Gaining a Master's Degree in writing or illustration is not a qualification that is needed to become a children's author or illustrator. However, some creatives do choose this path. As it is always interesting to hear about the different journeys of individuals, we were keen to hear about Naomi Blayney's experience of completing an MA in illustration.

Last month I was pretty proud to say I graduated with an MA in illustration. It has been two long years of hard work studying, researching and, of course, drawing. I have learned an awful lot along the way - about children’s books, about the academic subject of gender in literature and about myself and my writing and illustration style. Many hours have been spent after my children went to bed for the night, studying until the early hours then getting up early for the school run and the day job.

Naomi studied on top of working and being a mum

Most of the course is self-directed research but I found it was one of those things that I’d always promised myself I’d do but then not get around to it. I delved into the history of children’s literature and the evolution of picture books - from the earliest ones around the 15th century. As my research continued I developed an interest in how gender was represented in picture books so I narrowed my focus on that. This meant I looked at how children’s books mirrored society as the feminist movement appeared. I found it utterly fascinating and gave me a whole new perspective.

I got the chance to do a lot of primary research including two surveys and several school visits. The school visits were really useful in helping me to shape my stories - kids don’t lie and they will happily tell you which parts they did or didn’t like. I found this honesty immensely refreshing. Adults are a bit more afraid to hurt your feelings.

Naomi used school visits and surveys to gain valuable feedback from her target audience

I’ve written a little bit about how the course was structured in my blog here. In future posts, I’ll be describing more of my research and some of the studies I came across. One of my favourites was a study from 2017 called ‘Drawing the Future’ which asked primary school children aged 7-11 to draw people in certain professions e.g. a pilot or firefighter. In one setting, of 66 drawings, 61 were drawn as a man whereas 5 were women. 

The study concluded that by the age of seven gender stereotypes have already shaped career aspirations. The best way to appreciate the study is to watch this video. When I did school visits, I described one of my stories and asked 79 children to draw what they thought the characters might look like. 84% drew the girl in a skirt and 78% drew her in traditionally feminine colours.

My favourite academic books which I referred to frequently included:

Sex-role socialization in picture books for preschool children (1972) by Lenore Weitzman et al.

Lenore Weitzman’s study published in the American Journal of Sociology is one of the classic studies that is referenced by just about every study since. Weitzman and her colleagues examined hundreds of picture books and found males overrepresented, with females often invisible. Women and girls often played insignificant roles, were often nameless, did less adventurous activities, were often indoors playing traditional female roles serving, or helping the male characters and wearing pink, frilly, restrictive clothing like dresses. Weitzman concluded that “rigid sex-role definitions not only foster unhappiness in children but they also hamper the child’s fullest intellectual and social development” (Weitzman et al.,1972, p.1138-9)

Thursday's Child: Trends and Patterns in Contemporary Children's Literature (1981) by Sheila Egoff.

This is a book I bought as it is considered a classic text in understanding literature. She includes excellent chapters on the evolution of children’s books and how literature developed from the golden ages of literature to the present day. Her chapter ‘Survival of the Fittest: Natural Selection from the Golden Ages of Children’s Literature’ discusses how literature has followed societal trends, how the writing has changed, and she presents some interesting ideas about traditional texts and how we can still “take delight and security in old-fashioned idioms” (p. 28). She does highlight the power of picture books in the chapter of the same name. As with Rosenblatt’s book, reading Sheila Egoff’s work is almost a rite of passage.

What's in the Picture? Responding to Illustrations in Picture Books (1988) by Janet Evans.

Janet Evans’ book covers excellent topics by a range of authors which are all specifically related to picture books. Of great interest were chapters by Badderley and Eddershaw on ‘Linking books to develop older children’s response to literature’, Janet Evans’ chapter, ‘Real boys don’t go to dance classes’ which specifically addresses my theme of gender in picture books, Pam Hughes’ chapter on ‘Exploring visual literacy across the curriculum’ and Janet Evans’ interview with Anthony Browne.

Reading Contemporary Picturebooks: Picturing Text (2001) by David Lewis.

Lewis’ book contains many helpful chapters but perhaps my favourite is the chapter on ‘The ecology of the picturebook’. Here he compares the picture book to an ecosystem – where there is a symbiotic relationship between the words and the pictures in their ‘interanimation’, ‘flexibility’ and complexity (p. 48-50). He sees the picture book in a way I have not seen in other books and has some very interesting comments on the interaction of words and pictures as well as how picture books possess meaning. It is a fascinating read if you have the opportunity.

My final project was a full picture book. I chose to write a version of Red Riding Hood called The Revenge of Red Riding, which takes a new perspective on a traditional story and reverses many stereotypes. Producing a whole book taught me an awful lot about the process from start to finish, including what it’s like to deal with printers and how my illustrations actually look when printed onto paper. I’ll write more blog posts here about the whole process soon if you’d be interested to know more.

Naomi's final project

In summary, I can’t recommend higher study enough. It stretched my thinking in ways I hadn’t expected and it definitely helped me develop my illustration style. I had lecturers on hand with experience in illustration and animation to help me. I think I particularly improved in adding light and shade and in drawing people. I did think about continuing on to a PhD but with young kids I found the MA a lot of work. Perhaps I’ll continue in the future but for now, the MA was quite enough for me. If anyone would like to know more about higher study please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

*Header image: Ell Rose, other images: Naomi Blayney


Naomi Blayney is a SCBWI member and has just graduated from her MA with distinction.

Twitter: @naomiartist


Ell Rose is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures.
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