Visual Literacy in the Classroom

Aurelie Norman is a teacher at Wardie Primary School in Edinburgh and recently gave a talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival about visual literacy. She talks to us about how pictures can be used in the classroom to teach pupils basic literacy skills.


Can you tell us about the project you ran with the illustration students from Edinburgh College of Art?

Vivian French from Edinburgh College of Art ran three workshops with Wardie Primary School that connected second-year illustration students with primary school children on a collective art project. This was an exciting opportunity for the art students to work with their potential audience and to understand the interests of five- and six-year-olds. For the children, it was a wonderful experience to work with artists and play with new materials to create posters.

The first two workshops took place at Wardie, where the children collaborated with the illustrators to create their own superheroes. During these sessions the pupils discussed and sketched their chosen character at length. They decided who their superhero would be, what powers they would have, and consequently where they would live. The art students then took the joint drawings away and designed wonderful superhero posters.

Storytelling sessions allow children to be creative and tell stories without the restrictions of literacy and writing skills.

The final session was at Edinburgh Art College where the Wardie pupils had a tour around the illustrators’ studios and to the exhibition of their joint work. For the final part of the visit, Vivian French did a storytelling session, which included students drawing her stories and pupils acting it out. It was a fantastic and memorable project!


visual literacy school


What was the impact on the pupils?

The pupils had a rare opportunity to develop a new character and its surroundings with skilled art students. The posters that they created were then used for storytelling. The children were able to imagine scenarios for their superheroes using some of the details in the posters.

Storytelling sessions like this allow children to be creative and tell stories without the restrictions of literacy and writing skills. Their detailed stories were first drawn out as a plan (black line drawings) and then written down. This process helped children of all abilities to create excellent stories.


What other hooks have you used to inspire your pupils to write creatively?

I have been fascinated by storytelling over the past few years and it has been very beneficial to my pupils. They enjoyed one storytelling project with the Scottish Book Trust that we took part in immensely, and afterwards I discovered their literacy skills had improved dramatically. The writing results at the end of that year exceeded expectation, with 2/3 of the class achieving above average levels for their writing.

After researching storytelling further, I rolled it out throughout the school. It is key for children to be confident when talking and telling stories, whether they be known family stories, re-told tales, using puppets, storytelling dice and maps, or making up their own stories. These alternative storytelling techniques help children to develop not only their listening and talking skills but also their writing techniques.


visual literacy school


Can you give us some hints and tips about using picture books in the classroom?

Whilst reading skills like de-coding, fluency, and expression are of great importance, it is equally necessary that children understand what they are reading. Picture books are a wonderful resource for understanding the writer’s message, and make a great comprehension tool for children of all abilities and ages.

Picture books are a wonderful resource for understanding the writer’s message.

Picture books encourage children to look at the illustrations before the text. They discuss amongst themselves what they have noticed and what they think the writer is trying to convey. The teacher is there as a facilitator and is not there to influence observations. Children start to ask open ended questions, such as ‘I wonder why?’, which leads to a great discussion amongst the pupils. One observation often sparks another and develops the discussion.

I run these sessions in mixed ability groups of around eight children and only look at a few pages at a time. It is just as important to look at the cover and end papers of a book, as the illustrators often spend a great deal of time adding detail that gives clues about the story.

Once a group has been trained, it may run independently and do follow up tasks like predicting what happens next in a book or making connections to their own lives.


Can you teach non-fiction topics using visual techniques?

Well sought out video clips and songs can support non-fiction books, which are critical for improving children’s understanding and enjoyment of language.

In a recent project with my class we watched video song clips that imparted facts about the solar system. Children discussed the information they had picked up and made notes in their draft jotter. Some drew the facts that they had learnt and others created annotated diagrams.

Once these notes had been collated the children created their own non-fiction books, using some of their favourite formats they had found in other non-fiction texts. They drew pictures and diagrams to support their written facts. This was a great example of using visual literacy techniques to learn facts, take notes, and to create non-fiction texts.


space visual literacy


How else can you bring visual literacy into the classroom?

We have used a variety of visual techniques at Wardie to give children feedback. The use of ‘Tickle Me Pink’ and ‘Green for Grower’ is an effective tool for written activities. Children’s work is highlighted in pink for something positive and green for a point needing improvement.

Another useful resource is writing feedback stamps. These are especially useful with infant classes, where children often can’t read the ‘two stars and a wish’ comments that teachers write. It is both meaningful to the child and takes less time for the teacher to mark, which allows for more time to plan fun visual literacy activities!

Storytelling maps are another useful visual tool. I used them when I taught my class about the Middle Ages. The children made up ‘historical fiction’ stories about people living in that period. As they re-told their stories it was evident that they had picked up many historical facts along the way. This was an effective and valid way for me to assess them without any writing.

Meet the Illustrator: Kasia Matyjaszek

You’ve been on quite a journey since your time with Picture Hooks in 2012. What was the first thing you did to get the ball rolling at the end of the mentoring scheme?

I think I just kept drawing, developing my picture book ideas, showing it to people and then drawing even more. It has been a very busy few years!


What has been your favourite project to work on since finishing with Picture Hooks?

It is quite difficult to decide as every project was different and I really like them all for different reasons. I loved working on two picture books for a Polish independent publisher Dwie Siostry as I had the opportunity to work with fantastic, very powerful texts by Ewa Madeyska. The brief was very open so I had a lot of freedom with deciding what to illustrate and what the spreads would look like.

I also very much enjoyed working on ‘The Fourth Bonniest Baby in Dundee’ for Floris Books. The story written by Michelle Sloan is probably the liveliest and the most hilarious thing I have ever illustrated.

And of course working on my own picture book where I was both author and illustrator was a fantastic and very different experience.



Wolf and Teddy drawn by Kasia Matyjaszek


Whilst you were with Picture Hooks you were also Artist in Residence at the Edinburgh College of Art. What do you think was the most valuable part of that experience?

Illustrating is a great job but it can feel very lonely and isolating at times – you basically spend most of your day by yourself in the studio, surrounded by your imaginary characters.

It is not long before you start having conversations with them, they become your best friends etc. The residency at Edinburgh College of Art was a way to be a part of a wider community of artists and illustrators and be around people who have similar interests and understand what it is like to be a freelance illustrator. It was also great to be back to the college and get the opportunity to work with the students. I have actually never left the college after the residency as it directly lead to my job as a tutor.


Now that you tutor at the University of Edinburgh, what is the most important piece of advice that you give your students?

Keep a sketchbook, go out and draw from observation. This is something I find myself repeating most often. Very often students don’t appreciate how much research goes into an illustration project and how important it is to draw from observation.


Keep a sketchbook, go out and draw from observation.


Funnily enough, this is something I have to often repeat to myself. Sometimes I get stuck on the project, nothing really works and I feel like I will never be able to draw again. This is when I have to remind myself of that ‘most important piece of advice’ and just go out and draw. Usually an afternoon drawing in the National Museum of Scotland does the job.

Drawing from observation is such an important tool for an illustrator and also a very relaxing and therapeutic thing to do.


You’ve also been running creative workshops for children. Does working with young people ever feed back into your own art?

Yes, definitely! All the time! It is an invaluable experience to work with children, watch them play, make art and engage with the world around them. And also seeing how different they are in the way they play or respond to the art activities – some children would spend the whole session focused, i.e. covering a large sheet of paper with glue and sticking bits of paper to it, others are much more active and they just keep running around and causing chaos.

It is always a challenge to design the activities so every child can find something for themselves. And I guess when making picture books you come across similar challenges – how to make a book that appeals to a wider audience?

I cannot really draw when I lead the workshops but I often take mental notes and quickly draw them from memory in my sketchbook after the session. And later they often make way into my illustrations.


I am also very much inspired by the art and drawings made by small kids.


I am also very much inspired by the art and drawings made by small kids. They are brilliant! When a 5 year old draws a dragon, they really mean it, they just go for it and it really comes across in the finished piece. It is a real dragon! There is this freshness and sincerity in the way children draw. And sadly it is later lost and for a grown up artist, it takes years of training and practice to somehow regain it.

So yes, working with young people is an integral part of my own process and I don’t think I would be able to make picture books if I didn’t do workshops.


Stockton the Cat drawn by Kasia Matyjaszek


Most excitingly, you’ve got a new book coming out – called I Am a Very Clever Cat – on September 8th! Could you tell us a little bit about the book and where you got the inspiration from?

Yes, this is very exciting indeed! The process behind I Am a Very Clever Cat is very much connected to the Picture Hooks and it probably wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t for the mentoring scheme.

It started back in 2012 with a small sketch of a cat carrying a ball of wool that I later developed into a set of illustrations and submitted for the Picture Hooks mentoring scheme. Obviously I was over the moon when I heard that my application was successful and I was one of five finalists for the first edition of Picture Hooks.

During the mentoring scheme I developed the character further but I struggled a bit with a narrative. I had a character which I liked a lot, and which got a very good response from the Picture Hooks exhibition, but no story.


The process behind I Am a Very Clever Cat is very much connected to the Picture Hooks and it probably wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t for the mentoring scheme.


The breakthrough came later and it was inspired by two seemingly random events.

One was a workshop for children I lead at the North Edinburgh Arts centre, which involved making structures from the wool. I bought three balls of wool and we made this big structure by spreading and taping the wool to the walls, floor and ceiling. It looked very tidy to start with… And then the kids came and they started playing with it, throwing the leftover balls of wool, attaching random objects to it, running around and getting caught in the net. So by the end of the session we had this big knot of wool hanging in the middle of the room with bits of furniture and art materials attached to it. A big mess! This workshop was the main inspiration for the storyline.

And the other inspiration was a puppy we got around the same time. I worked from home and spent a lot of time observing him play and mostly cause chaos and destruction in our flat.

And now, over four years later from that first sketch, after lots of very helpful editing advice from my agents at Fraser Ross and an awesome experience of working with the team at Templar Publishing, I am a Very Clever Cat is finally published!


And finally, who was your favourite illustrator as a child?

I don’t think I had a favourite illustrator as a child. There were just books I liked or I didn’t like. And one book I liked a lot was a collection of poems by Jan Brzechwa beautifully illustrated by Franciszka Themerson. It was not until later when I learnt about Franciszka and Stefan Themerson and their amazing artwork.


Kasia Matyjaszek’s book I Am A Very Clever Cat will be published by Templar Publishing on 8th September 2016. Click here to buy a copy. 

Picture Hooks at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

We have just ten days until the Edinburgh International Book Festival takes off again in Charlotte Square Gardens. Of course the festival is not only about the written word – there is plenty in store for picture book fans and illustrators too. We’re thrilled that so many from our own Picture Hooks community has made it into the programme. Our past mentors will be introducing new books, hosting live drawing sessions, and showing us how illustrations can be used to teach. We’ve compiled this summary of events so you know who’s doing what and where.

Debi Gliori will join Faye Hanson (author of picture books Midnight at the Zoo and The Wonder) in the Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre. They will talk about creating compelling fictional worlds that give space for children’s imaginations and questions. Gliori will also host The Crocodiamond Big Draw, a draw-along where audiences can invent their own baddie characters.

Ross Collins will invite you to create your own characters when he talks about his picture book, There’s A Bear On My Chair. He will show audiences how he draws his characters (from big bears to small mice) before asking you to draw with him. Collins also speaks with writer Claire Barker about the latest book in their popular series, Knitbone Pepper Ghost Dog and the Last Circus Tiger. Expect some live drawing at both events, and a good dash of whimsical humour.

Nick Sharratt will give an interactive talk when he promotes his first book of nonsense poetry called Vikings in the Supermarket. A highly-accomplished illustrator and fantastic entertainer, Sharratt’s event will include live drawing and silly rhymes for the whole family.

Cate James is also introducing a new picture book this year called Go Home, Little One!. She will showcase her story, which describes a tiny hedgehog who would rather play outside with his squirrel friends than hibernate through the winter.

Shakespeare 400 will also make an appearance when Brita Granström and Mick Manning use live drawing to introduce children to the bard. The pair will show how pictures can bring facts about William Shakespeare to life for children.

On a similar note, Vivian French will discuss how picture books can be used in the classroom in our very own Picture Hooks event, The Hook of Visual Literacy. French will argue that communicating with children through images is getting more and more crucial in our increasingly visual world. Another of French’s events, The Write to Read: Discussing Dyslexia, will cover writing books for children who struggle to read. There will be a Book Doctor on-hand at the end of the event to recommend dyslexia-friendly books.

French will also host a game of consequences for comic book makers. The audience will be asked to start each story, while the artists take turns continuing the plot through live drawing. On top of this, she will join her long-time collaborator David Melling to talk about the latest installation of their Knight in Training series. We will hear about whether Sam J Butterbiggins has achieved his dream of becoming a knight yet.

There is a fantastic array of events featuring illustrators this year, so don’t just stop with our ones. The Edinburgh International Book Festival presents a great opportunity to immerse yourself in the picture book world.

5 reasons to apply for the Picture Hooks Mentoring Scheme 2016

We’ll be announcing the details of the 2016 Picture Hooks Mentoring Scheme at our conference next week. Here’s former mentee, Jon Bishop, on 5 reasons to apply. 

1. It helps you focus your work. 

The application process for the mentoring scheme allowed me to identify the areas that I wanted to develop most. Applying allows you to take stock and assess the direction you really want your work to take and make the necessary steps to move forward.

 2. Face to face contact with your mentor. 

Whether you’re a seasoned illustrator extraordinaire or just starting out, the profession can be quite a solitary experience. One of the most useful parts of the mentoring project for me, as well as the amazing tips and insights that my mentor, Debi Gliori, passed on, was having that face to face meet up time with her. I was able to bounce ideas back and forth with her and sometimes it helped just to blether away and clear my headspace.

3. Being part of the scheme brings exciting opportunities.

As well as the insight and support of the mentors, the scheme also brought me some other amazing opportunities. I’m still in shock over the realisation that my work featured as part of an exhibition at the National Galleries. Also, throughout the project, we had the chance to meet with a range of publishers, art editors and agents. What are you waiting for? Apply, apply, apply!

 4. As important as it is to apply, it’s also vital to reapply. 

When I was selected for the mentoring scheme in 2014, it wasn’t the first time I’d applied. If, indeed, like me, you weren’t selected the first time around, don’t be put off!

 5. Even if you aren’t chosen, great opportunities can come from it!

I was delighted when I was chosen to be a part of the programme in 2014, but it wasn’t all tears back in 2012. A friend of mine, who works in theatre, liked the story that I had developed for the first submission and so we decided to create a piece of children’s theatre around it. If the mentoring scheme doesn’t work out for you this year, the work you do create for the application may lead onto something else and it will undoubtedly benefit your folio for future applications.

So, in short, do apply to the mentoring scheme….and good luck! If the outcome isn’t what you wanted this time, make sure you don’t give up and continue to develop new material for the next round!

Stepping Out

In the lead up to the Picture Hooks 2016 Conference, freelance illustrator Hannah Foley gives some advice on finding your voice as an emerging illustrator. 

It’s scary stepping out into the world of freelance illustration for the first time. I was certainly feeling pretty timid when I went along to the 2012 Picture Hooks conference. It’s hard to feel confident as an emerging illustrator in an industry that abounds with so much talent. But, at both the 2012 and 2014 conferences I picked up lots of useful advice that has helped ease my path and perhaps some of it might ease yours too…

1. Get to know yourself.

Find your voice and then learn to express it clearly and consistently. Publishers and editors often recommend that those who want to illustrate for children should look at what is currently selling well in the bookshops. This can be an intimidating piece of advice for new illustrators and it’s easy to find yourself imitating others or trailing after trends. Do look at what is currently selling well but then go away and decide which of these books you really love and why. Mark Hearld spoke passionately at the 2014 conference about artists and illustrators who have influenced him. Mark has such a strong illustrative voice because he has explored widely, and bravely experimented with techniques and topics that have resonated most deeply with him.

2. Be open-minded about what illustrating for children looks like.

The industry is much broader than you might at first imagine. It’s certainly not limited to picture books. At the 2014 conference we heard from Chrissie Boehm of illustration agency Artful Doodlers who employ illustrators to reproduce licensed characters, and from Ashley McCracken of Sugar Snap Studios who helps illustrators license their work for cards and merchandise. Children’s illustrators work for the educational and charitable sectors too. Just as you would explore and experiment in your illustration work, explore and experiment with the areas of the children’s illustration industry that might suit you and your work.

3. Get support.

Go along to talks and conferences like Picture Hooks. Glean as much information as you can. Get advice about your portfolio from industry experts. The AOI run a portfolio advice service and there are often opportunities to look out for at festivals and events. Explore mentoring options such as the one provided by Picture Hooks.

Good luck!

Networking Tips for Illustrators

In the lead up to the Picture Hooks 2016 Conference, we asked Design Manager at Floris Books, Leah McDowell for her top tips on networking.

Networking. What an awful word. Does the mere sight of it fill you with dread? If your answer is yes, then you’re just one of millions of creative people that feel the same way. As a species, creatives are notoriously shy. This is ironic, given that so much of what they do is inspired by, or created for, humankind.

The Picture Hooks Conference 2016 is fast approaching and sprinkled among this year’s excellent schedule, are opportunities for – you’ve guessed it – networking.

But never fear! Here are five top tips on how you can network with your fellow creatives in order to make the very most of this unmissable day.

Top tip 1: Know that you’re all in the same boat

Many of this year’s Picture Hooks delegates will be feeling a little nervous about meeting new people. Just remember that they’ll be concentrating hard on not coming across as nervous and therefore they’re unlikely to notice if you’re feeling uncomfortable too!
If it so happens that you come across a networking guru, then don’t be intimidated; learn from them! Watch how they handle the situation and get in on their conversation to reap the benefits.

Top tip 2: Take advantage of the real-life publishers there!

Picture Hooks presents a brilliant opportunity to hear from the people that are on the lookout for new and talented illustrators and the networking sessions can present some one-on-one time with them. Don’t be intimidated by that – grab the opportunity! Publishers need children’s book illustrators, so take the chance to pick their brains and get answers to questions you perhaps weren’t brave enough to ask in the sessions.

Top tip 3: Remember: it’s important to challenge yourself

As an illustrator or a designer, it’s important to continually challenge yourself creatively, otherwise your work will stagnate and you’ll lose passion for what you do. Think of networking as just another challenge! Albeit it’s not purely creative, but it can have the same great benefits. In talking to someone new you could meet a future collaborative partner or you could learn something new about a person’s creative process that could inspire a great new project.

Top tip 4: Don’t be afraid to pretend you need to wee

One of the big concerns most people have about networking is how to get out of a conversation you no longer want to be in. If you find yourself in that situation, just thank the person for their time, tell them you enjoyed speaking to them and say you need to nip to the bathroom. Job done! Now you can move on to a new conversation (ideally on the other side of the room where they won’t see you for a little while…).

Top tip 5: Bring along (and give out) your business cards

Never think that business cards are only for fat cats in tailored suits. They’re the perfect way for you to share details of your website/online portfolio/sketch blog with other people and to get your name out there. People who work in the creative industries in Scotland are fairly close-knit and lots of people know each other; passing your card to one person might get your work seen by another who could give you your big break.

Like-minded individuals from all over Scotland will be at the Picture Hooks Conference 2016, so get a smile on your face (it helps to bluff confidence!), wear your favourite outfit (again, helps to bluff confidence) and stride in there eager to make some new contacts – or maybe even friends!

What the Publishers Think: An Insight into the Industry

Working as an illustrator can be tough when you can’t see what goes on behind the publisher’s doors. We spoke to Arvind Shah, Mara van der Meer, and Clare Mills from Orchard Books about what they look for in an illustrator and what happens at their end once you’ve been commissioned.