Do judge a book by its cover!

    Published: 11 October 2016

    Ruth Goodman is an English Teaching and Learning Adviser for Herts for Learning and is  also a contemporary artist.

    Some of my earliest memories are of sharing a picture book and poring over the illustrations. I found these books were a feast for my eyes, with exquisite illustrations that were just as important as the text. These two elements in picture books work wonderfully together to tell a story that is a blend of text and art. This means that there is always great excitement within the HfL English team when a new picture book arrives to share with schools.

    Picture books are such an important part of every child’s reading diet. They support them in understanding that words convey meaning and their pictures bring greater comprehension to what is written. At a simple level picture books are a great way of introducing new vocabulary and helping very young children to observe and identify colours, animals, people, emotions and familiar objects etc. They are especially valuable when working with EAL children  and as a wonderful source for developing visual literacy. As Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland

     ‘And what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice

    ‘without pictures or conversation?’

    As an artist, I am fascinated by the images that surround me and no more so than when I am looking at great artwork created by accomplished artists. I would classify picture book illustrators as such artists, with their own distinct styles.

    For many children their first experiences of looking at artwork is through the wonderful array of picture books on the market. But what is it that illustrators do that is so successful in bringing a short story to life? Having studied history of art and how to analyse great masters I wondered if I could apply similar principles to picture book illustrations to work out why they are so successful in engaging children.

    You often hear people say “Don’t judge a book by its cover!” However, children do it all the time. They tend to select new books by their first impression which is usually formed by the pictures on the front cover followed by a quick flick through the pages. Illustrators therefore have to draw the young reader in quickly to want to find out more. I realised that as I unpicked what illustrators do I began to appreciate how talented they are. There are several guiding forces that illustrators use, some of these stem from the first picture books produced in 15th century using woodcut illustrations.

    So what are these principles?

    Type of illustrations

    The average picture book has 32 pages including the cover, title page and blurb etc. This leaves approximately 28 pages for the story, including 12 –16 double spreads. An illustrator starts out with a thumbnail storyboard outlining the key events in the story. Once they are happy with the layout they need to decide what type of picture to use on each page. This might sound easy but there are a few types to consider:


    Illustrations with faded or loosely defined blurred edges. The loose edges merge into the white of the surrounding page to give the image space and draw the viewer’s eye into the scene. They provide variety on a page and can draw attention to a note or observation for the reader.



    This illustration is a small oval or circular free floating image, without a background scene


    These are illustrations that have straight defined edges sometimes with a border or frame.


    These enclose the picture, they can be simple lines or quite ornate.



    An illustration that runs off the edge of a page.


    Where the illustration entirely fills the page and  runs of all four edges. Ideal for landscapes and scenes involving a number of characters.

    Size of illustration

    Illustrators then need to vary their use of these picture types. Often you will find that they alternate very busy pages with quieter calmer ones in order to create contrast that makes the book more interesting. Small spot, boxed or vignettes pictures surrounded by the white of the page help to focus attention in one area or on a certain detail. Some illustrators will break up actions into a small series of pictures e.g. baking a cake, while a larger picture may have a lot going on. Illustrators need to also build up tension and excitement ensuring that the reader will want to keep turning the pages. One way of doing this is by trying to use plenty of movement from left to right across the page or double page spread. This movement draws the reader’s attention across the page and down to the corner ready to turn it over, full of anticipation.

    Layers of Detail

    Sharing picture books can be a very social time between an adult and a child or group of children. They are meant to be shared, read aloud and loved. I have treasured memories of sharing picture books with my son, often repeatedly after chimes of ‘Again, again!’ Not only did he love the whole experience of sharing the book, but he also loved the added layers of detail meaning that we spotted new things every time we picked up the book. Often there were also visual gags hidden on the pages aimed at engaging both adults and children. When an illustrator is given a story they need to make the characters come alive through actions and emotions. Often a face will only have very small dot eyes and a simple mouth to enable the children to project their own emotions onto the characters. Adults sharing picture books with children should talk about these emotions in order to help develop empathy.


    Illustrators use colour palettes and graphic codes to allow us to further comprehend events. For example bright dramatic colours are used when an event arises and the reader needs to be surprised or excited. Muted colours tend to give a more gentle feeling and flow to the story. Shades play their part too as light shades represent happiness and calm while dark shades can create tension and sadness. Our understanding of this code of colour in pictures plays a part in aiding our comprehension. From a young age children begin to understand how colour can be used to evoke a feeling e.g. red for danger or anger, blue for sadness, orange for warmth and white for purity. Illustrators use this to very good effect.

    Social media

    In this age of social media illustrators can be directly contacted via sites such as Twitter. Recently I was delighted to come across Nick Sharratt on Twitter and quickly hit ‘follow’. You can contact them to answer questions posed by your children, find out more about their influences and what they are currently working on.

    These websites are really useful too:

      – lists authors and illustrators who visit schools

     –  lists illustrators and gives biographies and  contact details

      – a fantastic source of information about authors and illustrators

    I hope that when you next pick up a picture book and share it with your children you can help them to appreciate the art of both the author in writing the story and the illustrator in interpreting it in their own unique style.

    On a final note I will leave you with this this quote from Anthony Browne, UK Children’s Laureate 2009–2011:

     “Picture books are for everybody at any age, not books to be left behind as we grow older. The best ones leave a tantalising gap between the pictures and the words, a gap that is filled by the reader’s imagination, adding so much to the excitement of reading a book.”

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