Belfast illustrator Paul Howard on the art of children's books

Jenny Lee chats to Belfast illustrator Paul Howard, whose work includes The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark and The Burpee Bears, about his mission to get even the most reluctant young readers passionate about books

Paul Howard is best known for illustrating Jill Tomlinson’s classic The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark and, more recently, The Burpee Bears, a new picture book series from fitness guru Joe Wicks

"LAST week Plop ended up in a prison cell with Queen singer Freddie Mercury, whose head was popping out of the toilet singing 'I want to break free'. Also in the cell was a banana on a skateboard and the prison warden was Mickey Mouse."

This is just one of the many "random and creative" scenarios that award-winning author and illustrator Paul Howard has received from 10 and 11-year-olds during workshops when he challenged them to think about what Plop, the little barn owl, in the beloved children's book The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark would be doing now.

Howard, who illustrated an abridged edition of Jill Tomlinson's story in 2001, is the current Northern Ireland Children's Writing Fellow and he is "thoroughly enjoying" getting out and about inspiring children with their creative writing and reading.

This weekend he joins creative writing charity Fighting Words NI in hosting a series of events in Belfast's Crescent's Arts Centre as part of the Belfast Book Festival.

Children can listen to him read some of his best-loved books or take part in illustration and story workshops. On Saturday June 11 over-16s can join Howard and some of his fellow illustrator friends in a 'draw-off' as they battle it out to create characters and stories from the cues provided by the audience.

The Fellowship was created as part of Queen's University and the Arts Council's joint 10-year Seamus Heaney Legacy project supported by Atlantic Philanthropies.

During his two-year fellowship, Howard is committed to "promoting visual literacy as an alternative, accessible gateway for students and children of all literacy levels to engage in, building enough confidence in them to read and create their own stories".

Howard, who has lived in Belfast for the past 22 years, is delighted to see how his approach is already breaking down barriers and impacting upon those children with learning difficulties, including dyslexia.

"In the classroom children would normally write the story first and then add the pictures," he says.

"I reverse the process, with the illustrations and characters first and then let the children choose if they want to end the story with a written sentence, an illustration or both.

"Teachers say how enthused children are with that approach. Visual literacy is inclusive and embraces people of all abilities. Those with learning difficulties may have trouble with words - but it's not to say they can't tell a narrative. The curriculum doesn't cater for these kids and it's an eye opener for a lot of children and teachers."

Howard has also enjoyed working with the youngest children "who have no inhibitions" and with the primary four and five age group, empowering them to become illustrators and design a new book cover for The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark.

Earlier this year the Duchess of Cambridge chose to read the book on CBeebies Bedtime Stories to mark Children's Mental Health Week.

"I explain to them how to become a detective, looking for clues and descriptive words," says Howard.

"When I was commissioned to illustrate the book I wanted to make it feel like a baby's comfort blanket and choose to draw it in these pastel pencils to accentuate the softness of it."

"I leave them my drawing and then they have a little display with all their owls. There are little parliaments of owls all around classrooms in Northern Ireland now," he proudly beams.

As well as publishing his own young fiction and picture books, most recently 1, 2, BOO!, Howard has collaborated with some of the greats of children's literature including Allan Ahlberg, Michael Rosen, Anne Fine, Trish Cooke, Martin Waddell and John Boyne.

Last year he illustrated The Burpee Bears by fitness guru Joe Wicks, and is currently working on the next book in this series, which is due for release this October.

While he has seen many technological changes in his craft, the essence of his job remains the same.

"This is my fourth decade of illustrating children's books. It all started in the 1990s with Martin Waddell books using watercolour, which of course you couldn't rub out," he explains.

"Then I moved onto pastel pencils and finally I've started working digitally. But no matter what the medium, it always starts with finding the characters and the story."

His illustrations for Burpee Bears were all done digitally using an iPad, over the space of just six weeks.

"Joe's message is about having children being active and taking care of their mental health and I wanted to reflect the bears vitality, energy and liveliness using bright colours," he explains.

Howard, whose childhood favourite books included those by Joan Aiken, Alf Prøysen and Roald Dahl, acknowledges the responsibility and privilege that comes with writing and illustrating children's books.

"Picture books and first reading books hold a special place in people's hearts," he says.

"They are one of the most important parts of literature and perhaps one of the hardest to get right.

"Being an illustrator is a very solitary profession and sometimes you forget the effect of what you are doing has on people.

"In these uncertain times that we are living, books have the power to help support and empower children and assist them in building empathy and understanding of this crazy world.

"Children's books now, in terms of their variety of topics and representation of minorities, are much more balanced. That's really important because all children need to see themselves reflected in books."

He also welcomes the trend of having more illustrations contained within books aimed at the progressing and older reader, including the lavishly illustrated versions of Harry Potter.

"In the past there were set rules that you read picture books to such an age, then you read chapter books and then you read the novels," he says.

"As I was growing up I remember feeling short-changed when I moved onto the more difficult books with no illustrations.

"There is more choice available now which is so encouraging. Books like Dog Man and Cat Kid mean that children who are not as confident with their reading can be involved and that may lead them into getting interested in graphic novels."

:: Belfast Book Festival runs from June 10-19, for full programme visit

:: Schools can register their interest in booking a free illustration workshop with Paul Howard for their school by contacting the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's University Belfast at

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