The Research Stage

Is it a case of ‘once a teacher, always a teacher’, I wonder?

One of the things I aim for in my books is to educate, or to at least provide space for learning and discussion. Michelle and the Bumblebee is an example of this.front cover 2

When I agreed to write the story, I wanted to complement the true story with accurate pictures. I was surprised at how little I knew about the bumblebee. I had painted them from “life” (actually from corpses I had found in my garden) many years ago, but couldn’t remember the details. How many segments are there in the bumblebee’s legs? Which way do its ‘knees’ work? How many stripes does it have? Are the stripes all the same colour? Is it ‘bumblebee’ or ‘bumble bee’?

I enjoyed the research, which started a little like this:

bee details

As the story developed I also tried to give Mr Bumble Bee a persona. He became more of a cartoon sketch, his stripes became more random as his face took on more expression and his wings varied in size to create the effect I wanted. bee face

Despite this evolution, I kept the details of his body structure and legs accurate.


The teacher in me also had the last word. I concluded the story with a diagram illustrating the pollination cycle, and gave the last illustrated page to a realistic bumblebee.

bee small for blog

All of the illustrations were fun, but this last one was the illustration I enjoyed the most.

Slow and Steady

unnamed It feels as though I am taking a long time with this next series of books. The text has been ready for quite some time, the owl prototype characters were painted last year and the text revised and divided into pages last month.

I am surrounded by pictures of owls and half completed sketches as I try different styles. What is slowing me down, I think, it getting that bigger picture, the book design, firmly established in my head before I begin to paint and draw. The text will be incorporated into the images, and the page design will dictate some of the details. This is a series of three (so far), and I want the setting to be recognisable from book to book.

The tree will be seen from many angles, and even deciding on the width and nature of the trunk is taking time. The little owls can’t fly, but somehow they need to make it back up the tree. The branches are bendy and bouncy, but the tree is gnarled and old. Is mother owl tucked cosily into a hole in the tree, or is she on a branch like father owl?

How wide is the owl’s wing span, and when he flies can you see his toes? How big is a baby owl’s wing span (should he just happen to fall out of a tree rather ingloriously)?

Does watercolour or pastel work best for Fluffy the Cat, and what colour is the dog with the big teeth?

At the end of the day I seem to have little to show for all my thinking, but in fact there are colours and details jotted down and more photos pulled from one folder into another.

I am still looking for the perfect tree. If it is not on my camera by tomorrow, then I shall simply invent one that suits my needs. After all, that’s how the little owls arrived on my page.  It will probably look a little like this (but with leaves), reminiscent of one I played in as a child.

tree for blog

Tree trunk draft 2. 

Illustrated Stories and Picture Books

What is a picture book? Is it a story with a picture on every page? No, I don’t think it is as simple as that. A picture book relies on the images, as much as the words, to enrich and progress the story.

One of the most delightful picture books for children is Leo Lionni’s Little Blue and Little Yellow (1959).
little blue and little yellow
This book, which marked the beginning of his career in children’s books, grew from using torn pieces of paper to illustrate a story as he entertained his grandchildren on a train journey. The simplicity of this book arrived naturally in the making of it. Another book creator spent two years on the design of a book of shapes and colours. Having had sets of illustrations in my mind for several years now, I understand how easily that time passes.

Peter Catalanotto said “It’s amazing how much time and work go into something to make it look like it came off the top of your head.” (1992, Children’s Book Illustration and Design, Julie Cummins Editor, PBC international Inc, New York. Pg 31). I agree wholeheartedly! My pencil and eraser are well employed to create even the most simple image, and often the image mischievously takes on a life of its own when I return with the pen or pencil to outline the finished painting. Keeping it simple is not easy, nor is creating something light-hearted and loosely drawn.

In my illustrations I tend to leave evidence of the making of the picture. I like the pencil mark, the run of watercolour, the strength of a line applied in more than one stroke. I believe that this helps make the role of the artist more accessible to children. The picture is not perfect, nor is it computer generated. It has many entry points and is something that an interested child might aspire to do.

I used the word illustrations deliberately in the paragraph above, because two of my three published books are, in my view, illustrated story books rather than picture books. Although every page is illustrated, and one can get a sense of the story without reading the words, the pictures are designed to illustrate the text.

From Michelle and the Bumblebee:

blog p 20
Michelle sat down on a box beside the chair. She opened her thermos flask of yummy hot home-made tomato soup. She had made it with tomatoes from her garden.
The soup smelt so good. Mr Bumble Bee wriggled his nose.
“Would you like some too?” asked Michelle.
(pg 20).

In The Lost Happy the pictures carry the story as much as the text does.

blog pg 17     blog1.jpg
(Pg 17 no text)                                                               No. There was no HAPPY there. (pg 21).

So how do I decide which approach to take? It depends on how the story unfolds. If I form the text well ahead of the images, I am more likely to produce an illustrated story book. If the images arrive first, then a picture book is more likely to unfold.

Unlike the first three stories, the owl series that I am working on at present came to me in both words and images, the two aspects arriving together. They are more integrated in my mind and the page design will reflect that too. For the owl books I have taken off my teaching hat – visualising the young reader running a finger along the words under the pictures – and put on a more playful one, joining the little owls up a tree. It has been fun.

Book design comes in to the composition too. “Design (is) important; the simpler the text and concept of the book, the tighter the focus is on design”. Julie Vivas, (Ibid, pg 207). This brings me back to the delightful blue and yellow shapes which cuddled and turned green. The simple images speak eloquently, without elaboration. The design is minimalist, and no doubt was exceptional in 1959.

Leo Lionni’s book is a picture book. The picture carries so much of the story. We don’t have anything more than colour, size, and a rudimentary shape to guide us, yet we can picture the little coloured families created. Words add to the pictures in some of the pages, but the pictures are hardly dependent on the written word.

Lionni is both author and illustrator, although he questions that title. He writes:
“As someone who has chosen to be responsible for the totality of his picture books – the integration of words and images – I do not think of myself as an illustrator. Even the word illustration seems misleading. Although illustrations help to give form and color to verbal abstractions, the pictures should not merely illustrate but create a special environment for the story’s action. They are in fact more like the scenery in the theatre, the stage sets in which the actors move and act.” (Ibid, pg 98).

This is how I see a true picture book; the pictures adding more meaning to the text, the text relying on the image for its setting. Image, word, and book design, become integrated parts of the workings of the story. The illustrations will add detail that is not necessary in the text, and will at times move a story forward without text.

My goal is to create picture books that will draw in little viewers, that allow discussion, seeking, pointing, discovering. The text and image go hand and hand in picture books, and the challenge to me is to match my style, materials and colours to the many and varied images that arrive in my imagination along with the words.