Child’s play

Child’s play. A challenge for artists of all ages

I have friends in the world of poetry who will tell me that they ‘don’t like poems about pictures’. Sometimes I’m not sure what they mean. Does that include Auden’s Musée des beaux arts or UA Fanthorpe’s Woman ironing ? Probably not. In another life I sometimes dream I could have been a painter rather than a writer of poems. I love visual imagery, and all its complex apparent immediacy.

Which is why I’m going to take a bit of time out from writing about poetry, why I’ll share my abiding enthusiasm for picture story books, and then invite you to contribute to one.

For about ten years of my 40 in the teaching business, I was in teacher training, teaching would-be primary teachers how to teach literacy. Which self-evidently includes helping young children to see how books ‘work’. The bit I always liked best was the business of exploring how we can learn to read the subtexts of pictures, of illustrations, and the ways in which the very best don’t literally mimic the text (which is invariably the case in Enid Blyton books, and, indeed, in so many reading scheme books) but enhance it, comment on it, respond to it, and sometimes tell a slightly different story from the words.

Here’s what I mean. One of my absolute favourites of the last 30 years is I’ll take you Mrs Cole. It’s the story of a parental threat. Every child understands the dark and generally non-specific threat a desperate parent will make when the child is naughty. Let’s have a look at the first three images. The first two might be ignored by a reader because the first page proper is page three. (Ask yourself why an artist would go to the trouble of illustrating an end paper and a title page). Here we go

The first is the inside cover. 4.00pm. Kids coming out of school into a foggy evening. It’s cold (how do I know that?) Two of them seem to be a lot happier than the the one in the red top. Why?

The second is the title page. It’s 4.15pm. And he’s running. Why? How many stairs does he have to run up?

Finally, the third…and the first page of the story. It’s 4.30pm. We know he’s had 15 minutes to turn the living room into a fantasy. But we only see what his mum sees. She can only see a mess. She can’t see his face. But I think I can. Michael Foreman has done something remarkable with those eyeholes, simply by tilting them inwards. And here come the threat. I’ll take you to Mrs Cole. Which will escalate as the tale progresses. Wonderful.

Viewpoint’s important. At a crucial point in the story we start to see events as the child sees them…and so on.

OK. here’s another favourite. Jan Ormerod’s retelling of Chicken Licken. Anyone whose only experience of the story with their children is the dire Ladybird version will likely roll their eyes. But this is what a great illustrator can do to enrich a simple, repetitive tale.

Basically there are multiple narratives, and they each have their own subtext and backstory. 

First of all it’s the story of the performance of a primary school play .

Then there’s the traditional story which is retold in speech bubbles. The narrative’s told by a Narrator, in his top hat (my guess is that he’s the best reader and best behaved boy in Year 6) and the dialogue is performed by various characters. I like the costumes.

Then, of course, there’s the story of the audience. The parents, in silhouette. And one child.

Finally, there’s the tale of the baby in the moses basket who has just woken up and started to take an interest.

Each of these narratives is visually separated, and part of the fun is to find out how they might start to interact.

Happy so far? Here’s another one that deals in simultaneous parallel narratives. Dear Daddy by Philippe Dupasquier. 


Dad’s on a oiltanker, and once a month he sends a postcard (and, I think, a letter) to his daughter who writes back to him. Which means we get a calendar of changing seasons. Ask yourself why the artist took such pains over a bashed up car being towed away, and why it’s apparently of no interest to the child. What does dad write? What are mum and the neighbour talking about?

What about the artist and the characters in a story. Sometimes an illustrator’s imagined hero/heroine is, for me, the only imaginable one. Tenniel’s Alice, for instance. Or E H Shephard’s Mole from Wind in the Willows

Lots have tried but they always fall short of what seems like authenticity.  But for the purpose of this post, I’ll concentrate on the fact that illustrations can be expressive and apparently simple. Take the image of Mole, lost in the Wild Wood. It’s a heartbreaker. It works because he’s alone (that’s what the white space around him says) and very small. The trees are huge, and we are quite high up, looking down. Artful stuff. And it doesn’t have to be as obviously art-trained as Shepard’s. Quentin Blake does a really good job of pretending he isn’t

And also of showing transformation in time, like a medieval muralist. 

Some best-loved characters have been been made ‘simply’. David McKee’s Elmer, and the two monsters; the wonderful John Burningham’s Borka (the goose with no feathers…his take on the Ugly Duckling).

Before I get on to the real point of the post, just a word about book covers. They can kill a book stone dead, if you’re not careful. In the case of Mrs Cole, the original cover showed the hero looking dismayed at a mucky breakfast table as his mum sets off for work. A later one gave the whole game away by using a picture of a red-faced jolly Mrs Cole. Whose idea was that? Someone with no idea about how stories work, I guess.

Here are two I like a lot. I like the way Rosemary Wells suggests that Norah is the younger/youngest, her sister is ‘sensible’, her dad can only cope with one child at a time, and Norah is going to seek attention (by which we mean love) one way or another. The artist takes one moment from the story to make it stand for the story’s meaning. And will Norah find love….you need to read to find out. Harry’s Bee is also illustrated by the author. I like this one because while it’s not a scene from the story it’s clear that Harry’s Bee is out of the ordinary, that people stop in the street to point him out to each other. What’s the deal with this bee?  You need to read to find out.

And now we get to the point. I’m looking for illustrators of any age. Whether you’re looking for something for your locked-down children to get stuck into, or you fancy it yourself, here’s a collection of stories by my friend and poetry collaborator, Andy Blackford. It’s more than unlikely that this could end up as and actual book. We think it will stay as a webpage story. But what we’re inviting is book covers, title pages or moments from a story. Whatever catches your imagination. To kick it off I asked one illustrator, Kate Rolfe, to inspire you with two of hers. If you want to be involved and want more detail, (especially about the resolution I’ll need for the images) contact me at and I’ll get back to you pretty well straight away. I’ll be accepting your illustrations until the end of August, and posting them as they come in. After the deadline, Andy Blackford will choose the ones he likes best, and they’ll then form part of the story text. Basically, we’ll be choosing the best overall book cover, a title page for each story and up to three images in the body of each story. So here we go with the first two stories, and I’ll post the rest two at a time so the post doesn’t get ridiculously unwieldy

Absurd Birds. 

by Andy Blackford, with illustrations by Kate Rolfe

(and others to be decided)


  • The Lostrich
  • The Humming Bird
  • The Magpie King
  • Royston wins his Wings
  • Rocky the Woodpecker
  • Shirley the Swan
  • The Best Nest Contest


Once upon a time, the Ostrich could fly.

But only just. 

One day, he took off from his home in Africa.

There was a great storm.  It blew the stars away and the moon got stuck in a tree.

The Ostrich was blown across the sea and half way around the world.

When the sun came up, the Ostrich was a Lostrich.  He had no idea where he was. He only knew it wasn’t home. The City was big and cold and dirty. There were no trees and no birds. 

He was chased by a huge yellow monster with sharp black teeth teeth. 

He was so scared, he busied his head in the sand.  It popped up in the middle of a desert. It was nicer than the big city. There were a few trees and a big animal with humps on its back. But it wasn’t home. 

So he pulled his head out of the sand and flew away. Soon he had left the City far behind him. Down below, he saw a huge green lawn with sand pits on it. He said to himself,  ‘This is more like it!’ 

So he landed on the lawn. He was just about to eat the lush, green grass when something small and hard and white nearly hit him on the head.  He was so scared, he buried his head in the sand. It popped up in the middle of a jungle. It was better than the desert. There were lots of trees and animals and birds. But it still wasn’t home.

So he pulled his head out of the sand and flew away as fast as he could. Down below, he could see the seaside. He landed on the beach. The children shouted at him and chased him. 

He was so scared, he buried his head in the sand. This time, it popped up in his favourite place in the whole world… home! 

With a loud squawk of joy, he wriggled through the hole in the sand. All his friends made a big fuss of him.

He said to himself, 

‘I’m not a Lostrich anymore! I’m an Ostrich, and that’s the way I’m going to stay. 

‘I shall never fly again.’

And he didn’t.


The people on The Island were choosing a bird to put on their stamps.

All the birds gathered in the jungle. They argued about who was the most beautiful. 

 One tiny bird sat on a branch and didn’t say anything.

‘They certainly won’t choose you!’ the rest of them told her. ‘You’re far too small. You’re not even a proper bird. You’re just a bug!’

And they all pointed at her and laughed until she flew away.

At first, the little bird was upset. But then she thought, ‘Right! If they think I’m a bug, then a bug is just what I’ll be!’

First she went to see the butterfly. ‘Please can you make me bright and beautiful like you?’ 

The butterfly painted her until she shone like a rainbow.

Next she went to see the spider. ‘Please can you show me how to make a nest like yours?’

And the spider showed her how to use spiders’ webs and moss to make a perfect little home.

Then she went to visit the bumble bee. ‘I’m fed up with eating worms,’ she said. ‘Please can you teach me how to drink from the flowers?’

And the bee showed her how to suck nectar from the flowers.

While she hovered by the flowers, her tiny wings made a humming noise, just like an insect. ‘From now on,’ she said, ‘this sound will be my song!’

The day came when the people had to make up their mind which bird to put on their stamps.

The birds all lined up while the people looked at each one in turn.There were tall birds, short birds, fat and thin birds, brown birds, yellow birds – even pink bird.    

Right at the end of the line hovered the smallest bird of all.

Straight away, the people fell in love with her. ‘She’s so pretty!’ they cried. ‘And just listen! She’s a humming bird!’

And from that day on, the humming bird’s picture has appeared on all the island’s stamps. 

[Copyright. Andy Blackford 2020]


Andy Blackford. has been a rock guitarist, a professional skateboarder, an extreme marathon runner, a biographer, and a diving instructor. He was a partner in a major advertising agency (creating the UmBongo advert, amongst other things. They drink it in the Congo) and has written at least twenty books for children, including titles in the Oxford reading Tree scheme. He co-authored a poetry collection with me. Gap Year [SPM Publications 2017] as the result of a yearlong collaboration after we met up again after a break of about 40 years.

Kate Rolfe Kate Rolfe is an illustrator based in Suffolk, UK. She is currently studying an MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art, and has previously worked in graphics and textile design. You can find many of her latest creations at Kate has a lifelong love for storytelling in all its forms, and is particularly passionate about picture books! See more of Kate’s work at, and follow her at

The books: Publishing details. Some are a bit problematic, since they’ve been published by different houses over the years. Some are out of print, though available from Abe Books. And so on.

I’ll take you to Mrs Cole: Nigel Gray and Michael Foreman

(Picturemac. First publ. 1985)

Borka. : John Burningham. (Jonathan Cape. 1963)

Noisy Nora: Rosemary Wells v (Puffin . 2000)

Dear Daddy: Philippe Dupasquier (Anderson Press 2002)

The true story of Chicken Licken: Jan Ormerod

(Scholastic 1986)

Elmer the patchwork elephant : David McKee

(Anderson Press 1989)

Two monsters : David McKee (Anderson Press 2009)

The Twits: Roald Dahl (Jonathan Cape. 1980)

ps. During August I’ll also be writing about poetry, and poets, including Ian Parks, Jane Burn, Martin Zarrop, Steve Ely and Jenny Hockey.

3 thoughts on “Child’s play

  1. Hi Foggs – This is all great, and I’d join in if I could paint or draw! Miss Whittle told me, “Jean, you have absolutely no sense of colour”! Not that that would put me off. But my forte is for appreciating the work of others – and I look forward to seeing it! Don’t suppose Andy would have crossed paths with Miss Whittle….. Hope all’s well. Jean xx


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