It's always exciting to see work by new illustrators so the Graduation Show for Cambridge School of Art’s MA in Children’s Book Illustration is a special pleasure. I've already written about That Night, Ahava Evie Fridel's picturebook about childhood grief and loss (here) and Ellan Rankin, who won the 2020 Sebastian Walker Award (here)
Today I'm introducing a group of talented young illustrators who also exhibited at the show and hope you'll enjoy the diversity, innovation and energy of their work as much as I did.
Featured graduates include Chris Knight, Roozeboos, Kailee Ngan, Lyndsay Roberts Rayne, Eve O’Brien, Abigail Balfe, Reem Madooh and Nicci Martin. If you'd like to know more, you’ll find links to their individual websites or social media in each section.
With its confident viewpoint and entertaining details, Chris's wonderful image of children on a bus is already telling a story and it really grabbed my attention in the gallery. I liked the way his characters are occupying their space - there's an emotional realism about it that made me smile. Then I noticed the tiger, half hidden by a seat, and was even more charmed.
Chris was also exhibiting Bleddfa, a haunting black-and-white picturebook inspired by a true story about the hunting and killing of the last wolves in Wales, which shows a very different side to his work. I'm always interested in picturebooks for older readers, so this had particular appeal.
Although Chris initially trained as an illustrator, he spent seven years working as a graphic designer on projects from branding to animation before taking the MA course and following his passion for storytelling. “After spending years staring at a computer screen,” he said, “the MA helped me discover a love for printmaking, mark-making and the role they can take in children’s books.”
This year Chris was awarded the first Cambridge School of Art MA in Children’s Illustration Printmaking Prize.
To find out more about Chris and his work visit chrisknightcreative.com
Before joining the MA course, Anne Roos Kleiss (aka Roozeboos) studied illustration in the Netherlands and worked as a freelance illustrator which included commissions for a children’s museum in Rotterdam. She also spent a summer touring festivals, "drawing people's memories" with an intriguing interactive installation. Visit her website to watch a video of it in action!
Anne's colourful sketchbooks and display area were full of unusual ideas and eyecatching compositions. I was struck by the playful exuberance of her work and was interested to learn about her background. What attracted Anne to the Cambridge MA course, I wondered, and what did she gain from it?
“My bachelor degree was very conceptual which was interesting," she said, "but I loved how the Cambridge MA is focused on sketching from observation. This is something I had not really done before and is what drew me to this course. But I also wanted to learn more about storytelling for children. I’ve gained so much creative knowledge on the MA, more than I ever expected! Of course there is still much more to learn, but this course was very inspiring.”
I also asked how her work has changed as a result of the course. She told me that observational drawing is now a “beautiful source of inspiration for projects” that has brought “spontaneity and energy” to her work. During the course she enjoyed experimenting with art materials, book formats and printing techniques, but she found the sense of community and shared endeavour also really important. “Everyone was so helpful and kind, and it was such a pleasure to work next to each other. The conversations with my super-talented classmates and amazing tutors helped me in my creative process,” she said.
What drew her to the themes and subjects she chose to work with and exhibit?
“One of my books, Choices, is a picturebook about all those choices you have to make in life. It’s quite a contemplative and poetic text, but it’s set on a summery day in an outdoor pool which I think makes it lighter and funnier. This was inspired by observational drawings I made last summer at Jesus Green Lido in Cambridge while I was there with my sister. Here I saw a little boy who kept feeling the water to see if he could jump in. His delicate hesitation in this happy, busy environment touched me. Combined with the conversations I was having with my sister about making decisions, these were my biggest sources of inspiration that led to making this book.
My other book is a search-and-find book with a narrative about a stick insect called Where are you, Mr. Stick? I wanted to make a story about an animal, since I had never done this before. I love choosing the underdog as a main protagonist (and I think the stick insect is definitely an underdog in children’s books!) Normally, I have to tell myself ‘less is more’ (I can keep adding details forever) but for this project ‘more was more’, which made the process fun for me. I loved thinking of all the little stories I could add to the images!”
To find out more about Roozeboos, visit her website at roozeboos.com
Kailee's images have their own distinctive (and sophisticated) style, with a sense of energy and economy that appeal to me. Her corner of the gallery has lots to say, but her images talk directly to the heart without the need for complex explanation.
Kailee told me that she used to be a social worker in Hong Kong, but having done a short illustration course in London she wanted to find a way to combine her love of drawing with her interest in working with children. "So drawing stories for children - this combines the two things, social work and art," she laughed.
Kailee decided to join the course after seeing work produced by Cambridge MA graduates. “I think I’ve changed quite a lot since then,” she told me. “When I look back at my work from two years ago, it’s quite detailed and concrete, but now I’m more focused on the line of the drawing and on creating atmosphere. It’s more expressive.”
To see more of Kailee’s work, visit ngankailee.com
With its unusual, almost luminous quality, Lyndsay’s work stood out in the gallery so it was interesting to learn how it was created. “All my images are made by hand in paper, placed in a small ‘theatre’ and lit and photographed,” read a notice next to her work, and when I talked to her I discovered more about this approach.
Before joining the course, Lyndsay was a practising art psychotherapist and had previously worked as a publicist in London theatres, where she really enjoyed seeing the little models made by set designers. She also loves paper: “I’d been tearing paper and thinking about the potential of paper, and once I started making physical objects with paper, everything came together and made sense,” she said. “I find it really satisfying as a process, it feels like playing! I think one of the things that makes it feel that way is that I’ve been reconnecting with what was so lovely about making imaginary worlds as a child.”
I asked Lyndsay how she’d discovered this visual medium. Had the course helped?
“The course was definitely part of it,” she said. “They really encourage people to find ways of working that fulfill them. They want you to bring yourself into your work, and that’s what I found through working this way. I look at my images and I can see me in them - but I do think being a psychotherapist helped a bit as well!”
We talked about other illustrators working with sets and models. The Visitor by Antje Damm and The Princess and the Pea by Lauren Child and Polly Borland came to mind, but we agreed there weren’t as many as you might expect.
Let’s hope we’ll soon be seeing Lyndsay’s illustrations on bookshop shelves – and if you’d like to try cutting and lighting similar works of art with children, Lyndsay’s work is a great inspiration!
To find out more, visit Lyndsay Roberts Rayne’s website at lyndsayrobertsrayne.com
There’s a real sense of playfulness about Eve’s work, so when I heard she’d been an illustrator and product designer for a children’s toy company before starting the course, it made sense. Animals are a big theme for her, too, so I asked about her choice of project.
“In my book Kevin about a cat, I wanted to play with idea of being an outsider and celebrate this character’s wonderful differences. I think everyone has times in their lives where they don’t quite fit in, and I wanted to create a story that says it’s okay to just be you.”
Eve also admits to a “fascination with subterfuge” and enjoys imagining what animals get up to when we aren’t watching them. “That’s where the crazy crocodile characters and their beach antics came from,” she said. “The underlying theme of this story is the impact tourism has on wildlife and how the crocodiles in the story adapt to these changes. However my main goal was to create a story which is funny!”
When she started the course, Eve hoped the emphasis on observational drawing would improve her skills. “I wanted to learn how to create atmosphere and characters which have a life on the page,” she said, adding that she used to “struggle with placing characters into settings and depicting interactions between characters convincingly.” But the course gave her “a safe space to experiment” and this is now a confident part of her practice.
To find out more about Eve’s work visit eveobrien.co.uk
In Abigail’s bright and cheery corner of the gallery, I discovered a seriously readable (and really quite serious) book. Abigail is autistic, but because she didn't discover this until she was an adult, she had to grow up “navigating the confusing neurotypical world, all the while missing some Very Important Information” about herself.
Her picturebook, A Different Sort of Normal, was born from this experience. It’s a colourful and enticing mix of text and images – Abigail describes it as a “middle-grade book of words, scribbles and memories” - and I really like the mix of humour, honesty and informative quirkiness that’s evident throughout.
“Humour and emotion are important to me,” says Abigail. “I create stories based on my own life experiences and a desire to help children of various ages through difficult situations and emotions. My projects often reflect under-represented themes including family addiction, spirituality and autism in girls. I love bright happy colours and the boldness of gouache, pattern design as well as naive limited colour pencil drawings.”
As well as writing and drawing children’s books, Abigail builds creative marketing campaigns for TV and entertainment clients, and used to perform musical stand-up comedy.
To find out more, visit abigailbalfe.com
Before coming to Cambridge, Reem worked in a government agency in Kuwait. She took the course to develop her skills in narrative storytelling, expand her knowledge of children’s books and learn from experienced tutors and her fellow classmates. “I have matured as an artist and as a person, she said, talking about her experiences on the MA course. “I became more aware of the strengths and weaknesses I have during my process. I’m also more confident in my ideas and assessment of my own or other people’s work. My painting skills have immensely developed as well and I’m willing to experiment and play with different materials.”
All Reem’s exhibited work is based on personal experiences and daily observations of her environment. “I’m always interested in exploring emotions and incorporating fantasy and dream-like elements into realistic settings,” she said.
“The children’s book publishing scene in Kuwait is small,” Reem said, when I asked about her future plans. “But has been steadily growing in recent years and I hope I can contribute to this growth. My aim is to continue growing and developing my voice as a storyteller while working in Kuwait. I want to transfer the knowledge and experience I gained to try and collaborate with Kuwaiti publishers and businesses that work in children’s books.”
Reem’s work is distinctive and memorable - I enjoyed the way she uses colour and the energy and insight of When Will Tomorrow Come, her story about a child’s perception of time – and look forward to discovering more about children’s books in Kuwait.
To visit Reem's website, click here reemadooh.com
Nicci’s display is dominated by a cut-out of an ostrich riding on a very large giraffe. The book that accompanies it – Giants of All Shapes and Sizes- has the cheerful yet accurate tone of a successful non-fiction book with plenty of child-appeal, which may be down to the insights her experience as a teacher has given her.
Nicci taught children under the age of 11 in South Africa for three years and then in Cambridge for a further two.
“I had always wanted to create children’s books,” she said, “but in South Africa it didn’t seem as possible. While growing up I was aware of the author/ illustrator names on books but I had never imagined I would ever meet them in person. When I came to Cambridge and met many of them at schools and other events it all began to feel less like a dream and more within my reach.”
"The most important change that has happened for me during the MA is that I’ve learnt to rely on photos much less. I have begun to observe the world with fresh eyes, build up my visual memory and draw from my imagination instead. This course has helped change my perspective on children’s books completely and has truly been life-changing!"
That’s quite a statement, but it does seem to be shared by many of those exhibiting at this show. I wish them all the best for their futures, and hope we’ll be seeing their names on published volumes very soon.
To find out more about Nicci's work on instagram click here instagram.com/niccinixpix/
To find out more about the Cambridge School of Art MA in Children's Book Illustration Show visit cambridgemashow.com
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