The Art of Picture Books

The Little Red Train crossing the finishing line
Category: Bookbug

Picture books have been a huge part of my life for the past 6 years. As my eldest child begins the gradual transition to ‘chapter books’, however, I’m left with a slight feeling of loss for the visual treats that we’re leaving behind.

From our first foray into vibrant baby books (Where’s Spot?, Miffy and Peepo) we embarked on detailed journeys through town and country with The Little Red Train, spotting new details to talk about each time. We followed the emotional trials of Alfie and Annie Rose through Shirley Hughes’ timeless illustrations and lost ourselves in sea-faring adventures and knightly quests with the magical worlds created by Jonny Duddle and Kristina Stephenson.

"Wherever there are words, let there be pictures" - Chris Riddell (Children's Laureate)

As the children grew older, we were able to share the visual jokes of Mini Grey’s Traction Man and Biscuit Bear and laughed out loud at Jon Klassen’s mischievous, hat-wearing rabbit. At the library we actively sought out books with a range of artistic styles too. The excitement of discovering Lauren Child's I Will Not Ever Never Eat a Tomato, with its fantastic use of photography and collage, or Emily Gravett’s inspired combination of watercolour illustrations and childlike doodles in Meerkat Mail were all part of our reading journey together.

But who’s to say that it should end here? When Chris Riddell was selected as the new children's laureate back in June, the emphasis on illustration in children’s books came very much back into the limelight. "Wherever there are words, let there be pictures," is a maxim he firmly stands by.

His illustrative 'Laureate Log' - capturing the people he meets and the experiences he has during his two years in the post - has the goal of bringing people together and leading them into the wonderful world of books and reading. Pictures in books have the power to transport children into worlds they may never have imagined, just as paintings in a gallery inspire us as adults to consider our experiences, relationships and surroundings in different ways. For this reason, we should embrace the use of pictures in books for children of all ages.

I recently bought a copy of William Grill’s fabulous Shackleton’s Journey for my eldest. A worthy winner of this year’s Kate Greenaway Medal, it retells the story of Shackleton’s perilous adventure across Antarctica with his crew of 28 men (and 69 dogs).

Shackleton crossing South Georgia
The illustrator’s use of simple pencil drawings depict the drama of that epic expedition, and full-page spreads evoke a sense of the harsh landscape encountered. Even without the words on the page, it would be hard to not feel sadness at Grill’s depiction of the ship Endurance crushed beyond repair. This is a book to be enjoyed by adults and children alike and I look forward to finding other ‘picture books’ for my children as they grow up.

Children and adults of all ages benefit from picture books. They help to capture the imagination of young readers. They offer visual clues which help our children’s understanding of the story. And of course they are fun. If we truly wish to inspire a love of reading and books, the words are only half of the story.


Discover more beautiful picture books with our list of 11 Kate Greenaway Medal Winners.

If you have older children who still love picture books, see our great list of titles for 8-11 year olds.