Lesser Known Masterpieces from Your Favourite Illustrators November 08 2017

John Yeoman: A Drink of Water, illustrated by John Yeoman

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.

Shirley Hughes 
Best known for Alfie

My Naughty Little Sister: A Treasury Collection

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.

Alfie cushion Shirley Hughes

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.

Tove Jansson
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.

The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Tove Jansson

Jansson was later asked to also illustrate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandwhich 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”.

Lewis Carroll: Alice's Adventures in Wondrland, illustrated by Tove Jansson

E.H. Shepard
Best known for Winnie-the-Pooh

Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows

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.

Quentin Blake
Best known for collaborating with Roald Dahl 

John Yeoman: A Drink of Water, illustrated by Quentin Blake

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).

Michael Rosen's Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake

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. 

Michael Rosen's Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake

William Nicholson
Best known for The Velveteen Rabbit

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”.

Clever Bill by William Nicholson

Sven Nordqvist
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.

Where Is My Sister by Sven Nordqvist

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.

Jon Klassen
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.

The Wolf, the Duck and the Mouse by Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett

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.

House Held Up by Trees

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.

Lemony Snicket: The Dark, illustrated by Jon Klassen

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

Suburban Surrealism: The World of Shaun Tan September 27 2017 2 Comments

Shaun Tan illustrator

Our Illustrator of the Month blog series is a chance to find out more about your favourite illustrators, or to discover new ones. So far, we’ve written on classic authors like Elsa Beskow, cult illustrators like Tomi Ungerer and Tove Jansson, and modern picture book makers like Jon Klassen.

This month we’ve chosen a living and working artist, the brilliant Shaun Tan. Shaun Tan is known for his surreal and socially conscious work, which manages to blend outlandish imagination with real-life relatability. His work as an illustrator is unique and recognisable, he combines vivid, sweeping backgrounds with his distinctive character shapes. His work is challenging and difficult to categorise, often addressing things not broached in standard picture-books. So much so that bookshops in his native Australia and beyond have begun carving out sections for picture books for adults. Though dark at times, his writing is ultimately optimistic, and his drawings show the limitless scope of his imagination.  

Tales From Outer Suburbia

Double spread from Tales from Outer Suburbia

Tales from Outer Suburbia

Shaun Tan grew up in the suburbs of Perth in Western Australia. He became known at school for being good at drawing, and while still a teenager he began publishing illustrations for sci-fi and horror stories in small-press magazines. It’s easy to imagine the young artist creating imaginative worlds to escape from the blankness of a suburban upbringing. Tales from Outer Suburbia, one of Tan’s books as both writer and illustrator, is a collection of stories of surreal goings on in an otherwise normal suburb. In Eric, (which was also released as a stand-alone book due to its popularity), the narrator tells us about a foreign exchange student coming to stay with his family. The exchange student’s hard-to-pronounce name is shortened, and the spare bedroom is all made up and ready for him. But the text’s first hint that something is amiss comes when Eric tells the family he would prefer to sleep in the pantry. Eric is endearingly tiny,(illustrations show him carrying a hollowed out peanut shell as luggage), and polite, so his strangeness is basically accepted by the family.  “It must be a cultural thing”, is the mother's explanation. 

Eric by Shaun Tan

Many of Shaun Tan's books feature characters who feel out of place in the culture and context they find themselves in. The Arrival, his most famous work, tells the familiar story of a migrant seeking new opportunity abroad, but tells it in a completely new way. The man in this book lands in a bewildering city of strange animals, floating objects and an indecipherable language, and his journey is shown entirely through pictures. 

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

                                   From The Arrival. A full blog post on The Arrival is coming soon! 

In an article for Viewpoint Magazine about creating The Arrival, Shaun Tan wrote that he has,

"a recurring interest in notions of ‘belonging’...One contributing experience may have been that of growing up in Perth, one of the most isolated cities in the world, sandwiched between a vast desert and a vaster ocean... Being  half-Chinese at a time and place when this was fairly unusual may have compounded this..."  

He gathered anecdotes of immigrant experiences; including those of his father, friends and partner, and found the common threads in their stories to help create The ArrivalThis has meant that even though its setting is outlandishly inventive, this story is a very familiar one for most people.

The ''Real" in Surreal

In Rules of Summer Shaun Tan again allows us to recognise ourselves in settings that lie beyond the realms of our wildest imaginations. In a book made up of large format illustrations and double spreads, we get a sense of Australia’s open expanses of sky and roads, and its shimmering heat.

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan

But these recognisable elements are woven into bizarre worlds, to which the sparse text offers no explanation.  “This is what I learned last summer” the narrator tells us. The lessons listed and seem simple enough, “never leave the back door open overnight, “never eat the last olive at a party”. But the images show us the consequences of these actions: if you leave the door open a spontaneous growth of lizards and glowing fungi will take over your living room. If you eat the last olive at a party an army of humanoid hawks will devour you. Shaun Tan’s world is what you get when you mess up the dials on the TV. Colour and contrast are suddenly heightened and skewed, but we can still see the reality that remains underneath. The growths in your living room might be poisonous spiders from your Australian back garden. The hawks might be a room full of your parents’ friends who think you’ve got bad manners. Tan has said that he created this particular illustration while attending various social functions related to his Oscar win in 2011, (for an animated adaptation of The Lost Thing), which might explain why the hawks are wearing tuxedos!

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan

Millions and Millions of Rabbits

The allegories in Shaun Tan’s work aren’t limited to harmless suburban happenings though. In 1999, the Children’s Book Council of Australia awarded him and writer John Marsden a Picture Book of the Year award for The Rabbits. In reference to colonialism and the destruction of the Aboriginal way of life in Australia, rabbits invade a country in their millions, build a rabbit society, and wipe out what was there before. The choice of rabbits as the invading animal in this book adds another frame of reference, as rabbits caused havoc in Australia’s unique ecosystem when artificially introduced into the country by humans. The Rabbits is an allegory for all times, and all cultures, about human ignorance and greed.

The Rabbits by Shaun Tan

From The Rabbits 

It would be easy to classify Shaun Tan as a writer for adults alone, based on the challenging content of some of his books. Responding to criticism levelled at The Rabbits in the Australian media, Tan writes on his website that the book was originally conceived for older readers. But to limit his books to an adult readership would be to do children a disservice. Children can handle more than they’re given credit for, and at the core of a lot of Shaun Tan’s work is a childlike innocence and ultimately optimistic outlook on the world. His books often feature creatures that the average adult wouldn’t find sympathetic, but that children will be drawn to. And in a scenario that many parents will recognise, the oddest creatures are adopted as pets! In The Lost Thing, the narrator tells us about a time he found a Lost Thing and tried to find a place for it. No reference is made in the text to what this “thing” looks like.  Shaun Tan gives himself full rein to design a completely unrecognisable creature, which ends up as massive red metal thing with octopus legs and metal spikes on top… and somehow still manages to be sort of cute!

The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan

Because this is a picture book, and not a novel, there is no long passages of text explaining where the Thing came from or why it exists. It is just there, and when we read the book we become its friend, and that’s that. This essential lack of judgement is what makes Shaun Tan so appealing to children, and adults who want to stay in touch with that glimmer of innocence inside themselves. There is also plenty here for children who love to read the same books over and over again, playfulness abounds in the small details of Tan's illustrations. A newspaper page shows us where the Thing might have a place after all; The Federal Department of Odds & Ends, whose Latin motto is sweepus underum carpetae. (If Harry Potter has taught us anything, it’s that children love a bit of nonsensical bureaucracy in their books). Other articles on the page, that adults might gloss over but sponge-like children will not, include a product recall for a potentially lethal fault in “model 350A Deluxe ‘Suck & Slice’ automated beet cutters”.

The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan

Back to Basics

The majority of Shaun Tan’s work comes from a completely new and invented place, but like all great writers he is also interested in where stories come from, and what came before him. He explores this in The Singing Bones, a collection of sculptures he created based on the Brothers Grimm fairytales. In the introduction to the book the writer Neil Gaiman says that Tan’s sculptures do “something profound. His sculptures suggest. They do not describe. They imply; they do not delineate. They are, in themselves, stories.” Gaiman’s evaluation could be applied to any of Shaun Tan’s work; all of his illustrations leave themselves open to interrogation. But Tan may have found his perfect form in sculpture. The rounded shapes of his character design and pointed shapes of his buildings find a perfect balance here, and each sculpture hums with movement and energy even though they are still and quiet.

The Singing Bones by Shaun Tan

In his 2D illustrations, Tan often uses collage and mixed media, and his sculptures are no different. In his Hansel and Gretel sculpture ,(which was the first one he made), the children kneel to gobble up real cake decorations from the house behind them, while a witch leers from the shadows. Such a simple idea immediately tells us what story this is, and distills it to its essence.

You get the sense, when reading a Shaun Tan book, that he enjoys his work immensely. That he feels lucky to be able to create such weird stories and drawings and not only have them published, but have them loved and appreciated by masses of people. The feeling is infectious. Seeing an artist give their imagination full rein makes us wonder what else there is to be discovered in the world, if we open ourselves up to all of life’s infinite possibilities.

Find all of the books mentioned, and more Shaun Tan books, here.


The Best of Love in 14 Amazing Children's Book Illustrations February 06 2017

Love is the most potent bond between one person and another, as Valentine’s Day cards are all too eager to remind us. But love also binds us to many other things in our lives that are deeply meaningful to us. So to celebrate the power of love in a more all-embracing way, we decided to put together a list of wonderful book illustrations that celebrate love in its many forms.

Simply click on the images below to view them in our store.

1. Loving ... Your Significant Other

The most obvious one on the list – that powerful love for your significant other with whom you gladly share your highs and lows.

Moomintroll and Snorkmaiden

2. Loving ... a Good Book

For those who love to visit new places, go on amazing adventures, meet fantastic characters and explore exciting possibilities all through the power of a good book.

Matilda - What to Read Next

3. Loving ... Logic 

For when it’s time to cut through the nonsense with some rock-solid, well-reasoned insights.

The BFG: Two Rights

4. Loving ... Siblings

They grew up with you, know just about everything about you, and have helped shaped who you are, which makes spending more time with them all the more precious.

Annie and Alfie Rose Reading

5. Loving ... Dressing the Part

For the fashionistas who can successfully make the vintage into the distinctly modern.

Harry Clarke The Fairy

6. Loving ... Parents

You may not always agree with their advice, but they're always looking out for you (and are probably mostly right anyway).

Shirley Hughes Dad in the Rain

7. Loving ... Friends

For those who know that what makes doing nice things really special is doing them with friends.

Winnie the Pooh Poohsticks

8. Loving ... Pets

They give all their love and ask nothing in return, which makes us love them even more.

Edmund Dulac Snow Queen

9. Loving ... the Weather (Even Winter!)

For when you’re soaked through and far from home but still can’t resist splashing through puddles.

Alfie Splish Splash Splosh

10. Loving ... Nature

It’s not just something to enjoy now and then when the weather is nice, it’s something you’re a part of all the time.

Moomintroll and Snorkmaiden Flowers

11. Loving ... Getting Creative

Whether it’s on a gallery wall or the kitchen wall, if doing something creative allows you to express yourself, then it’s most definitely worth loving.

Miffy the Artist

12. Loving ... Good Food

For those who love flavours that tickle their fancy and tingle their taste buds!

Winnie the Pooh Honey Pots

13. Loving ... Having Everyone Together

If it’s truly worth doing, then it’s definitely worth doing with your nearest and dearest.

Moomins Everyone

14. Loving ... Each and Every Day

For reminding yourself, and others, that every day is a gift to be thankful for.

Alfie Jumping


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

The brief

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

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

The brief

‘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 on a Rocky Hill

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

The brief

‘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 Man with Armour

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.

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