Working for Children

The first part of this exercise was to collect examples of imagery for children in different age groups. I have selected a few to analyse in this post.

Pre reader

Illustration for children of this age tends to be in board books focusing on basic concepts.  At this age, there is not much text in the books therefore the message can be conveyed using simple imagery involving bright, flat colour and bold graphic shapes. This allows children at a young age to be able to distinguish between the different elements and begin to name and talk about them.  Some are a little more complicated such as the Babylit ‘Wizard of Oz’ in which contrasting coloured lines and shapes are used to create detail. This detail isn’t fussy and over complicated though keeping it suitable for this age group. Books for this age do tend to be brightly coloured and use a lot of contrast. All photos: Briony Dixon

Pre school

Little Red by Bethan Woolvin is a retelling of the fairytale for 3 – 5 year olds.  Bethan uses a limited colour palette featuring just red, black white and grey. By depicting Little Red in red and keeping all other elements in the monochrome colours she creates a contrast and directs the reader’s eye straight to the central character.  This works well for this age group because they can immediately work out what is happening in the story by quickly identifying Little Red, then exploring the other elements in the image. Use of flat colour makes the imagery bold and simple to read for pre schoolers and I don’t feel that the limited colour palette makes the book any less engaging for children of this age.  Bold and simple also describes the shapes used, with trees and plants depicted with just an outline and minimal detail inside or a simple flat colour shape. Simple lines are used to draw the facial expressions making them easy to read and discuss.

The content included in the illustrations visually communicates everything described in the text. This strikingly simple imagery means children aren’t distracted by lots of unnecessary detail giving them the opportunity to concentrate on the main events in the story.  At this age children aren’t necessarily reading the text. Their ‘reading’ comes from repeating stories that have been read to them and telling their own story from the pictures. This is why effective illustration for this age group is kept simple and stripped back to the necessary elements needed to visually communicate the story successfully. Photos: Briony Dixon

‘Triangle’ written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen is another example of use of a limited colour palette in children’s books for this age group.  This is a hugely popular book proving that lots of bright colour is not always necessary in illustration for children. Klassen uses shades of brown, black and grey so really not colourful at all!  In the final illustration shown here, the dark tones adds to the meaning in the text. “They were shapes with no names” creates an eerie feeling and the browns and blacks used emphasises this feeling. There are a lot of simple shapes in his illustration with contrast between them created through use of different tones rather than different colours. As in ‘Little Red’ this simplicity makes the book easy to engage with.  Both books feature a likeable character, one that appeals straightaway to children. Eyes drawn as a simple outline with the pupil perfectly placed to capture the intended expression make a character instantly captivating. I think that if the imagery is simple and engaging enough, lack of bright colour is not a problem.  

Early Reader 5 – 7

Illustration for this age group tends to get a bit more detailed.  Children of this age are more able to be able to comprehend what they are reading or what is being read to them and can use extra detail in illustrations to help them make inferences about what is happening.  Understanding of simple story patterns are already established so they can now begin discussing additional elements away from the main events. There is more detail in the text, therefore more detail is needed to visual communicate that.   The illustrations by David Roberts for Rosie Revere Engineer are examples of this higher level of detail. They depict very detailed machines and inventions. The colours he uses tend to be realistic but not especially bright. Photos: Briony Dixon

Similarly, David Litchfield’s illustrations for ‘The Bear and the Piano, the Dog and the Fiddle’ are full of detail and wonder.  His use of colour is quite complex in that he uses lots of brights which are either brightened or toned down by the addition of light. The complex nature of his artwork make it perfect for this age group and above but would be too much for younger children to cope with. Images: www.davidlitchfieldillustration.com

Established reader 7 -9

Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez is a graphic novel and is told primarily through illustration with minimal text.  The vivid, captivating artwork would engage early readers upwards but some of them depict scary events making it appropriate for the more established reader age group.   At this age it seems that it is the content that makes the illustration suitable for an older age group rather than the actual style of illustration. The photo on the left is quite a scary image while the one on the left depicts nuns and a school setting with older children, all of which mat not be suitable or appeal to the younger age groups. Photos: www.nobrow.net

Hilda and the Hidden People is a text novel version of the Hilda graphic novels. Being a novel, there are only occasional illustrations to add interest and some visual reference to the text. Photos: Briony Dixon

In the first image the thunder of stampeding rabbits is depicted and illustrates that particular part of the text beautifully. IThere is a sense of movement that creates the feeling of Charge! In the second image the Midnight Giant is depicted. He is a main character in the story so an illustration is provided to give the reader this visual image. Despite being for an older age group, the illustration is very simple with just bold outlines and flat colour used. This is probably because it is there almost to decorate the text rather than an integral part of the storytelling as it would be in illustration for younger age groups or in graphic novels.

Older age groups

The Wolves in the Walls is a picture book for older children written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave Mckean.

Although it is classed as a picture book, it is often used in Year 6 classrooms with ten and eleven year olds. The story is quite scary and the illustrations visually communicate this perfectly.  Dark and sinister in nature, they would not be appropriate for a younger age group but provide that edge that older children like to engage with. Dave McKean’s illustrative style is quite varied in the book so the stylistic consistency isn’t as strong as in the illustrations I have looked at for younger children.  He uses a mixture of photos, collage, ink and paint depicting the wolves stylistically different to the human family. This could be confusing and overwhelming to a younger reader but provides interest and talking points for older children.


I chose three of the words from the list to brainstorm ideas around focusing mainly on the early reader and pre reader age groups.  I found that my thinking was based very much around appropriate content for a book linked to the chosen word rather than an image in isolation.  For example for ‘festival’ I thought about an early concept book based on colour or musical instruments for the pre reader age group and festivals around the world for the early reader group.  

The next step was to choose one of the words and an animal appropriate to two of the age groups and brainstorm further ideas and themes involving the animal.  I actually decided to do this process for three of the words before choosing which I wanted to explore further.

In the end I chose the word ‘festival’ with the preschool and early reader age groups and used the ideas from both mindmaps to choose an idea for each illustration.  

Early Reader

The animal I chose for this age group was quite an unusual one.  I remembered seeing a photo of a bird with bright blue feet which immediately gave me an idea of a story linked to festival.  The bird’s unusual look makes him feel different and insecure. He has the feeling that he looks strange and doesn’t really fit in anywhere.  Eventually he comes across a Mardi Gras type festival parade full of colour and he feels he belongs amongst the children celebrating the beauty of nature. He walks proudly at the front of the parade.  I found that I naturally created a story around the word ‘festival’ and my animal character because it makes it easier to illustrate. When thinking about the other members of the festival, I considered having all animals but then thought about the idea of having children dressed as animals.  I made a quick visual mindmap of my ideas for these characters. They are all dressed in costumes inspired by beautiful creatures.

In order to tell the story properly, it was essential to place Bert the blue footed booby bird as a focal point in the illustration. He is the star of the show. I used thumbnails to explore composition experimenting with side, front and diagonal views of the festival parade. In the end I chose one in which the parade appears to be coming round a corner which allows Bert to be front facing while the other characters are looking slightly off to the side. I felt that this made Bert more of a star.

Once happy with my composition, I developed the characters through sketches and then created a line visual.

The line visual communicated what I wanted it to. Although not in colour I felt I achieved a sense of festival through the character’s expressions, something I think I have improved in since the character development exercise in Part 4. I didn’t like the boy leaning out of the window because it seemed to complicate things so I decided to keep the houses plain keeping the attention purely focused on the parade. Although the line visual doesn’t show the amount of detail I intended to include in the final artwork, I could tell that once finished, the amount of detail would be suitable for this age group.

Because I was illustrating the word ‘festival’, I just went for it with colour rather than creating a more careful palette as I have done for some of the other exercises. In my mind festivals are bright, vibrant and colourful so I wanted to depict this in my illustration. I made a colour visual which gave me the opportunity to test out what colours looked like next to each other and enabled me to work out how to achieve a sense of balance in the colour. I also made a very quick tonal version on a photocopy because I wanted the front of the illustration to be much lighter than the back in order to highlight the main character Bert. This helped as I was able to reference it when producing the final illustration.

To produce the final artwork I used mixed media consisting of: watercolour, coloured pencils, pastel, wax pastel gouache and cut paper.

I did a poll on Instagram to see whether people thought I should splatter paint over the top to resemble streamers and confetti. It was an overwhelming yes so here it that version. I think it does give the picture more of a festival atmosphere.

I then made slight adjustments in photoshop.

I’m really not sure how I feel about this illustration. I think the colour and content communicate the word festival and I’m happy with the composition for the reasons previously mentioned. The level of detail seems appropriate for this early reader age group; there is a lot to look at which also suits a festival. I’m not happy with the background space however, in particular the part at the back behind the boy pushing the balloon cart. Larger areas of background are something I struggle with and I don’t think I got it right here. I thought about adding more colour to make it even darker but I didn’t want to over work it. I think the area in the foreground is much more successful. Backgrounds are an area I really need to work on and explore.

Pre school

For the second age group I chose the slightly younger one, pre school. Through my original mind mapping around festival, I had come up with the idea of festival of light. I thought an illustration based on this idea could work well for this younger age group due to the contrast in colour and bolder less detailed content that could be used. Again, I imagined a narrative on which to base my image. I imagined a firefly who finds home amongst the lit up sky during a festival of light, perhaps part of the Hindu Diwali celebrations. To creating the firefly character, I started by sketching one in different positions from observation, then distorted and changed from there. I wanted to ensure I kept all the features that make him recognisable as a firefly, while making him appeal to younger children by simplifying them.

The I started thumb nailing to work out composition. I knew I wanted him to face the reader staring forward with his happy face so the thumb nailing was to work out where in the frame he would sit and also where to position him in relation to the other lights. I toyed with the idea of having people at the bottom looking up at the lights to make it more obvious it was a festival but decided against it choosing the final thumb nail shown here (bottom right). I thought the people made the image too fussy and weren’t actually needed when the image is considered in a narrative. I think the lights are placed well in this composition, the firefly looks like he is really part of the festival in and amongst the other lights.

I made a colour visual which also gave me the opportunity to try out different media and choose which I wanted to use in the final art work.

To produce the final artwork, I used pastel, coloured pen and pencil. The yellow pastel ground worked better than my usual watercolour because it gave a more even finish. Using black pastel over the top allowed for the yellow to show through where needed and provided some blur around the light areas. Using the coloured pen for the firefly worked well because the bright colour made him stand out against the background and is easy to add coloured pencil to.

I prefer this image to the one for early readers aesthetically and I think younger children will engage with the character. There isn’t too much detail for them to process. I don’t think however that the word ‘festival’ comes through as strongly. As part of a narrative it would, but perhaps not as a stand alone image.

I feel that the level of detail in an image for children depends on the text it is supporting and the intended message the author wants to communicate. Sometimes it may be the intention that the image needs to depict everything mentioned in the text to support understanding. Sometimes more may be required in images than stated in the text to help children make more inferences and extract meaning at a deeper level. Sometimes the illustrations may only illustrate the very key parts of the text. I don’t think the age banding is as clear cut as described in the brief. Children all learn and develop at different rates meaning imagery that is suitable for one child of a certain age may not be for another of the same age.