Monday 19 July 2021

The First Modern Picture Book Illustrator? By Pippa Goodhart

I’m going to quote Maurice Sendak, writing in 1978 (published in a handsome book called ‘Caldecott & Co. Notes on Books & Pictures’). Talking about Randolph Caldecott, the illustrator, he says, ...


            ‘Caldecott’s work heralds the beginning of the modern picture book. He devised an ingenious juxtaposition of picture and word, a counterpoint that never happened before. Words are left out – but the picture says it. Pictures are left out – but the word says it. In short, it is the invention of the picture book.’

            Sendak then talks (the essays in this book were often speeches) about the ‘honesty’ of Caldecott’s work. ... ‘Caldecott never tells half-truths about life, and his honest vision, expressed with such conviction is one that children recognize as true to their own lives.’ 

            So I went to my bookshelves to look again at my own tatty copy of a Caldecott book.

 It had been given as a present –



         Goodness! 1819 is over two hundred years ago, the year of the Peterloo Massacre, the year when John Keats wrote his ‘Ode To Autumn’, the …   Oh, that can’t be right! Randolph Caldecott wasn’t born until 1846, and was contemporary, and friends with, the pre-Raphaelite artists. Fred had clearly got the date back to front, and must have given that two shilling book in 1918, at the end of the First World War. A salutary lesson in how evidence-based ‘history’ can get it wrong!

            Never mind. Let’s look inside the book. What joy! The colour plates are beautiful, and it’s clear that bank clerk turned illustrator via night school classes Caldecott really was in the same artistic stream as his friends Millais and Rossetti – 



            But the real fun is in the little line drawings which add sub-plots and such relatable humanity that we see what Sendak calls the ‘honesty’ of the work. The emotions ring absolutely true, and that is exactly why they are funny. In ‘The Queen of Hearts’ we have a number of sub-plots, making the Queen herself about the least interesting character in the whole thing. A royal child longing for those tarts, and sneakily stealing something himself (the king’s sceptre) that goes unpunished, unlike the luckless knave who is beaten for his crime. And there’s the wonderful tell-tale cat –


But I’m sure it is the naughty knave himself who children must relate to most strongly. The absolute longing for those delicious tarts, solving the problem of where to hide them, then being called to do a job so having to hide them again, ...

... thinking he’s got away with his crime and will enjoy the tarts in due course, but that sneaky cat has made sure isn't true. We, the book audience, know what the knave doesn't, and soon the knave gets beaten ‘full sore’. At that point we see the children in the story’s sympathy for him, holding back the King of Hearts when he goes to thrash the knave. 


The knave has the agony of being laughed at for his crime, ...

... and seeing everybody else in court scoffing the jam tarts he had wanted. It’s all so, so relatable, even when done in such sketchy fashion! 

I'm going on a search for more Caldecott illustrations. I may be some time ....

Monday 12 July 2021

How to HOOK in the Reader by Leaving SPACE • by Natascha Biebow

When crafting picture books, I’m always delighted when the end product looks seamless. All that agonizing over the details of story, character, plot, pacing, word and image choices, layout, design, format, typography and so much more is ready to be launched into the big wide world, bound into pages of promise. 


All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman

Promise because there is something else that must now happen – when the book lands into the hands of young readers, it must connect.


For a book to deliver that magical, immersive, transportive reading experience that lingers and resonates, the picture book must become more than the sum of its parts, more than just the literal elements on the page. To do this, it needs something key – the reader.


Now, that delicately crafted balance between the words and pictures on the page (seamless, we hope) plays out to make something synergistic – because when the reader gets involved, the child creates the ‘more’.  


"We share stories from the heart."
From All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman


The reader is tasked with actively encoding the words and the pictures, listening and looking, making connections and filling in the gaps to make meaning.

To do this, authors and illustrators need to leave SPACE for the reader:




Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins is a classic example of where a visual narrative
allows space for readers to participate and add to the story narrative.

The minimal text tells one story, while the pictures tell another . . .

. . . creating lots of humour!

In the WORDS

Love by Matt de la Peña and Loren Long

The open-ended, lyrical text allows young readers to imagine each moment and
add to an individualized interpretation of what 'love' is:

". . . everything smells new, and it smells of life."

In this instance, the illustrator depicts a boy sharing a hotdog with a man on a bench,
but the reader might interpret these words in many different personal or imaginary ways.





Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de La Peña and Christian Robinson

The boy in this story is going on a bus journey with his grandmother - where?
The vivid details included in text and illustrations encourage the reader to join in
in creating the meaning, in building up the sense of the characters and their
community, and filling in the special relationship between CJ and Nana. 


Building on this, in the poignant final scene, CJ is glad to
be with his community of familiar faces –
the words & pictures allow space for readers
to figure out where they are and why it matters
without needing to be told in an overt message.

Even in the FORMAT.

Where's Spot? by Eric Hill is a pre-school classic!


A lift-the flap guessing game format is delightful fun to share with the youngest readers
and leaves lots of space for dialogue and for the reader to
imagine possibilities while interacting with and adding to the story.

Surprise! The SNAKE is in the clock, not Spot!


HOW do authors do this? (And how can you do it if you’d like to write amazing picture books?)

WELCOME the reader in

One Smart Fish by Chris Wormell

This spread at the beginning of the book introduces the main character, one 'Smart Fish',
who looks so ordinary - how could he be a hero? the reader might wonder.
I wonder WHY he's amazing? The author invites the reader to engage with the story
and welcomes them into the narrative to go on a journey together.

Invite readers in to be part of and even engage in creating the story. 


Winged Wonders: Solving the Monarch Migration Mystery
by Meeg Pincus and Yas Imamura

In this story, Pincus invites readers to participate in the question of who solved the age-old
mystery of where the monarch butterflies go every year? In a series of spreads, the
open-ended questions allow readers space to engage with the narrative,
accumulating facts as they turn the pages to come to their own conclusion –
more than the sum of its parts.

A Bit Lost by Chris Haughton

Squirrel is trying to help Owl find Mummy.  In each sequence, Owl describes Mummy:
"My mummy is VERY BIG. Like THIS!" The author allows space for the reader
to be part of the story and imagine how Mummy might look with these attributes.
The pictures also allow space for the reader to imagine both Mummy's
appearance and guess what might come next. And because the reader
is part of the narrative, when they turn the page to find . . .

. . .  a bear (!) it's instantly funny.
The pictures here allow space for the reader to reconsider their guess
and delight in the joke when Squirrel mistakenly asserts, "Here's your mummy!" - since
young readers will know an Owl's mum looks nothing like this -
but also readers will empathise with Owl's disappointment at still not
being reunited with Mummy.

Can you create an OPENING IN THE NARRATIVE where young readers can find meaning?

AVOID over describing: the delicate balance between words and pictures takes craft to achieve – the story must stand on its own when read aloud, but also leave space for the pictures and for young readers’ interpretation. The choice of what to include is just as important as what to leave out. It may take some often-frustrating tinkering.


Bob Goes Pop! by Marion Deuchars

In this story that explores the theme of what makes a good artist, Bob is an artist who
gets into a argument with a famous sculptor called Roy. Bob says Roy's art is just
everyday objects except bigger. Roy bets Bob he couldn't even make a sculpture if he tried!

In this scene, every time Bob creates a work of art, Roy's is seemingly better.
The author allows space in the pictures for readers to look closely and intuit this.
Bob's splodgy rough round the edges artwork gives an impression that it is
less slick than Roy's, even through the text doesn't tell readers this.

Looking closely at Bob's body language in the pictures also allows space for the
reader to connect with Bob's emotions and understand how the main
character's frustration is building until his desperation leads him to cheat.

It is important to know the backstory of your narrative and your characters’ world
and, above all, your character’s motivation, but then to choose carefully what you will include. Use specific, vivid details, but only share those that will give meaning to the story.

The Iridescence of Birds by Patricia MacLachlan and Hadley Hooper

In this nonfiction picture book about the artist Henri Matisse,
 the author poses one long question - why do painters paint what they do?

Carefully choosen details in the words and pictures on each spread
illustrate vivid and specific everday experiences that influenced the artist
to eventually produce his colourful collage artwork.

The narrative is filled with spaces, where the reader
must fill in the gaps to make the sum of the whole to arrive at
the inspiring 'a-ha' moment at the end.


Conversely, avoid the pitfall of including too little information. If there isn’t enough context, emotion, or details, readers have nothing to hold on to so they won’t be invested enough in the story to add meaning. It's key to set up the action to arrive at a satisfying ending.

AVOID overstating the story’s theme or message. This leaves no space for the reader! If the author has done their job well, there is no need to tell readers what the take-away is, because the plot and character’s emotional journey to overcome the plot problem and navigate high stakes will serve to create a feeling and a take-away meaning that the reader is able to intuit.

Invite the reader to


PREDICT what will come next

Neon Leon by Jane Clarke and Britta Teckentrup

Neon Leon is a chameleon who doesn't fit in. Throughout the story, the author
creates space for young readers to interact with the main character's actions
and empathize with how he's feeling. In this spread, Neon can see something that might
be a hint of something the same colour as him. Is this the answer he's been looking for?
The text ends with an ellipses (ooh, I wonder...), which when combined with the page turn,
adds space for the reader to engage and predict what might come next.

OBSERVE the pictures for narrative clues that will advance the plot and
your characters’ motivation story arc.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff and Felicia Bond

All day long, the boy has been following the mouse, making sure it has what it needs.
The simple words underline a multi-layered visual narrative in which the mouse
goes from one thing to the next, starting with a cookie
that needs a glass of milk that needs a straw and so on,
all the way full-circle to the ending, where the mouse is thirsty and needs . . .

. . . . a glass of milk! The narrative leaves space for the reader to look closely at the pictures,
and add depth, nuance and humour to the interpretation of the story.
The emotional journey of both the mouse and the boy and their relationship
is largely apparent in the pictures.

And importantly, leave space for ‘I WONDER . . . “ so readers can have the pleasure of that a-ha moment and of working stuff out for themselves, filling in the meaning.

Old Rock (is not boring) by Deb Pilutti

Old Rock has been sitting on the same spot at the edge of a forest for a long time.
Tall Pine, Hummingbird and Spotted Beetle are sure it must be very boring.
But Old Rock has surprisingly actually had a very interesting and exciting life!
Here, Old Rock tells them he's pretty good at doing somersaults.
It seems inconceivable given how Old Rock looks on the page here.

The page turn is a powerful tool to create space.
This pause allows young readers wonder and imagine what Old Rock
might look like doing somersaults.

A bit like this perhaps . . .

. . . but perhaps unexpectedly landing like this!
In this spread, the reader can use the space left by the minimal words to imagine how rock
might have felt when he landed here after his exciting somersault adventure,
and what it would have been like living during the time mastodons roamed the Earth.
Importantly the reader might say, "I wonder . . . where Old Rock might go next
and where he might end up after that?"

To do all this, is to TRUST in the reader.

That wonderful synergy that you get in an excellent picture book must come from the fine balance between the words and the pictures, but also from the SPACE creators allow for the reader.

What examples from your favourite picture books and those you’ve created can you share with our blog readers?



Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor

Natascha is the author of the award-winning The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, illustrated by Steven Salerno, winner of the Irma Black Award for Excellence in Children's Books, and selected as a best STEM Book 2020. Editor of numerous prize-winning books, she runs Blue Elephant Storyshaping, an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission, and is the Editorial Director for Five Quills. She is Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. Find her at


Monday 5 July 2021

A look at Cautionary Tales with Mini Grey

How much violence is the right amount of violence in picture books? Or is it none at all? Is it OK for violent words, but not okay for violent pictures? And if so, does this mean pictures are more powerful than words?

        I came upon this Amazon review of my version of Hilaire Belloc’s Jim: for this reviewer the depiction of a severed head in Jim -  was clearly unacceptable. 

Here’s the moment in full:

Maybe I’d have been wiser to depict the head less gorily.

In her Jim illustration, Posy Simmons shows just pure head sitting like a bun on the ground at the zoo. (I love the stern words the Honest Keeper is having with Ponto the Lion in the background.)

Some of the very first children’s books were highly moralising tales of children being good and bad, intended to be extremely improving. Here’s a scene from William Carus Wilsons’s Child’s First Tales (c. 1829).

 It encourages us to have a really good look at a naughty girl who is having an epic stroppy meltdown (worthy of Barbara Throws a Wobbler.) "Oh how cross she looks!"

Barbara Throws a Wobbler, a fantastic book by Nadia Shireen

But the bad child doesn’t have a chance to learn to calm down and put things in perspective (as Barbara does), because a sentence later God strikes her dead. Reader, you’ve been warned.  

In contrast, above right are some good children. They’ve been so good that they’ve earned a special treat. Which is to be able to drink tea by themselves. So here they are drinking tea, still being good, and all so happy, and not being struck dead by the Almighty.  

So these type of children’s books are what Heinrich Hoffman was taking the mickey out of when he created Struwwelpeter.

In 1844, Hoffmann – a doctor and writer in Frankfurt – was struggling to find a book to give his three-year-old son Carl for Christmas. Tired of stern ‘moralising stories’, he bought a blank notebook and filled it with his own bizarre tales and cartoonish drawings. These were probably inspired by the stories he told to entertain young patients.

And Hoffman’s pages are quite innovative. 

Here’s Harriet going up in flames after playing with matches, accompanied by a sort of Greek chorus of wailing cats who end up projectile-weeping on her ashy remains.

And here is Augustus being reduced from a fine bouncing boy to a stick man in a comic-book type sequence. And it only takes five days without soup to kill Augustus. I think Hoffman was definitely intending to make his children laugh.

One inheritor of Hoffman’s black humour is perhaps Edward Gorey. His unfortunate Gashlicrumb tinies don’t really have a chance to learn anything before having their lethal alphabetical mishap. Here are Amy, Titus and Zillah.

 (I really sympathise with Zillah as my gin consumption was a bit enthusiastic over lockdown.) 

So now we get to Hilaire Belloc. The great thing about Belloc’s cautionary tales is he tells you right at the beginning how the child is going to die. For example: 


Who told Lies,

and was Burned to Death.

Here’s Posy Simmonds’ Matilda. She is telling an enormous lie. 

Matilda told such Dreadful Lies,

It made one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes;

 But have a really good look at Posy’s picture. Matilda’s aunt is so distracted she’s pouring tea into her lap, the butler looks like he might just drop the cake, the gentleman has gone bright red, and the dog looks like its eyes are going to pop out. What OUTRAGEOUS WHOPPER did Matilda just say? It’s so wonderful. But part of the inspiration for this scene from Posy Simmons is the sheer understatement from Belloc who leaves the content of the lies completely to our imagination.

Here is Matilda’s Aunt’s house burning down. It’s such a gloriously elegant inferno. You can have a look at more here:

As a child I loved the Belloc Cautionary Tales and learned some by heart – they are brilliant for performing out loud. One of the Bellocs I learned was Rebecca (who slammed Doors for Fun, and Perished Miserably). Ages ago I made a book of Rebecca (for Fun) – I thought a book full of doors could be good. Here are some pages:

 Later I was drawn to Belloc’s Jim (who Runs Away from his Nurse, and is Eaten by a Lion)– it was like a delicious present full of fantastic things to draw: tea and cakes and jam, and slices of delicious ham and chocolate with pink inside. But there’s something about the pink inside the chocolate that might be a bit dangerous, a bit like poison.

Poor Jim doesn’t do anything really naughty. He is plied with sweets and treats but isn’t allowed any freedom – so the one time when he successfully runs away, it’s into a lion’s paws at the zoo.

 And this zoo is the world’s safest zoo. 

In Jim there is stifling safety, many hands, distant parents…

…so could the message really be about the dangers of absolute safety and not getting a chance to experiment with freedom in a potentially dangerous world?

And the Belloc voice is one of breath-taking understatement - which lets your imagination fill in the gaps. Look at what the adults are doing – are they the real culprits?

And there’s useful information on the correct sequence to eat a child bit by bit (feet upwards).

Belloc's Cautionary Tales -  could they be written today? Looking to writing in the tradition of Belloc: first stop could be Roald Dahl. 

Look at the 5 nasties in Willy Wonka. Augustus Gloop, Violet Beauregard, Veruca Salt, Mike Teevee: a Cautionary Tale, every one. 

Here's my Chocolate Factory Chocolate Box, with the Willy Wonka Children immortalised in chocolate:

I have to confess I stopped reading David Walliam’s books with the Demon Dentist. But cautionary tales is a perfect arena for Walliams to unleash mayhem. David Walliams' World’s Worst Children  – it’s interesting to look at protagonists. One who is just unrelentingly awful and doesn’t change is boring; discovering a useful quality can steer towards a happy end. Or else a glint in the eye of the awful person can make the whole bloodbath worthwhile (as in Matilda?) 

Walliams' cautionary tales seem to be an exploration of what happens if you take something to the absolute extreme. There are children who have problems that aren’t their fault – like the dribbler or the sleeper – is it fair to punish for badnesses that aren't deliberate?. 

Less is more. What made me laugh was Earnest Ernest and his photograph album of traffic lights and copies of Spoon Monthly. But then, I'm a fan of spoons and if Spoon Monthly was available, I'd be a subscriber.

In the usual picture book arena the reader is able to travel through the dangerous woods to the happy end. But in Cautionary Tales there’s no happy end…well, usually.

In Catherine Emmett and David Tazzyman’s hilarious The Pet, Digby is a demanding Wanter of pets but a negligent Tender of pets. Cautionary Tales are for children and for their  grown-ups – as it says on the cover. So grown ups – pay attention!

I love the Flea Circus on Doris the Pet Shop owner's counter!

Look to Daddy whose hair turns slightly grey but who always agrees to the demands. (I’m getting a whiff of Veruca Salt’s Dad here) 

But the ending is not (SPOILER ALERT!!) fatal for Digby – a bit more like a Not Now Bernard-style role reversal. The surprising hero is Digby’s final pet, who turns out to be an excellent organiser.



I have the complete Cautionary Tales by Belloc, and Matilda, Jim and Rebecca are streets ahead my favourites. Reading through the rest of them rapidly gets a bit exhausting. So they’re a bit like a box of chocolates – once you’ve picked out your favourite ones, chomping through the Coffee & Crab Cream and the Nutmint-Cracknel just gets tedious and makes you feel mildly queasy.

 So a little goes a long way, with Cautionary Tales. And the last word on depicting decapitation might have to go to Hilaire Belloc.

When asked: “Is it true?” he replied, dryly:

And is it True? It is not True.

And if it were it wouldn’t do,

For people such as me and you

Who pretty nearly all day long

Are doing something rather wrong.

Because if things were really so,

You would have perished long ago,

And I would not have lived to write

The noble lines that meet your sight,

Nor B.T.B. survived to draw

The nicest things you ever saw.