5.6 Working for children


The brief was to research children’s picture books to understand how different target age groups are addressed, and then to create illustrations of two characters based on animals.

The purpose of the exercise was to gain an appreciation of the children’s picture book genre and the key considerations for working with this audience.

Keywords from the brief:

  • Collect as many examples of imagery for children as possible
  • Group the illustrations you’ve collected into the target age groups
    • Pre-reader
    • Pre-school (3–5)
    • Early reader (5-7)
    • Established reader (7–9)
    • Older age groups
  • Take two of these age groups
  • Brainstorm around at least one word
    • Festival
    • Scary
    • Wild
    • Growing
    • Journey
    • Sad
    • Family
    • Discovery
  • Pick an animal appropriate for each age group
  • Identify themes, images and ideas pertinent to your age groups
  • Create a simple image of your animal engaged in an activity that communicates this word
  • Stylistic consistency
  • Explore the colours and materials
  • Speaking to a child

Research and analysis

The purpose of my initial research was to try and understand whether it’s possible to classify or characterise the types of illustrations used in children’s picture books that are targeted at different age groups. This analysis would help shape and define how to develop my own illustrations.

My initial research covered two areas:

  1. Literacy levels related to the written word
  2. Visual literacy

Literacy levels related to the written word

Book Bands is the name of the classification scheme currently used in the UK to indicate the reading level of a book. The other is

Oxford Reading Tree is a scheme that covers books for children from the ages of 4-years to 9-years.

These two schemes provide a definition for levels of literacy related to the written word and not visual literacy which is quite different.

The table below is a summary of the Book Bands and what characterises each literacy level.

Target age group Book Band level Characteristics of reading level
Pre-reader N/A Children who cannot yet read or who are beginning to learn to read.
Pre-school (3–5) Pink For children just starting to read. Children are getting used to reading from left to right and matching spoken words to written words. Usually no more than 10 pages with up to 5 words on a page.
Red The second step up the ladder as children gain a little more confidence and may know some words by sight. Usually no more than 15 pages with 1 sentence per page.
Yellow Children are beginning to read more varied sentence structures and taking some note of punctuation. Usually no more than 15 pages with 1 or 2 sentences per page.
Blue Children are becoming more confident at reading longer and more varied sentences. Usually no more than 15 pages with 2 or 3 sentences per page.
Green Children are starting to read quite fluently and take note of punctuation. Usually about 20 pages with 3 or 4 sentences per page.
Early reader (5-7) Orange Children are starting to read longer and more complex sentences and can understand a range of punctuation. Usually about 20 pages with 4 or 5 sentences per page.
Turquoise Children can read complex sentences fairly fluently, taking note of punctuation. They use expression and do not rely on illustrations to help them. Usually about 20 pages with 4 or 5 sentences per page.
Purple Children might read silently or quietly at quite a rapid pace, taking note of punctuation. Usually about 25 pages with 5 to 10 sentences per page.
Established reader (7–9) Gold Children might read silently or quietly at quite a rapid pace, taking note of punctuation. Usually about 25 pages with 5 to 10 sentences per page.
White Books might have chapters. Children will read silently most of the time. They are interested in longer texts which they can return to easily after a break. Usually no more than 30 pages and about 10 sentences per page.
Lime Books might have chapters. Children will read silently most of the time. They are interested in longer texts which they can return to easily after a break. Usually more than 30 pages.
Extended Readers Books might have chapters. Children read silently with confidence and perseverance. A wide variety of longer, demanding texts, usually with around 30 – 50 pages.
Older age groups N/A Books are much longer and demanding with the use of illustration being confined to the cover.

Identifying a range of illustrations that fit into each of these categories was then relatively easy.


Pre-school (3–5)

Early reader (5-7)

Established reader (7–9)

Older age groups


I have tried to draw some general conclusions about the relationship between the words and pictures that are used for each target age group. These are based on my observations of my research to date and are therefore limited.

Target age group Typical characteristics of the illustration used
Pre-reader  This is one of more interesting categories. Many of the picture books are quite sophisticated with long sentences and rich illustrations – a long way from big block colours and simplified pictures. This is because the pre-reader will, initially at least, be reading with an adult. This means the illustrations have to work harder. A child at this level is going to be primarily reading the image. The subject matter and message is simplified and direct but the image rendering is not.
Pre-school (3–5) The images are doing most of the storytelling. There is a very direct correlation between words and pictures. Illustrations are stylistically less challenging. Some use of bold flat colour to provide emphasis and interest although this is by no means a general rule
Early reader (5-7) Stronger character illustrations to go with more complex concepts. More use of body language and expression. The pictures start to have subplots that add new meaning to the story. During this stage readers stop relying on pictures to tell the story.
Established reader (7–9) Longer more complex sentences and words means that the text provides the primary meaning whilst the images provide style and context and bring the words to life. From a layout perspective the book designer needs to accommodate more text on a page.
Older age groups  This is where there appears to be a marked change in how illustration is used. The written word dominates the storytelling experience with decorative illustrations being used for book covers.

Visual literacy

Visual literacy is defined by Wikipedia as: The ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image, extending the meaning of literacy, which commonly signifies interpretation of a written or printed text.

There is much scholarly debate over the importance of visual literacy as a tool for learning, particularly in an age where we are saturated in imagery from an early age through television, the internet, social media and all purveying and persuasive advertising.

Unlike the written word, there is no clearly defined or commonly used definition of the different levels of visual literacy and how this relates to age or education.

Children’s Picturebooks, the art of visual storytelling (Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles, Laurence King Publishing 2012), covers the subject in some detail and provides pointers to further research and studies.

The key thrust of the arguments are that children’s visual literacy is sophisticated from an early age, and as long as books are engaging, a young reader will take on and enjoy the challenge posed by complex ideas and visually sophisticated styles.

Children… will tolerate ambiguities, peculiarities, and things illogical; will take them into their unconscious and deal with as best they can…. The artist has to be a little bit bewildering and a little bit disorderly… (Maurice Sendak, Caldecott & Co: Notes on Books and Pictures. Viking Penguin, 1989).

In a chapter entitled The Picture Book and the Child, the results of a research project by Evelyn Arizpe and Morag Styles, who carried out detailed analysis on the reactions of 100 children to a small number of picturebooks, are used to highlight specific issues of interest.

I’m going to ‘cherry-pick’ and summarise the learnings and key points that are relevant to this specific exercise.

  • There is a continual and close interplay between words and pictures. Pictures will make a story more interesting and engaging and help to “bring out the story”.
  • For young readers that can’t read or are learning to read print, pictures are the primary communication medium.
  • Children want to understand visual effects and will try to interpret what they mean. The importance and significance of colour and tone are analysed quite naturally; for example a child may conclude that a character is sad because she is wearing dark and dull colours.
  • Children are very good at reading body language.
  • They also able to understand/interpret visual metaphor and symbols.
  • Children will read and re-read the same book numerous times and will uncover new meaning and possibilities.

In summary the genre allows for ingenuity and creativity; mischievous subversion, playfulness and breaking conventions.

Ideas generation

I decided to brainstorm around the word ‘scary’. It seemed to me that out of all the words this would be the most challenging in that it would require the character to display/communicate emotion for the pictures to be successful.

I started by creating a visual mindmap to generate and capture pertinent ideas and themes.

Sketchbook pic01
Sketchbook – 2 x A3 pages

This resulted in a brief/scenarios for two sets of illustrations.


Scenario 1 – (for pre-school readers 3-5-years)

Between January and March, half a million wildebeest are born each year in the Serengeti. In February, the month with the highest calving rate, around 8,000 wildebeest are born each day. The Great Migration is the largest overland migration in the world.

Willy the wildebeest is scared. He’s become separated from his mum who is somewhere within the migrating throng of animals.

Scenario 2 – (for established readers 7-9-years)

Terry was a big, fat, bad tempered toad. Terry didn’t like anyone much and everyone feared Terry. His favourite passtime was to sit in the slime at the smelly end of the pond chewing slugs.

Design development & visuals

Willy the wildebeest – development

Willy the wildebeest – artwork

Final artwork components:

The final artwork was composited together in Photoshop.

Willy artwork page1
Willy artwork page2
Willy artwork page3

Terry the Toad – development

Terry the Toad – artwork

Final artwork components:

The final artwork was composited together in Photoshop. Handwritten text was ‘placed’ in Illustrator first to get a clean line.

Terry the Toad artwork

Questions from the exercise

Are the target age brackets for children really as clear-cut as we’ve made them here?

No. Reading level and visual literacy levels don’t neatly fall into target age brackets. The Book Bands overlap; for example, a 7-year old reader could be classified as an early reader or an established reader. The difference in literacy level and visual sophistication between the Book Bands is quite large.

How did the function of image and text differ within the different age groupings?

Refer to the Conclusions section above.

What is your response to the idea ‘all children’s illustration has bright colours’?

This is not true. The research referenced in Visual literacy section above demonstrates how sophisticated some children’s books are, to match the inquisitiveness and visual intelligence of young readers.

What I learned from the exercise

What went well

  • All the original artwork was non-digital as per the suggestion in my PART 4 tutor feedback.
  • I used pastel pencils for the first time.
  • I felt this was primarily an exercise about research and I enjoyed that part of the project. I particularly enjoyed reading Children’s Picturebooks, the art of visual storytelling and gaining an appreciation for how expansive and creative this genre is.
  • I like Terry the Toad a lot and have started having ideas for a story built around this character.
  • I choosing ‘scary’ as the subject was an interesting challenge and made me think carefully about the character’s posture, expression and use of colour.

What I could have done differently/better

  • Soft pastels are great but I found them quite difficult to use on a close and detailed illustration.
  • I could quite easily have turned Terry the Toad into more of a scenario by adding additional pages, but the brief only required a simple image so I didn’t progress any further with my ideas.
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