Top 50 Illustrators borrowed from UK public libraries

The books we read or are read to as children can stick with us for our whole lives. See how many of these books you recognise from your own childhood or from reading to children more recently. Do any of them take you back?

On May 20th this year, PLR UK (Public Lending Right, the branch of the British Library that gives authors and illustrators payments when their books are checked out at libraries) published its annual list of the Top 200 Borrowed Authors at public libraries, for the period covering July 2018 - June 2019. They also had two more lists, of the Top 50 Children's Book Authors and Top 50 Adult Authors. Children's books are an essential part of libraries; when children are small, they can get through an incredible number of picture books, and a little older, keen readers will race through series of books, sometimes at more than one book a day. Almost no one can afford to buy - or have shelf space for - this many books. Libraries also provide warm, friendly places for the people looking after children to bring them, and that's where children begin to learn how to browse books, and select the ones they think will be most interesting. (I've met grownups who don't have the skill of browsing; bookshops intimidate them because they don't know how to select a book just by letting their eyes wander over them until one catches their attention.) Browsing's an important skill. And what is essential when children are trying to select a book? ... Pictures!

People are influenced by book covers and book design and illustrations for the rest of their lives, but when they're young, it's THE primary factor in getting a child to want to read a book. And when they're cuddled up in a grownup's lap, it's the pictures they'll read, to the sound of the grownup's reassuring voice. So the work of illustrators is absolutely essential, and as part of the Pictures Mean Business campaign, I very much wanted to see a PLR list of Top 50 Illustrators. And after some repeated requests by @Cecilmgo and me on Twitter, PLR obliged and on August 25th, published the list of illustrators, which you can read here on their website.

When the list was first published, I got the sense that most of the people who looked at it were illustrators, wanting to see if they were on the list, happy when they were and upset or annoyed when they weren't. (I think the authors may have been doing this, too, because the list is missing a No.41 and no one queried it.) But the list isn't just something to make us feel competitive, it's a chance for everyone to find out about these illustrators who are backbones of the industry, not necessarily only the ones who are fêted by the big book charities or put in shop window displays because they appeal to grownups with money to spend. These are the ones actually being checked out at libraries, very often on request of children themselves, or repeatedly checked out because children get very attached to them. It doesn't speak for the whole book industry, but it's an important thing to scrutinise.

I'm going to post it here so we can have a more in-depth look at it. I've made a few notes in red, which we'll get to later:

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Blackheath Halls Grumpycorn drawing competition!

I'm thrilled to be part of the Blackheath Halls Online Season with my amazing tenor neighbour Nicky Spence! And we have a drawing competition for you!

Nicky and I had so much fun putting together this animation. It's followed by a drawing tutorial where I show you how to draw Grumpycorn on stage, doing his big diva act. In the books, Unicorn's already tried his hoof at being an astronaut (successfully!) and a writer (less successfully), and the big lights of the opera stage are calling to him. But he needs a big stage set behind him - and that's yours to imagine and draw!

All ages welcome! We'll draw an entry out of one of my fanciest hats, and the winner will get a signed and doodled copy of my new picture book, Don't Call Me Grumpycorn. To enter, you can either tweet a photo of your picture, including the hashtag #Grumpycorn and tagging @BlackheathHalls (and me & Nicky, @jabberworks & @nickythespence, if you like). Or you can e-mail it to, including the name and age of the artist. Be sure to get in your entry before 9pm on Thurs, 3 Sept!

Special newsflash: copies of the HARDCOVER book just arrived ten minutes ago, so you'll get one of those, and no one has one of those yet! (We had printer problems with the printer in Italy due to Coronavirus, so only the paperback was printed and arrived in time for the spring launch. But now they're HERE, and they're SHINY!!)

And a little background to working with Nicky Spence: In 2011, I saw one of the best operas I'd ever seen, Two Boys at the Coliseum by the English National Opera. It was the most gripping storyline I'd ever seen in an opera, the music was utterly compelling, and the singers were brilliant - I raved about it in a blog post here. Then a couple years ago, someone moved in next to my studio, and he looked a little familiar. When we got talking, it turned out he'd been the star of Two Boys... and I almost had a fan-girl meltdown right there on the pavement!

Awhile back (pre-Lockdown) Nicky took me to see a performance of Noye's Fludde at Blackheath Halls, with its mixture of young and grownup professional opera singers, which was absolutely brilliant (and also rainbow-themed!).

I love catching snatches of music from Nicky and his concert pianist fiancé Dylan Perez (who did the voiceover for our Kevin and the Biscuit Bandit trailer). Best neighbours ever!

Still from a video of us singing at the end of the #DrawingWithSarah Roly-Poly Flying Pony video!

* You can follow Nicky Spence online on Twitter @nickythespence, Instagram @nickythespence and visit his website
* Follow Blackheath Halls on Twitter @BlackheathHalls, Instagram @blackheathhalls and visit their website

Kevin and the Biscuit Bandit: new trailer!

Our new book, Kevin and the Biscuit Bandit, is starting to hit the streets! It was supposed to launch - officially - on Sept 3rd, but it's already escaping into the world.

Here's a trailer I made, with Philip's help making the music and my neighbour Dylan Perez helping out with the voiceover. You might recognise my local high street in the background...

Page 45 bookshop has 100 bookplate editions if you want to get in quick! You can buy lots of our books from them, and they're very reliable, supportive, and ship worldwide.

A few more happy faces... which makes me happy, too! I always wonder where these books are going to end up, and who's going to read them.

And check out Fox's awesome book cover for Kevin's New York Adventure!

Grumpycorn space birthday

Huge thanks to everyone who drew me new spaceships for Grumpycorn for my birthday! They are wonderful, and I was so moved that people would take time to do that. I've saved them here, because I didn't want them to get lost down the Twitter feed after a few days!

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Dartmoor Summer 2020

After nearly four months of Lockdown in the city, I jumped at the first chance to visit my co-author Philip Reeve and his family on Dartmoor. It was a combination work-health-pleasure trip: we did get quite a bit of work done on the fourth Kevin book, I got a whole lot of exercise I hadn't been getting while sitting around in London... and Dartmoor's just always fantastic.

I'd been doing some tree drawing in my local parks, but there's nothing like sitting in the middle of a Dartmoor wood to work on an experimental painting. (I ended up working on this one in Philip's studio, and then finishing it up back in London.)

Well, until it starts raining.

I had blazing sun for the first half of drawing this, then rain...

...but I managed to shield my sketchbook under my jacket and stick it out to the end.

On one of the days, I went tree drawing with Philip.

Check out his finished drawing, it's amazing. The mossy trees on Dartmoor really make me feel like I'm in Middle Earth.

Speaking of which, Philip has been posting some great blog articles on Lord of the Rings, informally jotting down his thoughts as he read through it for his umpteenth time. You can read them all here. I've read the books and listened to the BBC dramatisation version so many times I can't even count, but reading Philip's blog still gave me new reflections on them.

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little paintings: mouse ship

Everything in publishing these last few months has been a bit odd, to say the least. Bookshops shut, book distributors shut, postal disruptions, events, cancelled, publishing teams working remotely, publishers being extra cautious, writers and illustrators trying to work while homeschooling children... the list goes on. I'd planned a gap in my book schedule to do a sabbatical art study trip in Nepal, which Covid made impossible, so I had a bit of time, suddenly, just to draw and paint. And since I wasn't earning money from a book, I thought I'd try to sell some work. I've had some bad experiences of donating art to charity auctions and it not selling for very much (poor publicity from organisers? bad art on my part? too many other famous names in the auction pool?). So I assumed people wouldn't want to buy much. But, happily, I was wrong!

Besides it paying for groceries and stuff, it's been fun. There's something really refreshing about painting whatever I like and before the paint's even fully dry, selling it via Twitter (and occasionally Instagram). I don't have to send rough drafts back and forth, or wait half a year or a year for the publishing engines to churn, or do a whole follow-up publicity campaign... I just paint it and sell it.

I've had a few people get in touch about commissions, but that's not quite the same: there's a big difference creatively between painting something that really interests me and that I want to explore, and painting something to someone else's brief, trying to capture what's in their head. (A few people were willing to pay far, far more for commissioned art work, so I have made a few exceptions, but I really like doing these one-off free-form paintings.) And if I start promising pictures to people in advance, that also puts me under pressure that I don't have to deal with if I simply finish a painting and post it.

It's so fun simply to play with pictures and see what happens.

Don't Call Me Grumpycorn: Fab Planet Competition Prizes!

For the launch of my Grumpycorn-sequel picture book Don't Call Me Grumpycorn, Scholastic UK and I set up a competition to see who could design the most Fablous Planet. The prize was a portrait with Grumpycorn in space, and Alec Anderson won the top prize! Here is is on Spaghetti Moon (which orbits around the planet he created), with his little sister and her favourite Piggy toy (by request). You can see Alec's entry here, plus a gallery of all the other great drawings.

But the quality of entries was so high that I made an exception, only for this competition, and said I'd make portraits for everyone who took part. That kept me busy for awhile!

But it seems to have been worth it; the pictures have been arriving and I've been getting lovely messages from the pleased recipient. Here's Callie's - I customised hers a bit more because she wrote and illustrated a WHOLE AMAZING BOOK after watching my Grumpycorn video: you can see the pages of her book Icecreamcorn here.

It really is great to see all these young artists I've been drawing!

If you missed the competition, there's still a Grumpycorn video about drawing a Fabulous Planet here, which could be simply done for fun, or used as a school project a teacher's looking for material.

Thanks again to everyone who took part and put so much work into their entries! And thanks to Scholastic for their support, and Page 45 bookshop for hosting book sales! If you want to find more free Grumpycorn or Don't Call Me Grumpycorn activities, check out my web pages here.