Illustrating children’s books – the lowdown from Ladybird’s designers!

There is no doubt that illustrations help bring children’s books to life and a beautiful illustration can capture a child’s imagination, taking them deeper into the world being created by the story. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than the Ladybird Tales and Ladybird Classics series, both of which stand out with gorgeous illustrations. To find out more about the process of illustrating children’s books, we put some questions to our fantastic Ladybird designers – designer Elissa Gay and senior designer Nicola Harrison.

How do illustrations in a book change as children grow?

NH  The art develops as the child develops, this should be a seamless visual transition. Baby Touch caters perfectly for the first stage of seeing when a baby can only recognise simple contrast and shapes and patterns.

Baby Touch peekaboo
Baby Touch Peekaboo

The artwork in Toddler Books is slightly more detailed but ultimately a toddler who is beginning to speak wants to be able to recognise objects clearly. They want the simple pleasure of pointing to and repeating the words of the images as they learn.

As children go into their first reading books, the art becomes a guiding post to the words they read. It unlocks clues but doesn’t overpower. The art at every stage is a support, a steady and recognisable guide to reinforce and encourage and hopefully excite the child when they recognise and understand.

EG I would say the amount of detail within the art and text of a book changes – eg Baby Touch has few words and very strong bright and playful images that fill a lot of the book aimed at babies compared to Ladybird Tales where the text is more comprehensive covering higher story content and involving more detail also reflected in the illustrations.

LBT_Beauty and the Beast_I_92587
Ladybird Tales – Beauty and The Beast

How do you choose an illustrator for a particular book or series of books?

NH I do have a ‘favourites’ folder, a wish list of artists whose style I love. I keep artists in my folder a very long time. I have just recently used someone in my folder who I have wanted to work with for 5 years! We use websites, have agents who come in to see us and sometimes do use independent artists who have got in touch with us directly. The content and age group of the book has to dictate the artist choice. I always try to choose contemporary and enduring art. Having worked on illustrated books for 8 years you get a gut instinct for art that feels right for the project. It is my favourite part of my job, when you find the right person and they deliver beautiful art, it gives me a real buzz.

EG We will choose our artists that best reflect the age, style and content of the story. For example, when choosing a Ladybird Tales  illustrator I looked precisely for quirky yet traditional and beautiful art styles that combined a fresh, young, fun and playful approach to reflect the charm of the original Ladybird retellings.

LBT_The Ugly Duckling_I_93133
Ladybird Tales – The Ugly Duckling (to be released mid-2013)

Ladybird Tales & Ladybird Classics – the illustrations are so beautiful – could you tell us a bit more about illustrating these two series of books?

NH I did the Ladybird Classics series. This has been one of my favourite projects because I was able to work with artists who could be a bit more abstract and fine art based as the age group of these books was slightly older than the usual Ladybird Books I work on. I have been extremely lucky that all the artists on these books have surpassed my expectations. I truly hope they bring much pleasure to the next generation of readers.

GullivarRough_01 pencil   
Gulliver01 colour

Ladybird Classics: Gulliver's Travels

The end papers are also lovely and are a collection of the art from the chapter headings by the illustrator Valeria Valenza.

Classics endpapers

I have used six artists for the Classics so far, two illustrators were used twice and I am just looking for the artists for the next two titles…so watch this space!

EG Designing the Ladybird Tales series is a lovely project to be working on. We have worked with a selection of artists that are all varied in their own right but come together as a strong series by their beautiful detail to the tales.  Each of the Tales has the gorgeous original end-papers from Ladybird’s
‘Well-Loved Tales’ series (first published in 1964):

Ladybird Tales_Endpaper

How does the relationship between illustrator and publisher work?

NH I write detailed briefs or draw out compositions depending on the project. They are always given the story to read to get a good feel for the story. With the Ladybird Classics series we tried to be as free as we could with the illustrator so they could explore interesting compositions like the ones in Alice in Wonderland. We always choose the part of the story to be illustrated as this is a natural process of putting (‘flowing’) the text into the document and seeing what images best illustrate that part of the story.

Classics_Alice in Wonderland

Ladybird Classics – Alice in Wonderland

EG We brief our illustrators by writing either a detailed art brief or an open brief depending on the title. We will send the art brief to the illustrator in the page layout they will be working to which includes the text for them to read. I very much hope an illustrator reads the story so they have full understanding of the book they are illustrating.

What kind of research do illustrators do? Could you tell us a bit about the techniques they use?

NH  Sean Hayden was the illustrator for Treasure Island and he’s written about  illustrating Treasure Island with images detailing his process.
Kasia Matyjaszek illustrated Black Beauty – she really had to study the anatomy of horses as they are a difficult animal to draw, so she went to a local stable and enjoyed drawing them so much she went to get some riding lessons too!!                                                                

BB page9-pencil    
Ladybird Classics: Black Beauty – original pencil sketches

The illustrators I use tend to be a mixture of paint and digital, a lot combine both disciplines to get the best results.

Secret garden 4  

Secret garden 4 col

       Ladybird Classics: The Secret Garden

EG  I will always give reference if needs be for a project to help point the illustrator in the right direction. Even if an artist is doing a baby book on a zoo theme they might go to the zoo and take photos, sketches. All artists have their independent style and techniques of working and will always supply us with pencil sketches first, we then give feedback and then they will send us colour artwork to feedback on before supplying final colour artwork.

What is your favourite illustrated book?

NH I loved the Mr Men books when I was growing up, I had a big collection. They are a great example of just the right amount of silly and fun with simple bold art. I love my Ladybird Classics, they are my proud moment!

EG  My favourite childhood book was Spot the Dog! I loved all Spot books. Also a Ladybird one Mervyn Mouse which is surprising as I’m really scared of mice!!!

And finally, do you have any tips or advice to pass onto budding children’s book illustrators?

NH Get a good agent!

EG Sign up to an illustration agency as the agents are so helpful, they come in and show us folios of the illustrators they have on their lists and represent them extremely well. We have very good working relationships with the agencies.

Thanks Nic and Elissa!  If you have any questions we’ve not covered, please do leave a comment and we’ll come back to you.

WIN copies of Ladybird Classics and Ladybird Tales

We’ve got a copy of Sleeping Beauty, Rumplestiltskin, Peter Pan and A Christmas Carol to give away! Just leave a comment below, letting us know what your own favourite illustrated book is and we’ll put you name into a hat and pull out one winner! 
Enter by midnight December 3rd 2012, winner will be selected and notified by December 4th 2012.

Update 4th December 2012:  The prize draw is now closed. Thank you to everyone who has left a comment – we have all loved reading your own particular favourites. The winner has now been selected and notified by email.

216 thoughts on “Illustrating children’s books – the lowdown from Ladybird’s designers!

  1. james darrington says:

    I love ladybird books, I’ve been collecting them for years now and have quite a sizable collection. I don’t think I’ve got a favourite one I adore them all to be honest. As a child though I really enjoyed the Puddle Lane series.

  2. ‘As children go into their first reading books, the art becomes a guiding post to the words they read.’
    I agree that the colorful illustration is what attracts children to the books.
    Thank you.

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