Cognitive Elements in Picture Books - Book Reviews

Episode 8: The Wonder Garden


To encourage parents and teachers to read to children (and to educate picture book writers and illustrators about including cognitive elements in their work). The act of reading out loud is not enough. When reading a picture book, or even a middle grade book, we are given a fantastic opportunity to develop an interactive experience with our children.

What is an interactive experience?

This interactive experience does not require any devices. It does require constant interfacing between the adult and the child/children.

When reading to children, you want to deliver the book in a manner that invites the children to participate as active listeners and engages responses from them that grow their minds.

Passive listening is all very well, but the story is soon over, and an opportunity has been lost to use ‘story time’ as a guided exploration of another world, or some subject. I totally understand how often the bedtime story has to be delivered promptly and that there is no time for discussion. I firmly believe however, when possible, an extended period devoted to reading and delving into the text, benefits the child, and is enjoyed by both the adult and the child.

As an illustrator, the cover illustration draws my attention. If the cover is appealing, then I will peek inside and see what treasure I can uncover between the pages.

So, what are we reading today?

The Wonder Garden

Illustrated by Kristjana S. Williams (it is a rare instance when the illustrator is credited before the writer)

Written by Jenny Broom

Conceived and commissioned by Rachel Williams

Published by Wide Eyed Editions, an imprint of Aurum Press, London, United Kingdom

The illustrations were created digitally.

This book’s cover cannot be passed over. The combination of the gold, luminous colours and highly detailed complexity made it impossible to miss it on the book stores shelf. I could not move past it when I saw it, and then bought it for my niece, who was recuperating after a nasty elbow fracture.

This non-fiction book is perfect for children aged 5 to 12 and contains an educational adventure that will attract the attention of the reader many, many times.


The book reveals different habitats and the creatures that live in them.

Lessons to be learnt from this lovely book:

  1. Geography – The five habitats covered include: the Chihuahuan desert of Mexico, the Amazon rain forest, the Black Forest of Germany, The Himalayan mountains of Asia and the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. There is no attempt of cover all geographical regions on our planet. It appears that the creators wished to unveil five very distinct regions instead. Each region is presented thus: a. A highly detailed double-page illustration of the region and its inhabitants (a veritable feast for the eyes and presents an opportunity to discuss what the child sees, or alternatively, the page can be skipped over until after you have read the regions information, when you return to the double page spread and ask the child to review what they remember from what was read). b. The information on each region includes tidbits on the terrain, climate, and conditions. The ecosystem is explained and children can learn about the relationships between plants and creatures and between the creatures themselves.
  2. Zoology – Various marine creatures, birds, animals, insects, amphibia, reptiles and arachnids are introduced in this book, sometimes only as a picture and label (a Google search can extend the learning experience here); and sometimes there is a brief review of the creature. The common English name is used but the Latin binomial name is also noted, which can give children an insight into the use of Latin in the English language and its ongoing use and necessity for classification.
  3. Vocabulary development – I applaud the writer for using appropriate language. Although most 5 year old children will not understand all the vocabulary, they will still enjoy the visual display the book provides, and if the reading adult is willing to define words, the children will unconsciously extend their vocabulary with useful, advanced vocabulary.
  4. Botany – Although plants species are illustrated, they are not usually represented in the text. Considering the size of the book, I guess it would have been prohibitively expensive and cumbersome to have included more plant information. The illustrations do an excellent job of conveying the plant atmosphere though.  

For writers:

  • Information is presented in bite-size pieces.
  • Vocabulary – the words are selected for accuracy and education, not for age-appropriateness.
  • Font – bold, UPPERCASE font has been used to lend emphasis to particular words or phrases.
  • Onomatopoeia – Jenny Broom has evoked the sounds of these regions by employing onomatopoeia, eg. Eurasian Eagle-Owls rasp kveck-kveck and the Common Raven produces the tuneless prruk-prruk-prruk noise in the company of another raven, etc.

For illustrators:

  • Textural illustrations – the digital illustrations are extremely textural (an element often lacking in digital work). The texture creates depth and perspective in the illustrations and reminds me a lot of old wood-cut (engraved) print illustrations
  • 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. The full-bleed format also achieves this. More dynamic composition would be inappropriate, as the illustrations are so highly detailed that adding more composition complexity would confuse the eye. The more detailed the composition, the simpler the perspective needs to be. If the composition is simple, you can afford to go wild with dynamic perspective. The aim of the book was to convey information, not produce an action picture.
  • Limited illustration formats – Unusual in this age, the illustrator used only full-bleed double-page layouts. It suits the composition and perspective. I think that varying the format would have undermined the effectiveness of the underlying theme and presentation.
  • Colour palette – is extremely vibrant, but Kristjana Williams has a knack of knowing how bright something can be and skillfully uses very deep, dark shadows and very bright whites to maintain balance. Even using contemporary traditional media, it would be a challenge to achieve the same luminous, day-glow shades that can be utilised in digital work.

About the illustrator:

Multi-award winner Kristjana S. Williams was born in Iceland and lives and works in London. She studied graphic design and illustration at Central St Martins.

About the writer:

                Jenny Broom lives and works in London. She studied at Slade before becoming an author and editor of children’s books. She is also the author of the acclaimed ‘Animalium’.

For those of you new to my blog, I blog about my illustration journey (I am working on a new picture book at the moment, so am sharing as I go along), and review picture books (to share how cognitive elements can be drawn from the book to educate the child, and also how writers and illustrators can incorporate these elements in their work).

At the moment, I am trying to produce one of each blog per month. Please join me again next month.

Happy reading!

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!