In picture books, decoration is far more than simply garnish, it can be a tool to create atmosphere, propel narrative and expand the world of the story. Imogen Foxell explains how decorative borders can enhance a story.

Borders aren't always a matter of courtesy.  Historically they've been used to contribute to the big picture story telling.  Take, for example, the Bayeux tapestry. You may already know that its border mainly depicts animals, including peacocks, dragons, and camels. But look carefully and you'll see that when the battle of Hastings begins, the bottom border suddenly starts to fill up with the corpses while the battle rages above. At this important moment in the story, the “decorative” border is no longer merely decorative – the main story is literally spilling into the border.

As an illustrator, I’m influenced by various ancient sources, including Greek pots, medieval manuscripts and Persian miniature painting. I love decorative borders and intricate patterns for their own sakes, both to draw and to look at, but I’m also interested in the fact that a border is never merely decorative – it always has some relationship with the story.

At a simple level, I like the way that a margin can “frame” a picture, tidying it into a neat shape and defining its edges. A decorative border can also reflect the mood or theme of the main picture. I recently illustrated the Aesop’s fable The North Wind and the Sun for a SCBWI masterclass, and used borders on the sides of the page to show which element was dominant at that moment in the story.

A border can also have a closer relationship with the picture it frames. As a child, I loved The First Thousand Words by Heather Amery and Stephen Cartwright. The borders of each page contained objects that you had to find in the picture itself. Naturally, I spent hours diligently working my way through the pictures until I had found them all.

As with the Bayeux Tapestry, the boundary between the margin and the story can also be blurred, perhaps to emphasize an important transitional moment. I illustrated a version of Sleeping Beauty where each page had a simple floral border. However, when the princess pricked her finger and activated the curse, the plants in the margin began to grow and engulf the castle.

So next time you're considering composition, consider how you can use borders to add to your story.  And remember - borders can always be broken!


Imogen Foxell is an illustrator with a particular interest in creating intricate imaginary worlds. She illustrates English literature revision cards for, and interesting words for Her website is, Follow her on Twitter, and Instagram.

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