Illustrated Children’s Books

by Margaret Powling-

I hope you are now replete after taking afternoon tea with me, that you had a safe and uneventful journey home, and that in the not too distant future you will join me for High Tea, a quite different meal, but please allow me a little breathing space in which to prepare for our next get-together.  I will also post a lovely recipe for scones before too long.

* * * * *

It was my need to research butterflies that prompted my next topic:  illustrated children’s books.  I will shortly be writing an article for a magazine which will include butterflies and while researching this topic I recalled the 1973 children’s book, The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast by illustrator Alan Aldridge and poet William Plomer.  Indeed, it won the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year Award.  I have only just bought my copy, a reprint of the 1973 edition and in the back of the book it gives details of how Alan – who had been a creative consultant to The Beatles’ company Apple – spent a year preparing the 28 illustrations for this book.  It says, “The appeal of The Butterfly Ball illustrations is partly rooted in the sense of mystery and darkness that coexists alongside sheer fantastic exuberance. They are mad, magical and surreal, qualities that children have long embraced in their reading, that appeal to many adults too.”

Well they certainly appeal to me!  And once the book was published, “The prints just flew out,” Alan is quoted as saying.   “It was phenomenal.  We ended up printing 25,000 copies of the book in the first edition – sold out in three days.”

The one sad note is that at the moment of triumph, William Plomer (1903-1973) died on the day of the book launch, the eve of becoming a best-selling author.

I can’t remember when, as an adult, I became interested in illustrated children’s books.  I loved Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five series and the ballet books of Lorna Hill (about which I posted some months ago), and the school stories for an even earlier generation than my own by Angela Brazil, but then, as an adult, I found myself drawn towards some children books simply because I loved the illustrations. 

Photo credits:  The Butterfly Ball & The Grasshopper’s Feast, pictures: Alan Aldridge (Jonathan Cape and Templar Publishing);  The Ship’s Cat, pictures Alan Aldridge (Jonathan Cape)

I bought The Ship’s Cat when it was first published in 1977.  Again this was illustrated by Alan Aldridge with the verses by Richard Adams. I particularly love this Elizabethan cat illustration!

A favourite illustrator of mine is Nicola Bayley.  I don’t know when I was first became aware of her lovely books.  She was born in Singapore and studied art at St Martin’s and the Royal College of Art.  I have a cutting from The Sunday Times magazine from 1979 where it says that she made her reputation with her Book of Nursery Rhymes (in 1975) …

Photo credit One Old Oxford Ox and Nicola Bayley’s Nursery Rhymes, pictures Nicola Bayley (Jonathan Cape)

and the article continues, “since then she has consolidated it with The Tyger Voyage [which, as yet, I do not have in my collection].”  She speaks about her art thus:

“My pictures are full of objects that already surround me or that I lust after.  One small painting takes me 10 days or so to complete. I can’t bear to sell anything because every picture conjures up past times.  I suppose I must have files full of work but if I let something go it’s like parting with a piece of my life.”

I have no idea whether Nicola still keeps all her art work. This article, as I say, was written in 1979! 

A favourite book of mine is The Mousehole Cat by Antonia Barber and illustrated by Nicola Bayley …

Photo Credit: The Mousehole Cat, pictures Nicola Bayley (Walker Books)

I must point out right away, for those of you living far away from Cornwall, in which this story is set, that the little fishing village of Mousehole is actually pronounced “Mowzell.”  The book is based on the legend of Cornish fisherman, Tom Bowcock and the stargazy pie.  The story goes that one very stormy winter, none of the fishermen of the village were able to leave the harbour and the village neared starvation.  But Tom and his black cat, Mowzer, decided to brave the elements and put to sea in order to catch some fish.  When they returned after quite an adventure, the entire catch was cooked into various dishes including stargazy pie. 

Every year, on the 23rd December,  Mousehole celebrates Tom Bowcock’s Eve and the harbour is illuminated with hundreds of coloured lights, some depicting boats.  The pub serves stargazy pie in which the fish pie has pilchards with their heads pointing heavenwards through the crust.   Antonia and Nicola’s book won the Illustrated Book of the Year for 1991. 

More recently, while in the furniture outlet of one of our local charity shops, I came across a lovely copy of The Wind in the Willows.  I already have the Ernest Shepherd illustrated edition (along with his Winnie the Pooh) but how could I leave such a lovely book there,  illustrated by Inga Moore,  when it was only £1?  I really think I must look for some more of her illustrated books, they are such deliciously soft and gentle illustrations and they really appeal to me.

Photo Credit, The Wind in the Willows, pictures by Inga Moore (Walker Books)

These illustrations are quite different from the often surreal ones by Alan Aldridge.  I could spend hours just looking at the interiors of the places in which Toad, Mole, Ratty and Badger live!  Again and again I’m drawn towards interiors, even in children’s books!

Other books in my  small collection include the not-so-beautiful Fungus the Bogeyman by Raymond Briggs (bought for our younger son but which found its way to my collection), and Captain Beaky Volume 1 and 2, by Jeremy Lloyd and illustrated by Keith Michell.  I sometimes read the poems out loud to myself and my husband and we end up almost crying with laughter …

The bravest animals in the land

Are Captain Beaky and his band.

That’s Timid Toad, Reckless Rat,

Artful Owl and Batty Bat,

March through the woodland

Singing songs

That tell how they have righted wrongs.

Once Hissing Sid, an evil snake,

Kept the woodland folk awake

In fear and trembling every night

In case he gave someone a bite.

And that’s just the beginning of the band’s adventures.  I also have the LP (that’s a Long Playing record for those brought up on CDs and downloads!) of these jolly poems read by Jeremy Lloyd.

I wonder whether you, like me, love illustrated children’s books? If so, do tell us which ones are your favourites.

  Mice at a printing press in Nicola Bayley’s One Old Oxford Ox

Photo Credit:  One Old Oxford Ox, pictures Nicola Bayley (Jonathan Cape)

Until next time.





Margaret Powling


  1. Sarah

    I adore Nicola Bayley’s illustrations too. Our edition of The Mousehole Cat was signed by Antonia Barber and bought in Mousehole when my children were very young. Another favourite book also illustrated by Nicola is The Patchwork Cat which has the most gorgeous illustrations of interiors and gardens and street scenes. Up in the attic there is a large lidded plastic crate of my children’s favourite books and I really hope these two books are among the ones I saved. EH Shepard is a favourite artist and in one of my bookcases I have a lovely illustrated edition of The Wind in the Willows from 1960, the year of my birth. Did you know he was inspired by the river Fowey at Lerryn and the surrounding woods when he made his drawings. Your home sounds like a treasure trove of delights Margaret.

    03 . May . 2017
    • Margaret Powling

      Hello, Sarah, and no, I’d no idea that Shepard had been inspired by the River Fowey at Lerryn (again, for those not living in the West Country, Fowey is pronounced “Foy”). I know of The Patchwork Cat but haven’t seen a copy, so now I’m off to Amazon for a look-see and might be tempted! I do think Nicola Bayley is my favourite illustrator of children’s books, and the patience she must have to create her paintings in pointillism. I don’t think I’d go quite as far as saying our home is like a treasure trove, Sarah, but I do tend to hang on to things!

      03 . May . 2017
  2. Eloise at thisissixty.blog

    I absolutely love this post, Margaret. Some of the illustrations in children’s books are so detailed and delightful, that the actual story becomes almost unimportant. I have my favourite children’s books in both categories – illustrations and stories.
    I know exactly what you mean about gazing at the interiors – the tiny detail is many pictures is fascinating. I loved the Brambly Hedge series for this reason. How lovely that you mention ‘The Mousehole Cat’. I remember buying the book for my daughter when we were on holiday years ago…..just beautiful. The Snowman too has long been a favourite of mine for it pastel drawings.
    Do you remember the Kit William’s book, Masquerade? It had some wonderful illustrations and contained clues to the (real) whereabouts of a jewelled hare. I bought it for my new baby son in 1979. As a child I loved the pictures in my Rupert animals.

    Talking of children’s stories, at university, one of my elective modules was ‘Writing for Children’ and in 2015 I won the student prose prize at the Worcester Literary Festival. It was for a children’s story which I wrote for my granddaughter, then aged 10. Her response was, “It was good, Nanny, but I like Jacqueline Wilson better”. Talk about deflated!

    03 . May . 2017
    • Margaret Powling

      Yes, Eloise, the Brambly Hedge books were a delight. However, with two boys, they were more into Star Wars and Superman! And Brambly Hedge spawned a whole industry in that pretty look, mainly for little girls I think, before they all went pink-mad and wanted to be princesses!
      Yes, I have Kit Williams’ book, Masquerade. I never bought it to solve the clues but just to look at the lovely illustrations. I didn’t use it as an example in my post because I thought I’d given sufficient examples. Strangely enough, I never liked Rupert or the Rupert annuals, although so many people did and a lot of those early editions now have shot up in price (of course, a lot depends on the condition of the book!) I loved School Friend and Girl annuals.
      My goodness, how lovely to win the student prize for your module on Writing for Children! Well done, you! Oh dear, what a comment from your granddaughter!

      04 . May . 2017
  3. Eloise at thisissixty.blog

    What a lovely post from Sarah too!

    03 . May . 2017
    • Margaret Powling

      Yes, thank you both, you and Sarah for your kind comments.

      04 . May . 2017
  4. Marlene Stevens

    This is a lovely post, beautiful illustrations, I just love children’s books, I have even started to collect a few, they are just so magical.
    On another note Margaret, is there any way to click on the names of the people who comment here I would love to look to see if they have blogs as well?

    04 . May . 2017
    • Margaret Powling

      Hello, Marlene, and thanks for your kind comments – I forgot I have a lovely pop-up book, too, which I could’ve shown.
      I have no idea how to find out if any of the readers have any blogs themselves; I will ask in my next post if anyone has a blog, I would like to see them, too.

      04 . May . 2017
  5. Marlene Stevens

    Thankyou Margaret, I have a few pop up books in my amazon wishlist.

    04 . May . 2017
    • Margaret Powling

      I have only two, Marlene. One which was given to our elder son when he was a baby, and one from the Coronation in 1953 when I was a child. Oh, and one which his not quite a pop-up book but has sliding pictures in it, by John S Goodall.

      04 . May . 2017
  6. Lara

    Oh Margaret you have outdone yourself – I think this is one of my favourite posts !! I love children’s books and movies but for many years felt self conscious of this and would borrow my friends children to take them to see such movies. Nowadays I don’t care and am happy to go with an adult friends or my own !! I LOVE Winnie The Pooh – as a young child (about six or seven) I had some short-term health issue (can’t recall now) and was cared for by a friend of the family and she read Winnie The Pooh to me each night and did voices for each of the characters. … over 40 years later and I can still picture myself tucked up in a double bed with her sitting on the bed near me reading out loud. I can’t recall her face but have strong memories of feeling cosy and loved.
    I, too, love Wind in The Willows and probably last read it only a few years ago. Pollyanna is also a sweet children’s book. I have some lovely Royal Doulton pieces from their Brambly Hedge collection, a series of stories about a community of little field mice who live in brambles (blackberry to us Australians :))

    My elderly cat has – ahem – issues with her food and we are constantly at battles with her as to how much food she actually needs and how often !! So I particularly like the picture of the robust-looking gentleman cat in his fine pants 🙂

    07 . May . 2017
    • Margaret Powling

      Just come online again after my blog has been off since last Thursday. Lovely to be back again!

      08 . May . 2017
  7. Lara

    I have just read the comments. Glad to see others like Brambly Hedge too.
    No, I don’t have a blog. Perhaps Marlene might enjoy Fiona Ferris’ howtobechic.com ?
    ps apologies for poor grammar in my comment. I’m typing on my iPad, my chair has silly narrow arms and typing is restricted – I was too lazy to put apostrophes and quotation marks. Poor show for a pedant like me 😉

    07 . May . 2017

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