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!


Creating a Picture Book – Part 3 (What to Consider When Creating a Picture Book)

Although I digitise illustrations for publication and manufacture, I prefer to work with traditional media. This blog is written from my perspective as an illustrator, using traditional media and how I decide on the mechanics of my picture book illustrations.

Consider:                                                                                                                                                                 a. What materials you will use for your illustrations? e.g. collage, or watercolour paints on watercolour paper, or soft pastels on sanded paper, etc.                                                                    

b. What paper do you need? How much will you need? What size should you use? e.g. hot-pressed watercolour paper vs. cold-pressed watercolour paper? Will you use individual sheets, a roll of paper, pads or blocks?

c. How large should the illustrations be? The same size as the printed book, or do you feel you need to work using a larger format that can be scaled down by the layout designer.                   

d. How many illustrations do you need for the number of pages, and are you illustrating the end papers, title page, etc?                                                                                                                              

e. How are you going to create the illustrations? Are you using mixed media, and in what order will you use each medium? Are you under-painting your illustrations, or are you using pen and ink drawings with watercolour washes?                                                                                    

f. How will scanning and printing affect your illustrations? Be aware that you may not be able to use a basic scanner, as certain colours are not accurately represented by these. You may need your work to be scanned or photographed by a fine art specialist. Perhaps you are creating 3-D collages. How will you get your work to the publisher?                                       

 g. Will your text and images work symbiotically to produce a cohesive and dynamic picture book? Remember, your illustrations should not repeat the text and the words should say what the illustrations cannot. If you are creating a wordless book, your illustrations have to be as readable as text. Just as with text, illustrations should be readable and give background information, and supply what would be adjectives and adverbs in text (illustrate these rather than write them). Aim to create illustrations that would be verbs in the narrative (showing action). If you do this, you will be SHOWING not TELLING.

Join me next month for the fourth part of this blog series: Creating a Picture Book – Part 4 (My Picture Book Preparation). I will discuss all the necessary background work to be done before you create your first illustration.