Insights into Illustrations, Illustrating, and Illustrators

Maya Zakrzewska-Pim is a second year PhD candidate studying twenty-first century popular culture in adaptations of Charles Dickens’s novels for children and young adults.

Anglia Ruskin University runs an annual Children’s Book Illustration Summer School, and this year I was finally in Cambridge for long enough to be able to sign up (I had hoped to do so last summer, but PhD life got in the way). It proved to have been worth the wait.

The course lasted six days, where five of those were split between lectures and individual work and tutorials. We had a phenomenal team to teach us: Ness Wood, Birgitta Sif, Marta Altés, David BarrowBec BarnesKate Read, and Pam Smy*. The goal: to produce a dummy picturebook by the end of the fifth day, while the last day was taken up by the Nuts and Bolts conference full of illustrators, writers and publishers talking about children’s books.

The lectures during the week ranged from discussions of “What is a picturebook?”, through “Developing your characters” and how the picturebook industry works, to insight into individual illustrators’ stories (we had a guest lecture from Yasmin Ismail) of how they came to be illustrators. We also had the wonderful opportunity to join Maisie Paradise Shearring at Heffers for her book launch of Anna and Otis, due out this Thursday August 9th, on the penultimate evening of the course.

I have spent a long time thinking about picturebooks from the position of the reader – as a child reader, an adult reader, and an academic (adult) reader. To consider them from the point of view of the creators, though, was a novelty – an incredibly rewarding one. I never thought that producing a picturebook was easy, but I don’t think I ever really considered all the drafts, enthusiasm, roughs, frustration, sketches, dedication, research, tears, story edits, excitement, page shuffles and sheer determination to keep going that went into the process, and just how much time all these individual elements take to eventually make a whole.

The week of lectures and (largely) individual work culminated in a so called “crit” – a chance for us all, in groups, to read out our stories and discuss them together. As we were told from day one, sharing ideas and work with fellow illustrators is an invaluable experience (if a scary one to start with). It was the first time that I had ever shared creative work with a group of people in almost a decade, and that was terrifying (at first) – but realizing that what I had written/drawn was actually communicating what I wanted to say was wonderful. Furthermore, the various ideas people had about what to explore, how to develop, what else to consider, which aspects exactly to work on first, have left my mind reeling with thoughts of what to try next.

I started the week with a full page of A4 writing; I ended up with seven sentences, three storyboards that are not going to work, many sketches that just don’t look right, numerous ideas that I need to try out in the hope that one of them finally clicks – and lots of feedback from like-minded fans of pencils, paints and, of course, children’s books.

*Pam Smy will be joining us for a special discussion of her CILIP Carnegie Medal nominated book Thornhill on Friday, September 7, as part of our Synergy and Contradiction: How Picturebooks and Picture Books Work conference. Free tickets can be booked here:

One comment

  1. The process of making a picturebook is very hard, it takes ages. I do think picturebook researches should work more with the makers. And the practice-based research in this area is actually really important.


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