. Egmont recently released My Naughty Little Sister: A Treasury Collection, which has Shirley Hughes’ illustrations in full colour for the first time! You can buy it here.
Best known for creating The Moomins
In 1959, Tove Jansson, best known as the creator of the Moomins, was commissioned to illustrate a Swedish translation of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. Her illustration style suited Carroll’s strangeness perfectly, and this project is hailed as a meeting of two of the greatest children’s authors of the past 150 years.
Jansson was later asked to also illustrate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which presented her with an exciting opportunity to try out a new style. Upon receiving her work the book’s delighted editor immediately sent Jansson a telegram which read “Congratulations for Alice- you have produced a masterpiece”.
Best known for Winnie-the-Pooh
E.H. Shepard sometimes lamented that his beloved illustrations for Winnie-the-Pooh overshadowed his other work. He was a brilliantly versatile illustrator, adept at capturing the atmosphere of any writer’s work. Shepard was the original illustrator of the first edition of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. His drawings for the book show his skill at capturing characters and atmosphere, in a world that is very different from the Hundred Acre Wood. The Wind in the Willows has since been taken on by countless illustrators, Inga Moore’s version is one of our other favourites.
Best known for collaborating with Roald Dahl
Long before he ever heard of Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake was already a popular illustrator. He first became well known for illustrating covers of Punch magazine, but always wanted to illustrate a full book. He asked his friend John Yeoman to write a collection of stories for him to illustrate, and in 1960 A Drink of Water was published. The book had been out of print for about fifty years, but Thames and Hudson recently released a new facsimile edition which is completely loyal to the original. (You can get it here). Blake’s illustrations, in his now iconic scratchy style, are immediately recognisable. Because of early sixties printing methods, the illustrations only use only two colours, which today gives them a lovely vintage feel. (You can see more of this 1960s print style in The Mellops go Spelunking and A Balloon for a Blunderbuss).
Quentin Blake’s amazing ability to illustrate a book’s most complex concepts is maybe best exemplified in Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. He said that this illustration, of the author “being sad but pretending [he’s] being happy”, was the most difficult he’s ever done, as he had to capture the sadness behind a smile. The image that follows it depicts how Rosen is really feeling. The comparison strikes to the heart of what the book is about.
Best known for The Velveteen Rabbit
William’s Nicholson was the original illustrator of Margery Williams’ Velveteen Rabbit, a story which has not declined in popularity since its original publication in 1922. Nicholson’s other books are now less famous, but are no less brilliant. He both wrote and illustrated Clever Bill, which Maurice Sendak described as “among the few perfect picture books for children”.
Best known for Findus and Pettson
Sven Nordqvist is a household name all over Scandinavia and in Germany for his series of books about an old farmer and mischievous cat, Findus and Pettson. But arguably his best work as an illustrator is in his stand-alone book Where Is My Sister.
He conceived this book before Findus and Pettson ever existed, and came back to the project after becoming a successful illustrator. Where is My Sister is a surreal dreamscape of intricately detailed double spreads, published in large format which allows you to escape into its world for hours.
Best known for The Hat Trilogy
Jon Klassen is one of the most popular picture book makers working today. He’s best known for his explosively funny trilogy of books about animals and hats; I Want My Hat Back, This is Not My Hat and We Found a Hat. His collaborations with the writer Mac Barnett have also brought him acclaim. Their latest, The Wolf the Duck & the Mouse, was published only last month.
Klassen and Barnett’s books are marked by their sly humour and expressive, devious animals, but Klassen's collaborations with other writers show a versatile range. House Held Up By Trees is written by poet Ted Kooser, and Klassen’s illustrations for it are on a completely different register to his other work. They have a sombre stillness that works well with the book’s reflective and poetic text.
Jon Klassen has also collaborated with the writer of A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket. Their book, The Dark, is all about the balance of light and dark, both in its story and its artwork.
Our carefully curated selection of books includes lots of lesser known works by iconic illustrators, as well as books from amazing artists you may not have heard of. You can browse the entire range here.
Chris Haughton's Deceptively Simple Storybooks October 25 2017
Every month we focus a blog on an illustrator that we love, giving you the opportunity to learn more about your favourite authors' background and influences, or to discover great picture books you may not have heard of. So far we've covered everyone from beloved Swedish children's author Sven Nordqvist, to the Australian artist Shaun Tan. This month we've chosen an Irish illustrator and one of the most popular children's book authors of the last decade, Chris Haughton.
Chris Haughton was born in Dublin and is now based in London. His books are pitched at a very young audience, and designed to be enjoyed by children even before they develop language. But his unique art style, and his use of build-up and humour to create a story, make him very popular with adults too.
A colourful start
Haughton’s books for children to date are A Bit Lost (2010), Oh No, George! (2012), Shh! We Have a Plan (2014) and, most recently, Goodnight Everyone (2016). They immediately stand out on any bookshelf because of their vibrant and unusual use of colour and shape. Haughton's colour palette is full of vibrant pinks, purples, greens and oranges. He uses all of the primary and secondary shades on the colour wheel at once on some pages, sometimes placing sharply contrasting colours side by side.
Primary and secondary colours in Goodnight Everyone
Haughton makes these colour clashes work with his keen sense of design, and the way he can seamlessly balance a variety of block shapes into a cohesive overall picture. To make his illustrations, Haughton first sketches out the scene by hand, then scans and fills them out digitally with block colour. He likes to hide shapes within shapes, so there are often animals hidden in his forests, and his books reveal new details every time you read them.
Chris Haughton creating characters from cut paper, (via CLPE on Youtube)
Colour also helps to tell the story. In Oh No, George!, tangy oranges and reds go side by side with purples, but instead of seeming incongruous, the loud tones just add to the sense of urgency and danger George the dog feels while trying to resist his base urges to eat cake and dig in the flowerbeds!
Character sketches for Oh No, George! From blog.chrishaughton.com
These vibrant colours might partly explain Haughton's wild popularity with very young children. (We can barely keep up with the demand for his books in Tales for Tadpoles!) In Shh! We Have a Plan, small children can enjoy pointing out the colourful pink bird in a landscape of blues. And they get a great payoff in the double spread near the end of the book where there are suddenly dozens of birds to point at. Speaking to picturebookmakers.com, Haughton said that he tries to tell stories “as much as possible through images rather than through words”. This means his books can be understood by the youngest children, who can read visuals long before they can read text.
From Shh! We Have a Plan
A little owl who made it round the world
Chris Haughton’s ongoing work in design and fair trade textiles brings him around the world, and his work combines a homeliness with a universality that has made him popular worldwide. His first book for children, A Bit Lost, was first published in Korean in 2009 before it was published by Walker Books in 2010, and has since been translated into 20 languages to date, including into Irish as Ar Strae Beagán. It tells an old story in a new way; the story of getting lost and trying to find your parent.
Little Owl falls out of the nest, “Bump…bump…BUMP!” and a neighbourly pink squirrel decides to help him find his way home. The squirrel keeps getting it wrong, leading the little owl to a bear and a rabbit, before a frog eventually recognises him and leads him to his mother. The reader turns the page to witness this emotional reunion!
This is one of our most popular board books, and sells like hot cakes (or biscuits, which as Squirrel and Frog say at the end of the book “are our favourite thing”). And like all the best picture books, there is always something tucked in for adults to enjoy, too. Chris Haughton likes to include a relevant philosophical quote at the end of his books, which help to illuminate the deeper meanings of his seemingly simple stories. In A Bit Lost, it's from Robinson Crusoe:
"Thus we never see the true state of our condition, till it is illustrated to us by its contraries; nor know how to value what we enjoy, but by the want of it."
Playing with pages
Although he didn’t start out in books, the format suits Haughton’s work perfectly. He has a lot of fun with the drama of the page-turn, and he uses half-pages to add a sense of physical play to the act of reading. In a blog he keeps about his work processes, he writes that he often formulates the stories in his book around page-turning moments. When making Oh No, George!, about a dog who tries to be well behaved but fails spectacularly, he realised that it “can be great fun when reading aloud if there is a bit of a build up, so [he] decided to build up to a page turn where the dog messes up somehow… that was how the basic idea came about”. Haughton has said he is most proud of these two double spreads from the book; where three images build up to us wondering what George will do, and the next spread shows us exactly what he has done!
His latest offering, Goodnight Everyone, has a more reflective tone than previous books. Perhaps influenced by his travel and work in fair trade, witnessing the long supply-chain that many Western consumers take for granted, Haughton had for years wanted to create a book about scale and connections. But it took the author years to find his way to this book. He abandoned earlier versions before coming back to the idea a couple of years later, after becoming an uncle. His young nieces who were visiting for Christmas were having trouble sleeping, and so he created this deceptively simple bedtime story.
Goodnight Everyone is a book about going to sleep, but it’s also about the scale of the universe. A contagious yawn moves from the smallest animal to the biggest, and Haughton uses a series of mini-pages to reveal bigger and bigger animals behind the leaves.
Each new colour here marks a mini-page to turn in the book.
His nieces enjoyed being able to turn the smaller pages, and being included in the story when the yawn caught on to them too. When Little Bear eventually decides to sleep, the reader says goodnight to all of the animals individually, and as we move on to the next page the books “zooms out” to include the animals from the previous page in the background. This is a clever way to visually introduce children to the scale of the world, and how we all relate to each other. The main characters are Little Bear and Great Big Bear, and in the end papers we see their shapes in the constellations of the night sky. The maps of the stars and solar system either end of the book provide a great opportunity to teach children about the rotation of the earth, and to explain that on our side of the planet, it is time to go to bed!
Chris Haughton’s books are visual enough to be enjoyed by the very youngest readers, but they are far from simple. They can be enjoyed on so many levels, through everything from colour theory to philosophy.
You can buy all of Chris Haughton’s books from us here.
How a 7-year-old's imagination can take us to amazing new worlds September 12 2015
A few weeks ago my seven-year-old nephew Cuan had an accident involving a golf club, which is odd since he's never actually played golf. Happily, while he was mending up, he poured his energies into another, somewhat safer pastime – drawing.
Days after his accident, I paid Cuan a visit to see how he was doing. I found him sitting at a very chaotic kitchen table, busily working away on a collection of original character illustrations. The more I watched him at work, the more I came to suspect that a child’s brain is like some kind of portal into other dimensions. And as we got chatting about his drawings, so it proved to be.
Drawing one: Masked Feline with Hammer
Cuan had already started on the Masked Feline before he asked me for any ideas. He was doing just fine without my input anyway. All I suggested really was a tail. ‘Cats use them for balance’, I told him. ‘And a cat is stealthy too, so if it had a weapon it’d probably be something like a sword, or maybe a sai [an ancient Japanese knife-type device – I know because my favourite Ninja Turtle from when I was a child carried two of them]. ‘I’m going to give it a hammer’, he said. An interesting choice.
Masked Feline with Hammer
I imagine the Masked Feline to be like one of those rare, exotic animals living in remote jungles that only a handful of photographers ever manage to actually capture on film. And if they do so, their work gets published, celebrated and forever preserved in a National Geographic feature spread. But until then the animal is merely a myth kept alive by undocumented sightings reported by unreliable locals.
Yet here is the Masked Feline in all its glory as it fleet-footedly dashes across the page, Thor-hammer in hand. What kind of sound would an animal like that make I wonder? What would it eat? Might it use sunlight for energy instead? And why the mask? Why the hammer? While its surprised expression seems to suggest that it has been caught unawares in a moment of urgency, the Masked Feline's motives, habits and origins remain shrouded in mystery.
Pay close attention
The mask, which beautifully renders contrasts between positive and negative elements. Also worth a mention is the way the orange inside the ears, on the tummy, paws and tail compliment the character’s vibrant, yellow pelt. Note too the orange rectangle on the bottom left of the image. ‘That’s his colour code’, Cuan told me. ‘Green means it’s not that rare, yellow means it’s kind of rare and orange means it’s really rare.’ So that confirms my suspicions: the Masked Feline is really rare.
Drawing Two: Alien Lifeforms Atop a Rocky Hill
‘What will I draw next?’ he asked as soon as he'd finished, so I began making suggestions and he began to put them on paper. ‘How about a planet where there are only rocks’, I said. ‘But there are people living there too. And maybe there’s hardly any gravity on the planet so the people there are really tall. They might even look like plants’. He listened closely, and this is what he came up with:
Alien Lifeforms atop a Rocky Hill
At first, Alien Lifeforms Atop a Rocky Hill made me feel a bit sad. It looks so lonely there on their barren planet, surrounded by all that empty white space. It’s almost like a lost page from The Little Prince. Then I look a little deeper and notice how happy the Alien Lifeforms seem to be. Notice how they hover above the ground – is it the low levels of gravity on the planet or are they leaping for joy? Maybe they’ve received good news? Or they might be simply overjoyed to have the viewer pay them a visit? The truth is out there...somewhere.
Pay close attention
I’m convinced that they key to unlocking the picture’s secrets lies in the thick outlines around the rocks. The solid black lines suggest that the planet and its rocks are real and fixed in place; but the Alien Lifeforms themselves have no outlines. Why? I think it’s because we’re looking at multi-dimensional beings that shape-shift their way in and out of time and space, and maybe even thought itself. Somewhat surprisingly, I see that the colour code to the lower-right of the image suggests that the Alien Lifeforms are only in the ‘kind of rare’ category. Thankfully, they look like a peaceful lot.
Drawing three: Subterranean Man with Armour
‘Now what will I draw?’, Cuan asked me again, as he quickly tore off another sheet of paper from his little notepad. ‘Okay, how about this time it’s a man who lives at the centre of the earth’, I began. ‘But because it’s so hot down there he has to wear a suit of armour that protects him from all the lava down there.’ And within minutes the Subterranean Armoured Man was before us, comfortably relaxing on a sun-hot bed of lava.
Subterranean Armoured Man
I look at the Subterranean Armoured Man and he looks back at me. What does he do all day there deep down under the ground? ‘Why do you resist my understanding, Armoured Man? Reveal to me your secrets’ I demand of him. And there is silence, until at last I hear his voice, muffled by his lava-proof helmet. ‘My secrets?’, he asks, sounding a little confused, and then is silent once again.
Pay close attention
All that lovely white space. See how it draws the eye to the thick band of dominating red? How it’s used to frame the figure of the Armoured Man, who lies perfectly at the centre of the page? Observe how the strong black lines are used to distinguish the Armoured Man from the bed of lava behind him. It’s amazingly simple, yet at the same time, simply amazing.
Returning home again
When he was finished drawing, Cuan gathered up his three illustrations and handed them to me. 'You can keep them if you like', he said. I was so delighted I actually got him to sign the back of each one. So after no more than twenty minutes of frenetic illustration, I returned home from my short visit with three amazing snapshots into the active imagination of a seven-year-old.
For those who have children, or nephews or nieces, or even friends with kids, try take some time out just to observe how and what they draw. You’ll be all the richer for seeing what they can create. Just be sure to give their creations the attention they deserve, remembering that this is imagination in its purest form. This is where illustration begins.
To fire up your own imagination, have a look through our huge collection of classic and contemporary children's book illustrations right here.