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.

The Prettiest Girl and the Wolf that Laughed Last July 23 2015

Arguably the best-known of all fairytales, the story of Red Riding Hood does not always end the way we thought it did. In fact in one very old written version of the story, things go very badly indeed for our young heroine, and Harry Clarke’s illustration perfectly captures the moment things start to go downhill.

Harry Clarke's Red Riding Hood illustrationClarke was one of the leading lights of the ‘Golden Age’ of illustration along with prominent greats such as Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen and Edmund Dulac.

Though mainly known for his intricate stained-glass panels, Clarke also produced a trove of beautifully crafted classic fairy tale illustrations (several of which we included in a previous blog post). Owing to the fact that many of these pieces seem to focus on the stories’ darker aspects, few of them – if any – are meant for younger viewers. One excellent example is his unsettling depiction of the first encounter in the forest between Red Riding Hood and the wolf.

At first glance, the image seems elegant and non-threatening – an unconcerned-looking Red Riding Hood, holding her brolly and basket of goods, stops to take notice of a wolf that’s appeared from among the trees. Neither is shown to have an inclination towards a fight or flight response. It all seems rather calm and civilised. However, Clarke’s illustration was based on Charles Perrault’s version of the story, which first appeared back in 1697, long before the more widely known Brothers Grimm version, which appeared in 1812. The main difference between the two could not be starker. In the Grimms’ edition, a huntsman rescues Red Riding Hood and her grandmother before the wolf has had a chance to digest them after consuming them; in Perrault’s version, the wicked wolf hungrily gobbles down Red Riding Hood and her granny, and there the story ends. There’s no saviour, no comeuppance for the wolf, and no happy ending.

Yet this is what part of what makes Clarke’s illustration for Perrault’s intense little tale so unique: it doesn’t just give us a familiar old scene; instead it captures the exact moment when Red Riding Hood’s fate is sealed as the wolf first lays eyes on her. Given this fact, rather than slipping into our roles as interested but passive spectators, we are instead made witnesses as the young girl is delivered directly to a wild and ravenous predator while still blithely unaware of the creature’s terrible intentions for her.

But Clarke’s image does more than just make witnesses of us. It also invites us to interact with what we see and to view the story in a frightening new light. So that’s just what we’ll do.

When Beauty Meets the Beast

From the very first line of Perrault’s tale, we’re told that Red Riding Hood is uniquely beautiful. She is described as ‘the prettiest girl you can imagine’. Clarke takes this as a starting point for his own work, presenting us with the vision of a sophisticated, pixie-like young heroine.

He focuses on the details of her clothing, adding delicate floral patterns to her dress, fur to the front of her heeled shoes, and tassels to the hem of her brilliant red hood. Her delicacy is reiterated through her pale skin, minute facial features and disproportionately tiny hands. She is all symmetry, fine lines, elegance and poise – the perfectly presented nineteenth-century society belle.

The wolf, on the other hand, is portrayed as being the very opposite of grace and orderliness. His fur is presented in a rush of untidy, ragged lines; his colour is mottled rather than pure; and his mouth hangs menacingly open, exposing to us his teeth and tongue. It seems to be a deliberate attempt by Clarke to accentuate the divide between ordered human society and the disordered natural world.

Lost and alone in the forest

This divide is represented figuratively by the winding footpath – an odd, out-of-place human construction in the deep woods – along which Red Riding Hood has wandered. In doing so, she has left behind the safety of her everyday world, with its morals and social conventions, and now finds herself trapped, helpless and alone.

Imprisoned by the surrounding trees, her only hope of rescue seems to lie with the woodsmen who are shown working far off in the background, but they are distant figures on a separate path. The suggestion here seems to be that Red Riding Hood has chosen her own way, and must deal with its consequences alone.

The symbol of the Red Hood

Part of the beauty of Clarke’s illustration is that it offers only clues for interpretation; nothing is entirely certain. Yet the iconic red hood is so noticeable that it appears vital in any search for meaning in the image.

Against a palette of muted, earthly colours, the hood’s vibrant red seems to acquire a symbolic value, but of what? Some have suggested that the story itself is a parable of sexual awakening and the potential dangers it poses for vulnerable young women. Clarke certainly seems to acknowledge this interpretation: notice, for instance, that his Red Riding Hood wears a bustle – a framework that women of the late 1800s wore beneath their dresses to affect a fuller, more alluring figure. In this context the red hood may be seen as a symbol of menstruation and sexual maturity. Under this light the wolf is then revealed as another kind of predator whose altered motivations are just as sinister.

But perhaps a more straightforward interpretation of the red hood is that it is a foreshadowing of Red Riding Hood’s bloody and fateful end. If she is indeed a symbol of the ordered human world, then the wolf may act as a warning against ignorance, or possibly even blind arrogance. After all, for all her outward sophistication, Red Riding Hood is still easily outwitted by the wild yet cunning animal before her. Could it be that no matter how much we think we know, nature will simply always remain a few steps ahead of us?

Whatever interpretation we apply to Clarke’s complex illustration, his major achievement is that though he presents us with an instantly recognisable scene, the more we examine his ethereal vision, the less familiar it seems to become. 

Click on the link to view a selection of our classic fairy tale-inspired prints.



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