Cognitive Elements in Picture Books - Book Reviews

Episode 6: Meerkat Mail (Emily Gravett)

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you all have a blessed 2020!

Written and illustrated by Emily Gravett

Published by Macmillan Children’s Books, London, 2006, 2015

The illustrations were created in pencil and watercolour.

This story is perfect for young children, aged 3 to 6. Be aware that 5 minutes will not suffice to explore this book! This is one of those special books that delivers each time you open it. It is one of my favourite picture books ever.


Sunny is a Meerkat. He lives in the hot, sunny, Kalahari Desert. He wants to leave home.

Lessons to be learnt from this lovely book:

  1. Zoology – As revealed in the book, meerkats are members of the mongoose family. Children learn about these small creatures through cleverly inserted details in the story, and by the enticing features liberally showered through the book, by way of postcards and postage stamps. Apart from learning about the mongoose family, other creatures like the African Red Hornbill, scorpions, termites, snails, frogs, earthworms, insect larvae, crustacea, reptiles and insects are mentioned.
  2. Number concept – In several places, you can encourage your child to either count or estimate the number of objects, such as ants, meerkats, locusts, termites and chickens. This helps reinforce number concept – the understanding of numbers as quantities.
  3. Social lessons – Sunny appears to be equally fed-up living in a hot, sunny, desert climate and having to live at close quarters with his large family.
  • A story like ‘Meerkat Mail’ can be a great springboard for discussing family dynamics: Why family is important? How do deal with situations when we are irritated or frustrated with a family member or members? etc. Sunny learns that it is better to be smothered but supported by family than to be independent and without a support network.
  • Stranger danger message – although never mentioned by name in the text, Meerkat is being shadowed by a suspicious character. The children will infer that he is up to is no good, but you may need to point him out lurking in the background. We probably shouldn’t pass up an opportunity to remind our children of the ‘stranger danger’ message.

4. Humour – Although aimed at children, this book definitely contains humour that will appeal to the adult reader. One of my favourite moments is on the back cover: Manufactured by: mongeeses mongooses small mammals.

Humour often encourages participation in the book, and will usually result in the book becoming a family favourite. Depending on the child, some of the humour may need explanation.

5. Vocabulary development – most of the vocabulary is age appropriate; however, you may find odd words that need to be explained to children.

6. Geography – It could be a good time to pull out an atlas, or make use of Dr. Google, to show children the location of the Kalahari Desert, Liberia and Madagascar.

For writers:

  • Emphasis – Emily Gravett uses uppercase and enlarged text to emphasis some words. These words can be spoken more loudly.
  • Bite-sized phrases – there are pockets of text sprinkled throughout the illustrations. Text is also displayed in eye-popping ways: on the meerkat teacher’s chalk board, on a sheet of note paper, on postcards, on a banner and engraved on the sand-dunes. Look for ways to insert the text in non-block formats.

For illustrators:

  • Textural illustrations – the illustrations on the covers, end-papers and title pages are layered like a collage. It creates interest through its varied composition. This is also an engineered book with postcard flaps, concealing information that the child needs to see. Every available surface has been utilised to promote the narrative.
  • Static composition – All of the story illustrations are created in a forward, street view. They are, however, shown up close, so that the reader feels as though they are participating in the scene, not just witnessing it.  
  • Varied illustration formats – the illustrator utilises full page bleeds, framed vignettes and double page layouts.
  • Colour palette – is extremely limited, using neutral shades, except for pops of scarlet on items that add humour and promote discussion between the reader and the audience.
  • Simple illustrations – the beauty of these illustrations come from the simple, yet well-constructed design, accompanied by the strong portrayal of emotion and action-filled characters.
  • Text incorporated into the illustrations – Story text is displayed on the meerkat teacher’s chalk board, on a sheet of note paper, on postcards, on a banner and engraved on the sand-dunes.

About the writer-illustrator:

Emily Gravett is a British illustrator and has created many picture books.

‘Meerkat Mail’ can be purchased:

For those of you who are new to my blog, I write a month blog, alternating between illustration-themed blogs, and picture book reviews with cognitive insights for parents, teachers, picture book writers and illustrators.

This month, however, I am doing both blogs – a New Years bonus!

Happy reading!


Creating a Picture Book – Part 2 (The Idea)

Since I am writing and illustrating my book, the blog will be written from the perspective of a picture book creator, not just that of a writer or illustrator.

You have an idea for a picture book, or maybe you don’t, but you want or need to write and illustrate a book.

Here is the process for becoming inspired and for working on the idea:

  1. Keep a notebook and/or a sketchbook handy – this is your idea library. Ideas fall into our laps from the strangest places: a conservation overheard between young children, a comical scene, something beautiful or fascinating, etc. Whenever you feel blocked or uninspired, your ‘idea library’ comes into play.
  2. Ideas cannot be forced. Even when you have an idea, sometimes it can take days or weeks to foment into a usable concept. I find concepts crystallise when I am walking the dog, showering, trying to sleep, trying to distract myself from brooding over my concept by reading a book, etc. Discussing your concept with a writing group can be helpful.
  3. Don’t try to produce a finished and perfect book at this point. Just note the ideas. Play around with them. Give the ideas a chance to speak for themselves – let them come to life by themselves.
  4. Don’t over contrive them. You want the scenario, characters and setting to be fresh and believable.
  5. Don’t fight change. Just because your initial concept appeals to you, does not mean that it must remain the same as it was initially. Concepts tends to evolve. Sometimes they taper down to something simpler, sometimes they develop complexity. I find my concepts often look very different in the end. There is a core of the original idea, but its end result is usually much better than its initial concept.
  6. Do your research and check your references. If your story is about elephants in the Okavango Delta, then read up about them and the location. Draw African elephants. Draw the Okavango landscape. These study sketches will not be in the picture book, but they will train your hands, eyes and creativity so that you can use what you learn to create the illustrations.

Join me next time for the third part of this blog series: Creating a Picture Book – Part 3 (What to Consider When Creating a Picture Book).

Until next time…


Creating a Picture Book – Part 1

Maurice the Magnificent

I illustrated my first picture book when I was 17 years old. The illustrations were for a story my mother had written when we were quite small. The tale was a gorgeous epic about garden creatures. We loved the story. Because we enjoyed ‘Spinky Sparrow’s Garden Adventure’ so much, we wanted to share it with my younger cousins. My sister wrote the story in a sketch book and I created illustrations. The illustration bug had truly bitten!

As with many other aspiring children’s authors and illustrators, I was strongly counselled to find a different occupation. Some of the arguments against my preferred career were:

  • Illustration is a boom-time business. What happens if the economy is bad and you can’t get work?
  • It is almost impossible to break into the business.
  • Your work isn’t up to the standard (and ‘you might as well quit’ was the unspoken insinuation).
  • There is fierce competition. Are you sure you are up to it?

The list goes on.

You have probably heard some or all of these; and perhaps more objections.

Nobody advised me to keep illustrating, be patient, work hard and illustrate part-time while having a job to pay the way.

I eventually figured that out for myself. That is also the advice I will give everyone else, and ‘Keep at it!’

For about ten years, my art supplies were exiled to the wardrobe, and I slogged at my day job.

My now almost 11-year old niece re-awoke my passion for illustration when she was about 2 years old.

But I had to relearn to draw – or at least, work very hard to get my drawing skills to where I knew they needed to be. At least for me, it was several YEARS of drawing and painting to arrive at the point where I felt I could have some success illustrating.

The irony, of this journey, is that no matter how much I improve; I can still see how much further I need to go!

I have illustrated 3 picture books in full; and created concepts for a few more, but none of the work has been published. I am not feeling sorry for myself, as experience has taught me why my work wasn’t then suitable for publication. It is with those lessons in mind, and embracing my arsenal of writing and illustrating tools learnt along the way, that I prepare to embark on my new picture book.


Having been advised not to share the manuscript and illustrations (apparently the publishing industry frowns on ‘spoiler alerts’), I will be blogging about:

  1. My process for creating a picture book.
  2. Why I am following this process.
  3. The initial preparation of a picture book.
  4. Lessons learned during the process of creating this book.
  5. And hopefully, the journey from creation to publication.
  6. I will share some of my preparatory sketches, but nothing that may be published.


I am looking at this project taking about 2 to 2.5 years (perhaps longer, though I would love to think that I could do everything in a fraction of that time).

Many illustrators have other jobs apart from picture book illustration. I tutor children and adults with learning disabilities and my illustration work includes blogging (about illustration work and reviewing picture books for cognitive elements), teaching drawing and painting and creating illustrations for customers, my online stores and my portfolio.

Recently, I was also invited to enter artwork in to the 2019 Semarang International Illustration Festival. I had ten days to conceptualise and complete an exhibition piece. I loved producing the illustration, but it meant dropping other illustration work. Very few picture book illustrators can focus solely on picture book illustration.


Over the years, I have taken picture book writing courses, done illustration courses and read countless books on writing and illustrating picture books.

Here are some of the books I have found useful:

  • Illustrating Children’s Books, by Martin Ursell
  • The Picture Book Maker: The Art of the Children’s Picture Book Writer and Illustrator, by Karenanne Knight
  • Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books, by Uri Shulevitz
  • Illustrating Children’s Books: Creating Pictures for Publication, by Martin Salisbury

Please comment if you have come across other useful books that may be a help to our community of picture book writer-illustrators.

With all my other picture book projects, I approached them with the naive eagerness of a puppy, threw myself in and swam in square circles. I thought my enthusiasm would steer me straight, but my sentimentality drove all logic out, leaving the manuscript and illustrations with gaping holes.

After doing a project management course (which had nothing to do with literature!), I realised I needed to change my approach. Distilling all the information I had gathered over the years, I designed a process through which I intend to produce my new picture book.

I now believe that equal parts of passion and deliberate, strategic design will be the better method for moving forward.

In other words, I am trying to move away from being fully Marianne in ‘Sense and Sensibility’, to being a little more like Elinor – controlled passion.

The Steps

  1. The idea – I already had the idea.
    a. This step involved thinking through the idea and figuring out how it can be transformed from idea into a usable and logical picture book concept. I used a couple of sounding boards – my long-suffering mother, and my much-appreciated writing group. The feedback was positive, but more importantly, constructive. With their support and advice, I decided to proceed with the current idea.
    Many of my dog-walks have been spent mulling over possible plot scenarios and the narrative arc. I have never considered the narrative of any of my previous works half as much as this one. In my future illustration blogs, I will run through the steps taken to help consolidate the story.
    Remember – you have to have gallons of passion for the book and characters, as you are going to be spending a lot of quality time with them. If you are not excited to do so, that is the first sign that this book is not for you.
    b. This step also includes coming up with an idea if you are suffering from a lack of inspiration.
    I keep a notebook and sketchbook. Whenever I have an idea, hear or see something that appeals, I make a note of it. When you are in the proverbial ‘inspiration desert’, consult your notebook and sketchbook.
  2. The rough stage – this is a massive stage. It involves:
    a. Writing, rewriting, editing, re-editing, assessing, reassessing, rewriting the manuscript. You get the idea.
    b. Doing research (if necessary).
    c. Drawing ideas to later develop into character sketches and settings.
    d. Story boarding.
    e. Creating characters (concept).
    f. Creating settings.
    g. Making dummy books.
    h. Drawing new storyboards and dummy books until the pictorial narrative flow works.

3. Submissions – sending out the manuscript, dummy book and concept art to either agents or publishers, and hoping one of them has the same vision, or is willing to work with you to create a mutually-accepted vision.

4. Book development – amending the concept to the publisher’s requirements and creating the final artwork.

5. Kicking the ‘baby bird’ picture book out of your ‘nest’, pointing it in the direction of the publisher and their team of experts, who will coax it into a printed book, and finally seeing on the shelf of the local book shop.

In my next illustration blog, I will discuss the IDEA PROCESS. At this point, I would love to invite you to join me on this adventure. Please feel free to keep me company as I develop my picture book and would be so pleased if you would share your experiences with me. If you are keen to create a picture book at the same time, maybe you can share your progress too.
I am in for the long haul. If you are too, ‘Bon Voyage!’

Please join me this time next month when I review a couple of lovely picture books.

Until next time…