School Visits for Illustrators

© John Shelley @Godfox
What happens when an illustrator undertakes a school visit for the first time? What do you present? How do you work with a class? All these questions and more were finally answered when I  finally crossed that threshold - here's what happened. By John Shelley

Yesterday was World Book Day as many book creators know all too well, and thus the season for writers and illustrators to burst into classrooms, demonstrating, showing, workshopping and otherwise inspiring young minds with the joy of stories and books.

I have to admit I’m a complete novice in the school-visits department, despite 30-something years as a children’s book illustrator, partly because I lived overseas for a long time (in Japan they are rare, apart from International Schools), but also as many of my in-print titles are for overseas publishers, schools in the UK don't generally come across me, nor have I pursued school visits here…. until now.

It was a chance meeting with a local teacher that led to an invitation to work with two classes of Year 6 students at a local primary school over two consecutive Mondays, and it all unfolded last week and this week.

Children? Who don’t know me or my books? I was petrified, a total jabbering bag of nerves - what was I going to do? Well the first thing was to ask some practised, ace school-visiting illustrator friends about their experiences....

"Most schools invite writers to visit with the ulterior motive of raising their children’s literacy standards. Most writers therefore, will give exercises about inventing characters, developing ideas and writing stories. Illustrators on the other hand will be expected to do more in the area of craft activities because that’s their area of expertise. If you can throw in some useful tips about character and stories, that will be an added bonus which will add to your credentials as a speaker. But workshops can be fun, and time can fly by enjoyably." (Mike Brownlow)

Mike Brownlow - "a robot called Zozie which a little lad called Eddie showed me. He made it with his uncle, because Little Robots was his favourite programme as a three year old".

"Get them involved - don't  talk at them. If you are showing your work on a slideshow - get them finding a detail in the illustration or comparing before / after. 
Choose individual kids - they like putting hands up! If they have paper and ideally felt pens - do a step by step simple drawing of a character that they can copy on their paper. If not,  you can start by drawing a head on the flipchart  - ask them  what’s missing.  Ears?  What size ears?  What is it wearing?  How many legs? 
 i.e. assemble a character / monster from details they tell you.  Result - you have all made the school mascot!" (Bridget Marzo)
Bridget recently led Year 3's to draw characters at Smallwood Primary. Bridget reports regularly about her school visits on her blog Bridging Images

So how did I get on?

From the tone of emails I suspected the school wanted me to draw and paint with the children more than talk about my overseas work, but I thought maybe I could show my work, talk about the process of book illustration, and tag on an exercise at the end. The only exercise I've ever used before was with adult illustration students, but I thought it might work with children too - well, I was about to see!

On the first day I turned up with a suitcase full of picture books to show (and hopefully sell), plus all the original artwork to one of my recent titles and sketches & proofs for my next one.

That first session gave me the biggest shock - I thought I would be presenting in a classroom or hall. In fact I was put in the art room surrounded by paint pots and project artwork. This was fine, but the acoustics were loud - every sound bounced around the room and amplified the noise. All thoughts I had of a relaxed chat in front of obediently listening children were quickly shattered - No quiet class this … the moment I spread my books and artwork out on tables the room went bonkers… original artwork was grabbed and passed around …. “look, but no touching the artwork please” I pleaded… oops.

Above all the excitement I tried to talk about the process of illustration, struggling to keep on track under a barrage of questions - my mind went blank amidst the clamour... "just draw something dammit Shelley!" I thought... but I seemed to have suddenly lost my ability to do that! In the end I was glad to tidy the artwork away, move on from career-talk stuff and start the yet-to-be-tested-on-kids exercise .... slightly earlier than planned - and remarkably it worked!

The idea was to draw an animal or other character randomly picked from names in a bag, followed by a random location and finally a random object, so at the end everyone has a character in an unlikely situation, from which they develop a story, the object being a possible prop..... and the results were remarkable. Sure, some of the children struggled with drawing animals, but everyone found story threads. The ideas were challenging... an alligator in a hotel with a treasure chest, a deer on a beach with a watch, a rat in a forest with a door... and so on, but the drawings really got the class to think about story ideas, it was an imaginative and ultimately inspiring afternoon.

Unpacking my bits & pieces after the visit - no photo's of the school or class or their work unfortunately!

The following week I was familiar with the school so a lot more relaxed. Though essentially keeping the same agenda I held a tighter rein on my original artwork and balanced the process discussion with plenty of time to run the workshop, and even draw one myself without making a complete pig's ear of everything.

On both days the children were magnificent, some were intensely focused on the project, one girl proudly told me about her other stories, how she illustrated every one - a book creator in the making! A boy dismissed my exercise as ‘babyish’ and said he was going to draw alien warlords instead - which was fine.

Despite taking a suitcase of books with me I didn’t sell or sign any, there was no opportunity, we worked until the home bell rang, then everyone was gone. Clearly it wasn’t a book-signing kind of event!

Lessons learned?
1. Working with children is extremely rewarding.
2. Don't leave original artwork on tables and expect restraint.
3. Always have a back-up plan, including a fist-full of drawing exercises.
4. It's not about YOU, it's about sparking the creative ideas of the class.

This was my first official school visit, but it was eye-opening, jolting me out of my studio and making me think more carefully about how our work is seen by children. I highly recommend any illustrator to give school visits a go if they've the chance.

In contrast to Monday's school session World Book Day was amazingly non-bookish for me. This first exploration into the world of classrooms hasn't opened the gates of school requests yet, but next year's Book Day? We'll see. 


John Shelley is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures and co-coordinator of the Central East Network. He's illustrated over 50 books for children, many of them published in Japan where he lived for many years, and the USA. Forthcoming picture book for 2017 is Magic for Sale, written by Carrie Clickard and released by Holiday House (USA) this summer. Twitter: @Godfox  Official Website: 


  1. Well done, John - what you did sounded great fun. It's not easy having to suddenly put your ego on full display! I hope you had some supervising staff in there with you! Roll on next WBD!

  2. 'Baptised by Fire!' - I actually had a school principal use that same phrase once after I got done with a day of being a substitute teacher. lol!

  3. Thank you Annie! There were overseeing staff (the class teacher and an assistant), which I'm very grateful to. Of course as teachers they were there to assist the children, not me! It was an education :)

  4. Enjoyed your honest write-up John! Envy you being in the art room - mixing paint to create different skin & fur colours to create characters is my fave kind of workshop. If you'd had more advance warning it's worthwhile drawing up a fun book order sheet to send to the school organiser ahead of time so they can send it out to parents and ideally take book orders and payments in advance. That way you also know how many books to bring AND it is good advance publicity. Would love to have seen what story pics the kids did - you usually can take quick photos of the kids' drawings - teachers are usually happy to have their class artwork recorded - next time!

  5. Actually the visit was in discussion for a long time before they finally fixed a date, then it was all rush - right from the beginning I asked about selling books, but the school basically sat on it, neither parents or class teachers were aware I'd be bringing books to sell. You're right, if I'd made an order sheet myself it may have been a different story (pardon the pun!)


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