Why illustrations draw children into reading

18th March 2016 at 00:00

I was always obsessed with illustrations. The stories were good, but it was the illustrations that set my mind alight. I remember my favourite book when I was wee was a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen story The Tinderbox. The witch was exciting, the soldier’s adventures amazing, but it was the pictures of those giant dogs with saucer-sized eyes that really got me.

I copied them – I copied everything. I would copy all of my favourite illustrations, from Roald Dahl books to J R R Tolkien. It was the pictures that got me interested in stories, not the other way around, and I suspect that a lot of children still get into reading that way.

I visit schools regularly, reading my stories to the kids and drawing the characters on flipcharts. I think that the drawings are dreadful because I have to do them so quickly, but the kids seem to think that it’s magic. They ooo and aah and sometimes tell me that I’m good at it – to which I reply: “I’ve been practising.”

I get the kids to draw creatures for me sometimes. I ask them about their drawing and they tell me all sorts of amazing facts about the strangeness that they’ve just conjured up. The drawing comes first, then the stories. You can almost see their imaginations bursting into life, fizzing with endless energy and possibilities. They love it – children are natural storytellers; they instinctively understand how to put pictures and words together.

Some of them show me little books that they’ve created. The teachers are so proud of those kids. The kids can’t wait to tell me all about their stories. I won’t lie to you and say that they are all works of genius – in truth, they seldom are, but neither was the book I wrote and illustrated when I was eight about a chicken who was also a master jewel thief. I show them this (it’s one of the only great works that my mum kept) and tell them all they need to do is to keep practising and one day they could do what I do. Some are excited by the notion, some would far rather be astronauts – each to their own.

I’m not sure if children need to be taught illustration in school. They do it themselves already. But what they do need is for grown-ups to listen to their stories and to take an interest in the amazing drawings that their kids are doing every day. They need to be encouraged to keep drawing, keep imagining and one day – God help them – they might end up like me.

Ross Collins is a children’s author and illustrator. He recently took part in the Scottish Friendly Children’s Book Tour, sharing illustration tips and reading from his new book, There’s a Bear on My Chair

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