SPECIAL FEATURE The Art of Happiness

What makes a book a happy one? Tessa Yates of The Happy Book Company ponders the process of creating picture books that vibrate with happiness… no matter what life throws at you.

I don’t think anyone would argue with me that Happiness in picture books is a great thing. As Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” And don’t all parents want their children to be happy?

As founder of the world’s first happy publishing house, The Happy Book Company, I spend a lot of time pondering what makes a book a happy one. Is it all sunshine and success, and lands of milk and honey? Or can we find happiness in the harder times, and the things that don’t quite go our way?

Here are ten different ways to enjoy happiness through some of my favourite picture books. Decide for yourself, can we choose to be happy no matter what?

Happiness as a choice

In Where Happiness Begins (Andersen Press), Eva Eland uses vibrant Risograph print to depict happiness as a bright pink blob.

Spread from Where Happiness Begins. 
[Picture credit: Andersen Press]

I love seeing happiness as a character in our lives, and observing how the protagonist learns throughout the story that happiness is always there, waiting to be called upon.

The simplicity of Eland’s prints encourages us not to overcomplicate our relationship with happiness. It’s beautiful to see that we can feel different things and always find our way back to happiness.

Happiness in each moment…

It was the cover art that initially attracted me to Nicola Edwards and Katie Hickey’s Happy: A Children’s Book of Mindfulness (Scholastic) in which a little girl is depicted staring in wonder at the blanket of stars above her. There’s nothing I find more relaxing than the wonderful insignificance we feel when looking up at the universe and realising that nothing we do really matters.

With each spread highlighting mindful actions, including breathing, listening and appreciating experiences, the book serves as a practical guide to how we can really enjoy our lives and find happiness in each moment.

Above: two spreads from Happy: A Children’s Book of Mindfulness 
[Picture credit: Scholastic]

…and happiness as a long-term project

Oliver Jeffers is the king of metaphor, especially in his poetic story The Heart and the Bottle (Harper Collins). A little girl who is full of awe and wonder at the world puts her heart into a bottle when her grandpa’s chair is left empty one day.

The girl grows up to be cynical and finds that she can’t get the heart out of the bottle again. Instead, another little girl succeeds in inspiring her to be curious about the world again and helps her get her heart back out of the bottle.

Detailed illustrations of scientific wonders and miracles of nature inspire us to go on our own life-long journeys of discovery in what is a beautiful world. Looks like a beautiful and happy life to me.

Above: Spreads from The Heart and the Bottle. 
[Picture credit: Harper Collins]

Feeling all the feelings

When I first read Anna Llenas’s The Colour Monster (Templar) I felt my inner child immediately want to go and cut out bits of cardboard and colour them in and create something silly.

Cover of The Colour Monster. [Picture credit: Templar]

It’s a super fun book for teaching emotional intelligence, with each feeling assigned a different colour – red for anger and yellow for joy, which is not dissimilar to my favourite Pixar film, Inside Out.

Spread from The Colour Monster. (Picture credit: Templar)

Llenas’s lively collage characters jump off the page, giving a really playful sense to this story about feelings. The colour monster invites us to wonder… is happiness about feeling all the feelings, and is that being ok?

Enjoying all the things

A big sister shows her new baby brother what living is all about in Zeno Sworder’s This Small Blue Dot (Thames and Hudson).

Whether it’s enjoying the best cake or doing a silly dance, the rich colourful world that Zeno creates reminds us what it feels like to discover the world for the first time… awesome.

Above: two spreads from This Small Blue Dot. 
(Picture credit: Thames and Hudson)

Zeno’s hyper realistic pencil drawings are mixed with fantastical, saturated crayon shapes to create a perfect mix of reality and fantasy which remind us that life is one big fun game for us to enjoy.

Happy together

Geoffrey Finds A Bike (Happy Book Company) is my new book about how, when life throws you a curve ball, it’s best to take your hooves off the handlebars and enjoy the ride. The wind blows Geoffrey’s beloved bike away, and he has to learn how to share it with another bike-loving giraffe that he finds in the forest down the hill.

I wrote this story during lockdown this year to remind myself that, whilst we can be happy on our own, life is always more fun when we’re together. All my books help me to find happiness in challenging places, and serve as great reference points so that I really can learn to choose happiness no matter what happens.

Above: two spreads from Geoffrey Finds A Bike.
(Picture credit: The Happy Book Company)

Beauty in change

The Balcony (Simon and Schuster) is Melissa Castrillon’s award-winning wordless picture book about moving to a new city. At first the cool colours make us wonder if all is lost for our lonely protagonist.
But a project to turn her new balcony into a beautiful garden plants the seeds for new friendships and building a new community.

I love how this book illustrates how change can feel scary at first, but that humans can always choose to create a beautiful life wherever we end up.

Above: two spreads from The Balcony.
(Picture credit: Simon and Schuster)

Castrillon’s colour palette evolves throughout the book taking us from trepidation to positivity, and her signature botanical patterns show us what great things can grow from little seeds when we water them with our love.

Pride in ourselves

The happiest people I know are the ones who choose to be the proudest of who they are. Kate Jane Neal’s Wonderful You (Macmillan) invites us to celebrate our uniqueness, and the simple fact that being ourselves is just downright fantastic.

We don’t have to do anything, achieve anything, or strive to be someone we’re not. Just the simple fact that we exist is something we can be extremely happy about. Kate’s limited colour palette and simple illustrations say it all. Small message, big impact.

Above: two spreads from Wonderful You. 
(Picture credit: Macmillan) 

Trusting we can be happy, brings us back to it

Catherine Rayner’s Augustus and his Smile (Little Tiger Press) is a simple story about a tiger finding his smile in a puddle’s reflection, after what becomes an enlightening and adventurous search. Rayner’s painterly tiger illustrations bring Augustus to life and we are taken on his smile quest with him.

It made me feel that believing that I will be happy again will always bring me back to happiness.

Above: two spreads from Augustus and his Smile.
(Picture credit: Little Tiger Press)

Daring to live the life of our dreams

My very own The Girl Who Walked to the Moon (The Happy Book Company) is about a little astronaut who wants to be the first woman on the moon. A rocket made from boxes gets her off to a slow start. But with a bit of encouragement from her Grandma, and a steely determination to make her dream come true no matter what, Little Tessa shows us that there’s no such thing as an impossible dream.

An exciting adventure around the world, discovering different cultures who embrace the power of the moon, teaches Tessa everything she already felt was true about herself. But the long process of trying and failing and trying again is what gets her into a rocket on the way to the moon.

I wrote this story because to me a happy life is one where we dare to dream, and then have some fun trying to make our dreams come true. And that might mean failing, or taking a really long time to make something happen, and that’s all part of the happy journey we call life.

Above: two spreads from The Girl Who Walked to the Moon
(Picture credit: The Happy Book Company)

One thing I am learning from my wonderful adventure of choosing to be happy every day, is that I can learn to be happy no matter what happens. And it is an honour to share this art of happiness with young people through the craft of making picture books.

*Header image: from Where Happiness Begins, Andersen Press.


Tessa Yates is a children's author, illustrator and small press publisher from Bath, UK. She is currently studying for an MA in Children's Book Illustration at the Cambridge School of Art. She makes picture books about choosing happiness and has published three picture books with The Happy Book Company, which are sold in the UK and around the world. Her latest picture book Geoffrey Finds A Bike, a story about cycling giraffes and togetherness, is out in December 2021. www.thehappybookcompany.com Instagram: @happybookcompany


Fran Price is Acting Deputy Editor and Events Editor for Words & Pictures. Contact her at events@britishscbwi.org.

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