Working for children is always a fun challenge and for this exercise I needed to examine the differences between the types of imagery for children seen across a number of different age ranges. I was asked to firstly gather up images that fitted into the following five group brackets.
Pre-Reader | Pre-School | Early Reader | Established Reader | Older Age groups
I started by focussing on children's book illustrations by using Amazon and Waterstones as they already had similar age ranges set up in their online stores. Sorting by bestsellers and classics yielded some nostalgic offerings from my own childhood too. Although books made up the majority of my images, I also added some examples from other types of media such as video games, films and TV shows. I didn't want to add too many however, as each one of these types of media could fill many mood boards of their own. I limited myself to selecting 10 images per section to give me a decent overall range of visuals.
Starting in the pre-reader bracket, I found that the illustrations for books initially use mostly primary and secondary colours and basic overall shapes that are easy to identify for the youngest ages as picture book stories will be read to them as part of a bedtime routine. The fonts and titles of the books are often big and have a clear typeface that's easy to spell out. This continues into Pre-school to a degree, but as children start to understand how to read themselves and reading becomes a joint activity alongside with parents and guardians, the complexity of the images steadily increases with the complexity of the stories.
I noticed the first significant change in cover design as I looked into the early readers section. By this point, children are beginning to read for themselves with additional guidance and the covers reflect this growth by including more visual elements to digest than before alongside more decorative titles and text. When they have become established readers, I noticed the covers cover an even wider range of context in compositions that feature a lot of action and characters expressing a full range of emotions in full scenes that children are now able to digest independently.
Finally, in older groups, there is tonal shift as the themes of the books start to mature in content, leading the way for teenage and young adult fiction later. It's at this point the covers can afford to be more subtle and nuanced in their advertising of the story, sometimes only needing a few objects or scenes from the book to frame the narrative in books that by this point are full texts with few internal illustrations at all.
Reflecting on my research
At first, I found separating out the categories tricky as there are definitely overlaps between the age groups. The books that children are often the most interested in can often be above their level of literacy and that makes it harder to define who they would be suitable for, especially when it's taken into account that books above a child's reading level may also be read to them by a parent or guardian. I found that many book websites such as The Book Trust have an additional suggested “interest range” alongside the reading range which I found to be a more appropriate guide when I was sorting through images.
Designing for children's books is equally dependent on the content of the stories being told as much as the supporting artwork, and I don't feel that there is a solid template for particular art styles for any of these categories. I also feel that there is a misconception that all children's illustration is bright and colourful with clear text as although this can be favoured by younger children in the early stages, when they reach the age that they can read for themselves there is a much wide variety in the covers in terms of line weight, pallet types, typefaces and overall style than I first realised before doing my research. The beloved series Winnie The Pooh is a good example of an immensely popular title known in part for its charming illustrations before it was ever printed in colour.
Designing my own children's illustrations
The second part of this exercise was for me to try and make my own illustrations with some of these age groups in mind. I was given a list of words as prompts to choose from and pair with two of the age brackets that had been researching.
I chose Pre-School (3-5) / Discovery and Established reader (7-9) / Scary to brainstorm using spider diagrams in my sketchbook.
As I was adding to my spider diagrams, I was trying to keep to the similar kinds of vocabulary that would familiarise myself with the type of language that I would normally use to communicate to that age group. The exercise also asked me to pick an animal for each age group as the central character for my illustrations, so I shortlisted some ideas here too. Once I had some ideas forming, I made character sheets for each idea and illustrated them in turn.
Pre School (Ages 3-5) – "Discovery"
At the ages of 3-5, children are very excited to explore the world around them. The word discovery felt appropriate for this age and for me personifies those early feelings of discovering nature and asking questions about how the natural world works. Watching insects go about their day in the garden is one of those experiences that I wanted to illustrate using my chosen creature, the caterpillar.
Caterpillars are a popular interest for children and many existing children's books such as The Hungry Caterpillar already cover aspects of its unique life cycle, but I still wanted to try my own take on designing one of my own.
I experimented with different poses and environments and by adding some rainy-day human props elements to give the caterpillar familiarity and some humour. I really liked the idea of the caterpillar going about its own mundane business in the rain before it was "discovered" by the viewer. I tried out some different materials as I wanted my illustration to look bright, soft and almost fuzzy in texture and pleasant to look at for a young child. Deciding on a mixture of marker pens and pencil crayon, I rendered the final design on paper.
I am really pleased with how this image has turned out. The marker pens made for a great solid base layer that didn't interfere with the texture of the pencil crayon overlays on top and the body language of the caterpillar under the magnifying glass really sets up the scene that I was aiming for. I feel that this a warm and inviting image that would be entertaining to the target age range.
Established Reader (7-9)
At this stage in development children can now read independently and understand the subtext of scenes beyond just the obvious premise. I wanted to try and create a "scary" image in this vein, but took care not to stray too far into actual horror. The type of scary that I wanted to show was more in line with the tone of a Tim Burton film, to be unsettling but no more than the typical creatures that you would encounter around Halloween.
I chose a cat as my animal and developed a design that would play with its shadow. I wanted to show a sinister side to a household pet that included a supernatural element.
I repeated the same process that I had done with the caterpillar to design a scene for the cat to interact with. I was drawn to this idea of a pure white cat with a dark side as reflected in its shadow creeping up a wall behind it and decided on a lit alleyway for a setting with high contrast for the shadow. I tried a few materials to create a smoky effect using watercolours and inks, but to make sure the shadow stood out, I chose to use only ink pens for the larger version.
Although I like the concept, In hindsight, I think my choice of materials has made the scene a bit softer than I intended in execution by lightening the context to be something more likely to be found in the 5-7 age range instead. When I was brainstorming ideas for what to do around the word scary, I had initially thought of the unsettling images by Stephen Gammell in his illustrations for Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark as an inspiration, but I didn't follow that route as I thought it was slightly too mature for my chosen age group with the recommendation for those books being 9 and above.
I had to move on to the next exercise at this point, but if I attempt this image again later then I would try to see what I could come up with using charcoal to make a more sinister image that would be darker than the one that I had made here, but still not as disturbing as some of Gammells work to strike a balance that would hit my targeted age range more effectively.
Amazon: Children's Books At: https://www.amazon.co.uk/childrens-books/b?ie=UTF8&node=69 (Accessed 10/07/2020)
Booktrust At: https://www.booktrust.org.uk/ (Accessed 10/07/2020)
Waterstones: Children's Books & Teenage Books. At: https://www.waterstones.com/category/childrens-teenage (Accessed 10/07/2020)