Picturing classic children’s books from the UK

Jul 19, 2020

The fantasy world of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan and Wendy in Neverland; the adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh and Paddington Bear; the escapades of Peter Rabbit in Mr. McGregor’s garden and Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad in The Wind in the Willows - I can picture them all. These are just a few of the many classic stories produced by authors from the United Kingdom. But who were the illustrators? Why are the images that come to mind so vivid? How have these authors and illustrators made stories exciting so they hold the readers’ interest? These are questions asked as part of the Australian English Curriculum.

Alice in Wonderland

If we look at the earliest stories, the occasional picture within the book was not all that appealing - not the images we associate with the stories today. Alice in Wonderland, written by Lewis Carroll in 1865, was illustrated by John Tenniel who was a cartoonist for an adult magazine. The artwork was black and dark: this feel was reflected in the 2010 movie starring Johnny Depp. But I remember being entranced by the magical adventures in the topsy-turvy world she fell into. As a kid, I was drawn to the absurdity of the characters like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum and the situations Alice found herself in with the Queen of Hearts being a ‘real’ threat.

Literature written for children at this time was intended to provide life lessons but this story had a fanciful, nonsense approach with riddles and poems that appealed to children. Walt Disney’s animated version back in 1951 was a musical adventure and these are the pictures I have of Alice, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire cat, and all the other crazy characters she met when she fell down a hole!

Helen Oxenbury is a well-known British illustrator who won an award for her artwork in the 1999 version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. She also illustrated another of my favourite books, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by British author Michael Rosen. But I probably remember her best for her pictures in a book by Mem Fox, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes. Mem is not a British author - she’s from my hometown of Adelaide, here in Australia. Nevertheless, I found all these connections fascinating!

Peter Pan and Wendy

The book about Peter Pan and Wendy, first created by JM Barrie in 1902, also had just eleven sketchy, black drawings which had been done by FD Bedford - not so dark and gloomy but certainly not the images I have of the likes of Tinkerbell and Hook. In 1939 Walt Disney bought the rights to create an animation and over the years used several animators for the various characters. It wasn’t until 1953 that the animated musical fantasy was released: a film about a little boy who didn’t want to grow up but could fly away to fantasy islands with fairies and pirates. This focus on childhood with its sense of freedom, unbridled curiosity, and a craving for adventure was engaging for children back then just as much as it is today.

Peter Rabbit

As I considered these classic stories I realised that Walt Disney has had a lot to do with the way the characters came to life. As early as 1936, Disney tried to get the rights for Peter Rabbit but Beatrix Potter refused. Nevertheless, in 2012 there was a CGI-animated children’s version of Peter Rabbit created. Beatrix Potter was also one of the few authors that I looked at who actually did her own drawings. Her stories started with an illustrated letter to a sick child in 1893. The first book about Peter Rabbit came out in 1902. Seeing her pictures of rabbits and squirrels dressed like humans, with human-like personalities but with behaviour more akin to their animal nature, was delightful. As a mum, I still find the Peter Rabbit merchandise which has developed, appealing.

The Wind in the Willows

An early book which I don’t have a strong visual connection with was The Wind in the Willows written by Kenneth Grahame in 1908. The first publication was just text. There was a version that included pictures in 1913, with several illustrators taking up the challenge over the following years. Again the initial images of these talking animals in a wood were black and white and not altogether engaging. Their activities were more adult-like and did not seem as playful or mischievous as other book characters - they held a more serious note. The most famous illustrator for this book was perhaps EH Shepard, who also produced work for illustrated editions of Aesop's Fables, David Copperfield, and Tom Brown's Schooldays. He illustrated The Wind in the Willows in 1931 after having worked on the artwork for Winnie-the-Pooh in 1926. Not having strong memories of these characters from The Wind in the Willows, may also be because Disney released only a mini version of animation in 1949. The more popular and revisited screen productions seem to have had a lasting impact on my recollection of these books as much as the storylines.


Winnie-the-Pooh series of stories, started by AA Milne in the 1920s, have to be a favourite! Yes, he may have been a ‘bear of little brain’ but he invented pooh sticks (sticks which when dropped from one side of a bridge, float down the river under the bridge and are monitored when they appear from the other side of the bridge to see who came first). He also gave us many important lessons on life as we follow his adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood - I’ve got one Pooh quote as a fridge magnet and I saw a memorial plaque with a quote at a lookout during one of my many walks recently. A hundred years on and the words of AA Milne are still alive today, always with a recognisable image of Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood. Again, animals behaving like humans, with the ups and downs of their relationships, keep us engrossed. The original black and white drawings done by Shepard in 1926 received colour and came alive once Disney gained the rights to create animations in 1961.

Mary Poppins

These artistic genes were passed down to Mary Shepard, the daughter of EH Shepard. She was the illustrator for the series of Mary Poppins books written by PL Travers between 1934 and 1988. Interestingly, Travers was an Australian-English author. She sold the rights to Disney who created a movie in 1964: more magic with Mary Poppins’ amazing carpetbag full of all sorts of weird and wonderful things, and the fantasy adventure as the children become a part of the pavement drawings. The clever techniques of the film which brought these images to life have stayed with me since I was a kid.

Paddington Bear 

Then there was the bear found at Paddington Station in London: Paddington Bear, clumsy and lovable in his red hat, blue duffle coat, and sometimes red boots carrying a battered old suitcase. The first story was written by Michael Bond in 1958 and initially illustrated by Peggy Fortnum. The first images were again just black pen and ink drawings. Later versions of the drawings were coloured. Bond went on to create a series of children’s picture book versions in 1972 with more detailed illustrations done this time by Fred Banbery. In 1975 Ivor Wood drew a cartoon image for a television series. Others went on to develop further versions of Paddington as Bond released more books, right up until his death in 2018.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

A more recent, recognisable illustrator of books from the UK, is Quentin Blake. He has created drawings for many of Roald Dahl’s stories. One that comes to mind is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory published in 1964. Dahl has a way with words that appeal to children: things that are dirty and disgusting, horrifying and silly, magical and surreal. The 1964 version was illustrated by Faith Jaques. Michael Foreman did the illustrating in 1985 and in 1995 an edition was published with Quentin Blake’s illustrations which are probably so recognisable because his style can be seen in many of Roald Dahl’s books. In 1971 the film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was produced by Warner Bros.

Reflecting with your kids

So… the illustrations and images are how I remember these stories. But in most cases, the initial drawings are not the pictures that come to mind. Adding colour and animation and presenting the stories through film and on television are what have had the greatest impact visually. But would they have had the same impact if the story, the work of the author, had not also appealed to me?

An activity for your children or your students, in the classroom or while homeschooling, could be to select several favourite illustrated books and discuss why the story is appealing but then also to consider what impact the images have. How do they tell part of the story, adding to and enhancing the meaning? Have any of these stories been around for a long time, loved by generations gone by? If it is a relatively new book, how likely is it to still be popular in another one hundred years, like some of these earlier stories from the UK?

The selection of books I looked at were written by British authors - some over a hundred years ago. An analysis of the settings, the dress, the housing, the customs, the activities can provide a window into life in Britain during those times. A similar reflection could be made for the selection of books you and your children make. What can you learn about the place and times of the characters in the stories?

Kids creating drawings for stories

If you search for 'English’ in Artventure you'll find some art lessons for images relating to stories. This classification in Artventure generally refers to the study of English literature, but may also relate to things from England. The art lessons are therefore possibly good connections for stories. Having said that, virtually any picture in Artventure could be linked with a story. Either using a book that has been selected or drawing on a story the child has written, encourage them to create images that add to the meaning through consideration of setting, clothing, actions, connections of characters... Ask another student or member of the family to reflect on how the artwork does add to the story.

Thinking about why we like certain stories and books helps us to work out whether we would like to read more of a particular author or see more books illustrated by the same person. It’s what we do as adults and this reflective skill can be developed in our children too.

Teacher and Artventure Blogger