Sunday 16 November 2014

MARVELLOUS MACHINES: Technology in picture book illustration • Jonathan Emmett

Understanding how it all fits together is no mean feat.
One of David Parkins's techtastic illustrations for Eileen Browne's story, No Problem.

I’m a bit of a technophile and several of my picture books, such as Callum’s Incredible Construction Kit and Tom’s Clockwork Dragon have a technological theme. I’d like to think that my enthusiasm for technology comes across in my writing, but the writing only tells half the story in a picture book, the other half being told by the illustrations.

Some of the fundamentally flawed bicycle
drawings from Rebecca Lawson’s study
To draw a machine or mechanism well, an illustrator has to understand how it’s put together and operates. This cognitive skill doesn’t always go hand in hand with artistic ability and is relatively uncommon, not just among illustrators, but among the population as a whole.

Cognitive psychologist Rebecca Lawson demonstrated this last point with a series of experiments in which subjects were asked to either draw or complete a drawing of a bicycle. The bicycle is a simple machine that most people will have been familiar with from an early age and even non-cyclists encounter them regularly. While many people may think that they understand how a bicycle is put together, Lawson’s experiments (which she later published as a paper) show that relatively few people are able to draw one from memory without making fundamental errors.

Having established how rare this ability is, here are 10 techtastic picture book illustrators who excel at drawing machines.

You can see every nut, bolt and washer in David Parkins’s wonderful illustrations for No Problem, written by Eileen Browne. This book is one of my all-time favourite picture books about technology and was a huge bedtime favourite of my son’s.

The extraordinary Chris Riddell seems to excel at drawing everything and technology is no exception. The robots that inhabit Wendel’s Workshop demonstrate how technically detailed illustrations can also be brimming with character.

Mark Oliver, who created Monster’s - An Owner’s Guide with me, cites his engineer father as an inspiration for much of his work. Mark once told me that the key to illustrating technology well is that, “it has to look like it could actually work.”

Jonny Duddle’s The King of Space is full of superbly drawn spaceships and robots. Rex, the book’s anti-hero, lives on a farm which may be why the huge “warbot” he constructs looks like it’s made from tractor parts.

Ted Dewan’s re-telling of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice replaces magic with technology, and the work-shy human apprentice with an equally work-shy robot.

Although some of Callum’s creations in Callum’s Incredible Construction Kit are huge, Ben Mantle’s brilliantly detailed illustrations make it clear that they are constructed from pieces that a child could handle and assemble on his own.

William Bee’s illustrations for And the Train Goes are packed with the sort of wonderful technical detail that’s rarely found in picture books for the very young.

While cross sections are more commonly found in non-fiction, Steve Cox’s design for the crocodile submarine in our picture book The Treasure of Captain Claw was so stunning that publisher Orchard gave Steve this huge gatefold to show it off. Click here to see a much larger version in Steve's Flickr album.

No list of techtastic illustrators is complete, without the grandaddy of them all, Heath RobinsonThis illustration is from Railway Ribaldry, published for the centenary of the Great Western Railway in 1935.

And finally, I couldn’t resist sneaking in an illustration from The Clockwork Dragon (a reworking of Tom’s Clockwork Dragon), my forthcoming picture book with Elys Dolan. Elys is a self-confessed armour nut, and this certainly shows in her splendid illustrations of the eponymous dragon, which is made from recycled arms and armour.

Do you have a favourite picture book featuring marvellous machinery that I haven’t mentioned? If so, tell us about it in the comment box below.

Jonathan Emmett's next techtastic picture book, The Clockwork Dragon illustrated by Elys Dolan, will be published by Oxford University Press in February 2015.

Find out more about Jonathan and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blogYou can also follow Jonathan on facebook and twitter @scribblestreet.


John Shelley said...

Excellent feature Jonathan! Such brilliant, inspiring machines, one of the joys of drawing fantasy contraptions is that you can input so much character into them these are truly inspiring creations. I love drawing machines, I just need to write a story to hold them together!

Jonathan Emmett said...

Thanks John.

Several illustrators have told me that they really relish drawing machines, but are not often asked to illustrate stories that give them the opportunity to do so. I'm alway happy to write about technology and several of my stories were written for illustrators who wanted to illustrate a particular machine or vehicle. "Monsters; An Owner's Guide" (shown above) was developed from a very specific suggestion from Mark Oliver - a manual for a mechanical monster. And I wrote "The Treasure of Captain Claw" (also shown above) after Steve Cox told me he'd like to illustrate a picture book with a submarine.

Similarly, Ed Eaves and I have just finished "The Silver Serpent Cup" (out next year with OUP), which was inspired by a series of outrageously OTT vehicle models that Ed made for his degree show many years ago. I only wrote 7 vehicles into the story (which is about a no-holds-barred race), but Ed really pushed the boat out and came up with an additional 17 vehicle designs (all unique and very distinctive) for other racers, which hugely add to the book's appeal.

Jon Burgess Design said...

I think Korky Paul's Fish Who Could Wish had a sort of fantastical 'steampunk'-ish submarine in it. And those DK cutaway drawing type books were pretty technical, the name Steven Beisty came into my head, I think he did a cut away castle amongst other things.
I have had issues with drawing bicycles, I have to design them in my head first to get the logic right before I can draw them. I tend to draw animals with quite short arms and legs, so if I ever have to draw one riding a bicycle it gets tricky, as the saddle needs to be very low and the handle bars very high. if it was drawn to the right proportions it just wouldn't look like a recognisable bicycle so I have to cheat a bit with where the feet are on the pedals etc.
I'm too impatient to draw detailed machinery though, I guess it just doesn't interest me enough. I admire those who have the patience and fascination to do it though ;-)

Martin Ed Chatterton said...

Where's 'Danny Dreadnought', Emmett? Nice article though...

Jonathan Emmett said...

I don't know "The Fish Who Could Wish ", but I love the steampunk aesthetic, so I'll have to check it out.

I do know Steven Beisty's wonderful DK cutaway books very well. They are the sort of books I would have adored as a child. The non-fiction cutaway books I did have at that age seem very simple in comparison.

That's a good point about bicycle proportions, particularly in relation to animals. There's another brilliant book by Eileen Browne and David Parkins called "Tick-Tock" which has a couple of spreads set in a cycle repair shop run by a weasel. A mole and a beetle are seen cycling by in the foreground of one spread and Parkins has adjusted the proportions (and in the case of the beetle's bike, the number of pedals) of their bikes to suit the proportions of the rider. The resulting bikes look very odd, but in a comically appealing way.

Jonathan Emmett said...

Thanks for dropping by Martin and sorry for the shameful omission. I LOVE the "Huge Scary Spaceship" you've drawn for 'Danny Dreadnought'! However I felt a bit cheeky putting one of my forthcoming picture books on the list. I'm not sure I could justify having two and 'Danny D' is technically an early reader.

I'm really looking forward to seeing what you do with the clones story!

Moira Butterfield said...

Now I feel old! I used to write DK cutaway books : ) I'm very proud of writing jet planes, working vehicles, tanks and ships. My engineer Dad and engineer godfather helped me, patiently explaining things. I'm proud because kids still take them out of the library in large quantities- and just I don't think there's enough books done with tec-minded kids. These picture books are FANTASTIC for them.

Jonathan Emmett said...

I'd feel very proud If I'd written those books, Moira!

And I agree that there are aren't enough picture books for tech minded kids, fiction or non-fiction, particular at picture book age. I was disappointed to discover that 'No Problem' and 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice', mentioned in the post, are no longer in print. I suspect that like your cutaway books, they will still be very popular in libraries.

Michael Karg said...

Aaron Becker's Journey contains some wonderful steampunk flying contraptions.
John Vernon Lord's surreal mechanisms in The Giant Jam Sandwich are wonderfully detailed.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Wonderful stuff! I love Captain Najork's wonderful contraption, and that is powered by beefy sailor types on bikes, I think. Nick Sharratt did an absolutely wonderful job of the machine that fills one spread in Just Imagine. It really does look as if it could work, and there are a mass of smaller machines within it to spot (hair dryer, washing machine, bellows, etc). And it's seemingly all powered by one small mouse in a wheel!

Jonathan Emmett said...

Thanks for the recommendations Mike. I came across "Journey" on the web a couple of weeks ago. I didn't see any machines, but was very taken with the architectural drawing (I used to be an architect myself) and the overall style. One for my Christmas list!

Jonathan Emmett said...

I'm ashamed to admit that I don't know Captain Najork, but I'm a big Blake fan, so I'll have to check that out.

You're obviously referring to the wonderful Nick Sharratt illustration that you included in this PBD post:
That's such a colourful spread – it has a slightly psychedelic "Yellow Submarine" feel to it.

Anonymous said...

I second Korky Paul - he fits in little machines all over his pictures. Winnie the Witch's versions of everyday technology such as a washing machine or a computer become fabulous through his pen. My 3 year old daughter loves them.
Thanks for the lovely post - I can see I'm going to have to look up some more of these books. Wendel's Workshop is a firm favourite with my daughter, as demonstrated by the picture she insisted we draw together just yesterday morning!

Jonathan Emmett said...

I'm glad you liked the post, Jenny. And that's a great drawing of the Wendelbot by you and Lucy! :)

Paeony Lewis said...

I’m feeling a little guilty because as I never had much interest in the innards of machines, I never gave my children those sorts of books. It wasn't a conscious decision, but in retrospect I feel they missed out on something important. That’s the trouble with being a parent – we don’t always appreciate our own prejudices.

Jonathan Emmett said...

I shouldn't feel too guilty about it, Paeony. I think every parent tends to encourage their children to take a particular interest in things that they are particularly interested themselves. There are quite a few things I probably should have encouraged my own children to take more of an interest in, such as sport. But it's difficult to enthuse children about something if one is not genuinely enthusiastic about it oneself.

It takes all sorts!

Jane Clarke said...

I was brought up with meccano and Heath Robinson designs so I enjoyed these technotastic illustrations. Elys Dolan's illustration for your new book is fab - I'll look out for it. I love her illustrations in Weasels, too ( techno-savvy weasels intent on world domination).

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Lovely post, Jonathan. The illustration by David Parkin is amazing. I've wanted to write a true story picture book for a while and have done some research/visited some places about it all but thought that the illustrations would be so incredibly difficult to pull off. Now I know it's possible! He'd be the absolute perfect illustrator for the job... At least I know it's doable. Thank you.

My youngest loves all Mike Brownlow books, which have robots and rockets and the like. How to Make a Robot and How to Make a Rocket went down brilliantly but his absolute favourite was Move It -with loads of pictures of different machines.

Looking forward to reading your upcoming books!

Unknown said...

A fun post to consider, Jonathan. I would add John Kelly's The Robot Zoo, A Mechanical Guide to the Way Animals Work. From a virus to the Blue Whale (a three page foldout with the Giraffe on the reverse side) readers see mechanical equivalents of movement, breathing, eating , and special adaptations of each animal. Big format book, and fun to look at and read again and again.

Jonathan Emmett said...

Thanks Ed. I know John's work and he is great at drawing technology, but I didn't know that particular book. I've just googled it and it looks brilliant!

Jonathan Emmett said...

I had to put David Parkins at the top of the list as the illustrations for that book are so extraordinary. I'd love to work with him myself; he was lined up to illustrate one of my picture book stories a few years back but had to pull out due to other commitments. :(

Mick Brownlow almost made the list! I love his "Little Robots" and I've suggested him as a possible illustrator for several of my technology themed picture book stories, but have yet to work with him.

Helen Dineen said...

Belatedly poring over this wonderful post! As my son wants to be an inventor when he grows up, we are very into machine/inventions in books and there are several here we haven't read yet. I think we have borrowed Wendel's Workshop at least 5 times from the library, it's definitely our favourite. And I like enjoy writing about inventions (especially those which could be made by children) too. On a related note, I wrote a blog post about apps/book apps for young children featuring inventions here which you might like.

Jonathan Emmett said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the post, Helen, and thanks for sharing the apps link. You might be interested in the Rube Goldberg app here:

Helen Dineen said...

Thank you, yes I think that looks right up our street!