How to Illustrate Dramatic Moments in Children’s Books

Drawing of pip-pip penguin
Category: Writing

In Be Brave Little Penguin, we meet Pip-Pip – a penguin who’s scared of water. There was a lot of drama to play with in this book, especially in the moment Pip-Pip takes the plunge for the very first time, so how did I tackle the challenge of illustrating the all important moment?


Create a sympathetic character

First of all you have to have a main character that looks really cute and a bit vulnerable.

I had drawn hundreds of sketches of baby penguins and was really stuck with how to make Pip-Pip look unique and special and cute. Then, on holiday in France, I saw an owl sculpture by Picasso in the Musée Picasso Antibes. I loved its rounded, egg-like shape. And so Pip-Pip was hatched.

Choose a style to suit the story

The style I use in this book is different to the one in Giraffes Can’t Dance, my previous collaboration with [Be Brave author] Giles Andreae. I wanted a softer line that would express the warmth in the relationship between the Mummy penguin and Pip-Pip. I felt that conveying the warmth and tenderness of this relationship was very important for the story. What helps us conquer fear if not a warm, tender, encouraging voice telling us it will all be alright?

Use real-world inspiration where you can

Over the years I have taken all three of my boys to swimming lessons on a Saturday morning.  It’s a very real experience for a toddler, that rite of passage as you jump into the water for the first time. It happens in a real swimming pool. So I wanted the pictures to relate to that as well as expressing the metaphor of being brave. That’s why I use those public swimming blues and greens.

Add details unique to your story world

At the beginning of the book there’s a sort of swimming pool area at the edge of the iceberg where all sorts of swimming lesson fun is going on. But I also wanted it to look like somewhere penguins would live. So I’ve added Antarctic crystalline ice shapes and floating icebergs as well.

Think about how your readers will put themselves in the character’s shoes

It’s a fine line between the South Pole and the local pool. I didn’t want to have it snowing, for example. Who wants to jump into water when it’s snowing? (Apart from my Mum, that is, who was always a bit batty and would swim outdoors every day of the year!) I painted looping hoops of light to try to give a feeling of the ever-moving surface of the water and added a sparkle here and there to make it look inviting.

Pip Pip penguin interior pic
Make the most of your colour palette

I also played with colours to heighten the dramatic effect: when Mum dives in to look for Pip-Pip the water fades from light blue at the top to deep blue at the bottom. It’s starting to suggest that deeper blue in the image of the murky depths of Pip-Pip’s imagination where the monsters live!

I wanted to counterbalance the dark, deep, purply blue of Pip-Pip’s fear. So, for the exhilarating happier moments of the book, like when Pip-Pip bursts through the surface of the water, I’ve painted a golden, orangey yellow sunset. ‘Woo-hooo!’

Guy Parker-Rees

Guy Parker-Rees is the award-winning illustrator of Diggory Digger and the Dinosaurs, written by Peter Bently, and Giraffes Can’t Dance, written by Giles Andreae. He's known for his bold colours and vibrant style. Be Brave Little Penguin, his new book with Giles Andreae, is out now.