Featured Illustrator: John Shelley

This month's Featured Illustrator is our Friday editor, John Shelley. Having formerly lived in Tokyo for many years, John has developed a uniquely international career, working directly with publishers in Japan and the USA as well as the UK on over 50 books. But how did his journey start? 
Check the Featured Illustrator Gallery to see a broad selection of illustration from John's recent titles. 

The Banner

from Crinkle, Crackle, Crack! (Holiday House USA, 2015)
The banner illustration is from my next picture book, Crinkle, Crackle, Crack!, written by Marion Dane Bauer, released in January. A child wakes at night and is guided by a bear through the cold, dark winter towards a nameless destination. Joined by other animals, they eventually find a giant egg that bursts to reveal the warmth and colour of Spring. Crinkle, Crackle, Crack! is a book very close to my heart. Though written by Marion, it's also my story, I've often felt like a child stumbling along an unexplored path towards an intangible goal in the dark. 

Where it Started

The truth is I've only reached this far down the path through luck.

The shipwreck from Peer Gynt, on the left from my music study book aged
around 12 or 13, on the right the same scene from the picture book Peer Gynt 
 (Hyoronsha, Tokyo, 1990), drawn when I was 30. Some things don't change!
I was the quiet mouse of the school classroom with an obsession for doodling and collecting Airfix plastic models. I covered the margins of school books (and sometimes desktops) with renderings of old battles and dogfights, painting model aeroplanes and Napoleonic soldiers were my first lessons in how to handle a detail brush. When Sutton Coldfield was incorporated into Birmingham City Council all our school books were replaced by new ones, which meant I had loads of old and unused exercise books to scribble away in, my first stroke of luck! I spent a lot of time filling these up with my versions of Commando war comics in the style of Josè Maria Jorge, my first big art hero. Through his work I learned a lot about light and shadow. At the same time through my local library children's illustrators like Edward Ardizzone and Alfred Bestall instilled a love of fantasy.

When I was fourteen, my dad bought me for Christmas a set of the Adrian Hill "teach yourself" guides to drawing and painting, and I turned to sketching things directly from life, still entirely in ballpoint pen on old exercise books. 2nd bit of luck... one day the class bully threw my school bag across the art room, scattering the contents everywhere.... Out came all my sketchbooks and drawings, to the surprise of the art teachers, who barely seemed to have noticed me until then. I was "discovered", suddenly the class mouse became the class master artist. For some reason I never got around to thanking the bully. 

School exercise books turned into Biro sketch pads
Here's the third stroke of luck - at the seaside in Cornwall one year I picked up a couple of whimsical bookmarks as souvenirs. My holiday reading was pretty dull, but something about the illustrations on these bookmarks sucked me in like no other art ever had before. They were organic, they were mysterious, like windows into another world. I found out they were by Arthur Rackham, and remembered my mum kept a 1930's compilation reprint of his and other Edwardian illustrator's work. Soon I was engrossed in the world of "Golden Age" illustrators: Rackham, Heath-Robinson, Dulac, and later Beardsley, I was enraptured, entranced - THIS was what I wanted to do with my life. Now I spent my time in the deepest, dark woods of Sutton Park looking for mythical creatures. If before I had my head in the clouds flying Spitfires, now I was definitely away with the fairies - there really was no hope.

I was impatient, I wanted to be an illustrator, now. So I spent sixth form years writing a sprawling fantasy novel. It seemed a logical way to begin - write the book so I could illustrate it! After being sensibly rejected by two publishers, the manuscript was consigned to my dad's loft. I swore I'd never write a children's story again, packed my bags and set off for art school.
How NOT to submit a novel - one sole copy, close typed on a 1930's Corona
typewriter from notebooks (school exercise books again), no editing whatsoever...
and if you wonder if I'm going to show you the quaintly derivative illustrations,
think again! Argh!

Manchester and London

My fourth bit of luck was being accepted onto the Illustration course at Manchester Polytechnic, run by Tony Ross. This was 1978, Manchester was a factory of iconic music that brought me screaming into the contemporary world. Tony and the other tutors did their best to shake up my illustrations too - out with goblins and fairies, in with urban streets, primary colours and strong character. They were right, I had to move on, develop, constantly refresh! On the last day of the degree course in an act of post-punk pantomime I threw most of my student work out of the college window.

Whilst dabbling with music journalism for a year I worked on a new portfolio, and so came another lucky break, my first ever commission from Jill Coleman at A & C Black, to illustrate Fatbag, a children's novel by then-unknown Jeremy Strong, a book which still remains in print in paperback with my black & white drawings today, 32 years later. Other book commissions for text illustration followed - Get Lavinia Goodbody! (Andersen Press) and A Canoe in the Mist (Jonathan Cape). By 1984 I was working in a communal art studio in London sharing a room with Jane Ray, being fed a steady diet of pen & ink editorial jobs and colour book jackets.

London opened my eyes to art from other eras and countries. I began researching styles that had influenced my illustration heroes, particularly Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints... a new world was sucking me in. Pam Royds at André Deutsch then gave me my first trade picture book commission, Val Willis's The Secret in the Matchbox

from The Secret in the Matchbox (Andre Deutsch/Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 1988
However this proved to be the last thing I did in the UK. A chance attendance at a Japanese festival in Battersea had pulled me into the Anglo-Japanese community in London, the lure of the East had it's grip on me. The Secret in the Matchbox was a big success, especially in the US, and led on to two more follow-ups. In the UK I was runner-up for the Mother Goose Award but my publisher had to receive the award on my behalf, for by then I was in Tokyo.


A year off in Japan seemed like a great idea - zip out, study the culture and language, zip back and carry on in old London town. Clients would hardly know I was gone. Oh little did I know! After months of soaking up the
atmosphere in Tokyo's downtown Yanesen area and watching my funds evaporate, in another stroke of luck I was introduced to fashionable Parco Department Store. Parco commissioned me to do a series of posters, which led on to other big advertising jobs. Suddenly I was the latest "thing" from London. A simpler stripped down graphic version of my children's book style seemed to hit a nerve with the Japanese zeitgeist, one year turned into two, then five - in the end I spent twenty-one years as the resident overseas illustrator in Japan (also fashion model/actor and sometime DJ, though that's another story!).

At the peak of things in the early 90's you couldn't get on a train without seeing my drawings somewhere.
Though much of my work was for advertising I also continued to illustrate children's books, including some self written and translated into Japanese. On the whole, Japanese publishers approached me with very clear ideas of what they wanted. I was an authentic European illustrator so was often asked to work in a traditional English style on folk tales like Cinderella, The Month Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen or Jack and the Beanstalk. Editors felt I could give a more faithful rendering to these stories than Japanese artists.

Various picture books for Japanese publishers
The Ball, from Cinderella (Hikari no Kuni, 1996)
I particularly loved illustrating Japanese translations of Western novels that had no illustration in their original UK/US editions, like Jenny Nimmo's Charlie Bone books, or works that required a style more acceptable to Japanese tastes than their original Western editions, like Robin Jarvis's The Deptford Mice.
Text illustration to the Japanese edition of Charlie Bone 
and the Castle of Mirrors (Tokuma Shoten, 2006)
Cover and interior cut from the Japanese editions of The Deptford Mice 
(Hayakawa Shobo, 2004)

As times moved on, I shifted more and more away from advertising back towards children's publishing. The internet opened new avenues, I joined SCBWI in 2001 and soon after was persuaded to co-found the Tokyo chapter. I re-connected with Stephen Roxburgh, the US editor who had bought the rights to Secret in the Matchbox, who commissioned me for new titles. I found an agent in the States. Through SCBWI I had the chance to travel to many countries, doors opened and connections were made that have led to several book commissions. 

from The Boat in the Tree by Tim Wynne-Jones (Front Street Inc, 2007)
editor Stephen Roxburgh
My first commission from Charlesbridge in the US was Julie Danneberg's
historical novel Family Reminders (2009), a connection with the publisher
first made through SCBWI at Bologna.

Then lady luck came knocking again, only this time it wasn't good fortune she brought.

Return to the UK

At the end of 2007 my wife died very suddenly and unexpectedly. Soon after, in the consequent fall out, I found myself with my 4-year old daughter on a plane back to the UK. Everything changed once again. I'd been away for 21 years, it felt like starting over again from scratch. Fortunately I had friends in children's publishing. I especially thank all my dear colleagues in SCBWI British Isles for the support I received since our return here, I'm indebted to you all.

Returning to the UK has had a very beneficial effect on my work. Largely freed from editors with stylistic agendas, my books in recent years are closer to my core as an illustrator than they've ever been. 

From Marion Dane Bauer's Halloween Forest (Holiday House, 2012)
I'm creeping down that uncharted path of creativity with ever greater curiosity. Almost like the theme of my last book Stone Giant, I feel as if my art is going through a personal renaissance.

from Stone Giant - Michelangelo's David and How He Came to Be
written by Jane Sutcliffe (Charlesbridge, USA, 2014)
So, like the child in Crinkle, Crackle, Crack!, whatever bumps and potholes are on the way, as long as I keep drawing, exploring and following the path, all will be well. I feel luckier than ever now. And I've my own three warm, fluffy companions - my daughter, my cat ...and SCBWI!
from Crinkle, Crackle, Crack! (Holiday House USA, 2015)

Publishing Tips

It's tough to maintain a career as a children's illustrator today. The key is to diversify, explore widely and think laterally. Identify where your work fits in and exploit opportunities.

Always maintain the integrity of your imaginative world. Developing your style to the requirements of the marketplace is important, but never lose sight of the essence of what it is that makes you draw or paint. Your personality should flow through your work. Like chameleons we match our styles to the market, but our DNA remains the same. 


John Shelley is the Illustration Feature Editor of Words & Pictures and current Central East Network coordinator. See more of his recent work in our Featured Illustrator Gallery

John's website is  www.johnshelley.com
His English language blog is Shelley Scraps
Twitter: @StudioNib  Instagram @StudioNib


  1. Absolutely brilliant John - thanks for this great post! Here I am in the early hours - so enthralled I even took time to read your link about casting your student artwork to the wind. What a great example of not just talent but persistence, and the ability to move on, that you offer!

    1. I think persistence is one of the most important skills for an illustrator, don't you agree Bridget? I keep going because I don't think I could do anything else :) Thank you!

  2. Such a plethora of gorgeous work. The Halloween Forest, in particular, garnered a quick in take of breath and a long, long pause. Honestly, your work is incredible, John.

  3. Stunning illustrations, John. You're so talented and have such an interesting story. Good luck with your forthcoming book. Marnie

  4. Gorgeous illustrations, John, and a fascinating journey. I'll look out for your new book - makes a super banner illustration

  5. What a wonderful piece! I loved all the links too, to your sketchbooks and college days. Your artwork is just amazing. I really hope that publishers make much more use of you in the near and distant future.

  6. I wish you illustrated my books!

    1. I'd love the chance to give Muncle a crack Janet!

  7. Wonderful John, I enjoyed pouring through your portfolio at the conference. A real craft and talent and I love the Stone Giant.

  8. Beautiful illustrations and wonderful insight into your work - thank you, John. Your school-boy sketch books are amazing and I can imagine they caused quite a stir when your art teacher saw them... I love Halloween Forest - must look out for Michelangelo's David, and can't wait to see Crinkle, Crackle, Crack...

  9. Manjari Chakravarti.7 November 2014 at 12:22

    Wonderful art and a great article. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. ( I can't get over how brilliant your work was even as a schoolkid. At that age I was drawing bookmarks!!)

  10. Hi John I started glancing over the article and found myself reading every word... how amazing. You have my full admiration.

  11. Brilliant article John! Crinkle, Crackle, Crack! looks to be a wonderful piece of work. Much luck with it!

  12. But you missed out the most important piece of info, the name of your cat!

    Loved reading it John, a real insight, thank you xxx

    1. Daughter chose that George - she's 'Pixie'..... naturally!

    2. That's rather sweet, do doodle her sometime.

      I especially like your Halloween House illustrations.

  13. I will always thank my lucky stars that I am blessed to have not one, but two picture books illustrated by John Shelley. John, your art is stunning and your story eqally so. Congratulations, and I am looking forward to Crinkle, Crackle, Crack!

    1. The honour is mine Jane, inspiring texts!

    2. That is actually quite sweet, do doodle her sometime. I love the Halloween House illustrations especially.

  14. Absolutely beautiful work John, full of character and atmosphere. Thank you for sharing your story with us too.

  15. Honoured to see our book amongst these wonderful examples of your work. Such a treat. And the article is great.

    1. Thank you Tim! "Boat in the Tree" was a watershed for me (no pun intended... well, maybe a little!).

  16. WOW. My eyes (and all the other parts of my face) are agog with wonder and awe. What a journey, what magical pictures...what a story.

  17. Great article John. It was fascinating to hear the story of the unfoldment, with all its twists and turns, of your illustration career.

  18. Oh, wow! What a range, and all stunning!

  19. Great reading about your life and work, John. Hope you will be an inspiration to young doodlers everywhere!

  20. Fantastic stuff from a visionary master

  21. Way cool! I like those early sketch books - you could really draw!

  22. So incredible, I love your work and enjoyed the history behind it.

  23. What an amazing story, John, truly inspirational. Thanks so much for sharing x

  24. When your sketchbooks were scattered across the art room, what a moment that must have been!
    I love that picture of the little girl tripping through the tunnel of trees, especially. Wonderful gallery John and the banner is just beautiful!

  25. Thank you so much everyone for all the generous and encouraging words, I'm very, very touched! Sometimes as illustrators we work in isolation and don't get to connect with our colleagues and supporters as much as we'd like. I'm completely overwhelmed by the comments!

  26. Brilliant article, John. I loved the last line 'Your personality should flow through your work, like chameleons we match our styles to the market, but our DNA remains the same.' It was lovely chatting to you at the conference.

  27. Fascinating to read about your evolution John! Thanks so much for sharing.

  28. Love your style, John. What a fascinating life you've had! I'm proud to own a copy of Stone Giant.

  29. I became engrossed with your life story and work when I should have been marking children's school work this morning. You are very inspiring John. I am going to get myself a copy of Halloween Forest so that I can stop and stare at my leisure. Say hello to that talented daughter of yours.

  30. Fantastic artwork, John. I'll be buying your books for Martha! Best of luck with everything - it was lovely to meet you at the conference.

  31. Late to comment ... but that's because I digested your story slowly and savored every picture. What a journey! I was so pleased to get a copy if your David book (and proud to own a print too!). Lovely to read your story. I want to know mire!

  32. What an amazing story John and your work is just stunning. An inspiration to all illustrators!


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