The first Illustration Masterclass of the year was a packed workshop led by author-illustrator Bridget Marzo, on how illustrators can focus on stories. Imogen Foxell reports.

I’m an illustrator and the thought of writing just terrifies me. Even so, I really like the idea of coming up with my own picture book ideas. So I braved my fears and went along to Bridget’s workshop on writing for illustrators ...

Bridget Marzo is an illustrator, writer, and SCBWI lynchpin – among other things, she was the very first SCBWI International Illustration Co-ordinator. She has published a number of books in England and France, her latest being Tiz and Ott’s Big Draw. She describes herself as a picture person, easily capable of getting lost in a single image, but she is also an expert at building bridges between individual pictures and stories.

In the workshop, Bridget promised to share her experiences of stirring around ingredients for pictures and ideas, in order to help us to produce some delicious (if somewhat half-baked) stories of our own. Using her own and other people’s work, Bridget demonstrated all sorts of methods for cooking up something playful and heartfelt, none of which involved typing words onto a terrifyingly blank page. To my surprise, I even found I’d written the odd sentence by the end of the workshop.

Ideas from the heart

To cook up a picture book, you first need ingredients, and the book isn’t going to be meaningful unless these ingredients come from somewhere personal.

To get our ideas flowing, Bridget invited us to make lists of things that meant something to us. This included our childhood memories of people, animals, places, and situations – happy ones, but also things that had upset or frightened us. She also challenged us to think of ways to take those bad memories and turn them into something good.

As well as our own personal experiences, she got us to think of the kinds of books or pictures we had loved and why. For example, Bridget recalled her childhood fascination with the secrets behind everyday activities, and showed us the wonderful The Philharmonic Gets Dressed (Karla Kuskin and Marc Simont) as a book that met this interest – revealing every detail of how the one hundred and five musicians of the philharmonic orchestra prepare for their evening, right down to putting on their underwear.

Not just narratives

The books that reach our, and our readers’ hearts, don’t necessarily have to be traditional narratives, and we are lucky to be in a time when children’s publishing embraces all sorts of non-narrative picture books – from illustrated non-fiction to game and activity books.

Even just thinking about narratives, there are many options. The most traditional is perhaps the story arc of character-conflict-resolution, featuring the all-important “oh no” moment, when things get as bad as they can get. But there are also circular narratives where nothing gets resolved (e.g. Quentin Blake’s Cockatoos) or books with no conflict whatsoever (Brown and Hurd’s Goodnight Moon).

Moving away from narrative, we might be inspired by language (Archambault and Endicott’s Listen to the Rain), by a concept (McCardie and Rubino’s Book of Feelings), or by the idea of searching for things – I really loved Alice Melvin’s The High Street – a simple but beautifully drawn story of a girl searching for specific objects in beautifully detailed shops with a repetitive but ultimately surprising rhyming text.


Having explored ideas and different types of narratives, Bridget encouraged us to think of our own stories, based on the characters and experiences we’d come up with earlier in the workshop, using post-its to create a basic storyboard.

No matter how good the preparation, it’s necessarily daunting to come up with an entire story in less than an hour, in a room full of other people. However, forcing yourself to be creative can have unexpected results, and to my surprise, I managed to invent a whole story about an exploding wolf, which even had some words in it. It was hardly a good story, but that wasn’t the point – the point was to force yourself to have ideas, and play around with them. And, who knows, maybe create something that you’ll come back to later on.

We talked about keeping sketchbooks of story ideas, or taking part in challenges to come up with ideas regularly (e.g. Tara Lazar’s Storystorm (formerly known as Picture Book Idea Month), and about making time to play and enjoy yourself without mentally critiquing your work. Bridget showed us the original sketches for her own characters Tiz and Ott, when she was just playing around with the relationship of two animals with contrasting temperaments – and which later evolved into a story about the exciting adventures you can fall into when wielding a pencil or a paintbrush.

And now I’m home again, and feeling just a little bit braver about my own creative adventures ...

All photos Imogen Foxell


Imogen Foxell is an illustrator with a particular focus on 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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