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Petr Horacek – picture books as art

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A perspective from an illustrator

Illustration has the power to open the world of imagination, says award-winning illustrator Petr Horácek.

As a little boy, I spent hours looking at Édouard Riou’s illustrations in Jules Verne’s books. I couldn’t read yet, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t need to read the book; my story was happening in the pictures.

We may all remember that time as children, a long time before we could read when we looked at our favourite picture book and pretended to read it to our siblings, our favourite toy, or simply ourselves.

We know that a child’s love of picture books encourages and teaches him or her to be interested in literature, but a picture book is also, very often, the first time a child is introduced to visual art.  

In a good picture book, the text doesn’t always need to describe what is in the picture, and the picture doesn’t always need to illustrate what is already said in the text. Illustrations and the text should be in perfect balance. A picture book should be seen as a specific and compact art form.

I write and illustrate picture books. I studied Fine Art, so when asked: “What comes first, the text or the pictures?” the answer is always “the pictures”. I think in pictures and see the story before I start writing it down. Of course, it’s not the same for every author and illustrator. We all work differently.

I said that the picture book is a complex form of art where the text should be in perfect balance with the pictures.  A child should never be told they are too old to be interested in a picture book. As an artist, I notice that the visual style and artistic quality of a picture book is often overlooked and is even sometimes seen as not important. It is as if the main purpose of a picture book is just to quickly amuse. 

Children learn dozens of new things every day and have a great sense of detail, too.  They absorb and react to everything they hear and see, and it all shapes them into the people they are. It should be us who should show them and help them find the best in literature and art.

I know how you did that!

It cheers me up when a parent or a child comes to me and talks about the artwork in a picture book. Sometimes, a child might say: “I know how you did that. You used wax crayons and watercolours! We do it at school.”

Maybe this is the reason why I like to see illustrations where paint, pencil, print or collage is used. It gives me the idea that the materials used could inspire someone to pick up a pencil or a brush. Of course, I’m aware that we live in the 21st century and computers are now part of our lives, but no software would ever compensate for the inability to draw or paint.

The challenge for new illustrators

I was recently asked to be one of the judges for the Klaus Flugge Prize. I’m sitting in front of the pile of submitted books I’m going to read, and these are the thoughts that go through my mind. I’m thinking about how much pressure, from publishers and agencies, a new young artist and author often has. Hearing things such as “this would be too hard to sell abroad…, it’s a difficult subject, … can you make the ending happier…make the character prettier, more lovable…”

Of course, good feedback is important, but it’s so hard to please everyone and for a starting author or illustrator trying to publish their first book, it is all so confusing. I suppose it’s all part of the process: the ability to hold your ground and defend your ideas when needed.

We are surrounded by visual images and have easy access to endless social media. It’s not difficult to see other artists’ work, and of course, we all have our favourites. It’s okay to get inspired by other people’s work, it’s good to try different approaches, and it’s encouraged to try a variety of techniques. And it’s good to know that finding your own style could be (and maybe should be) a never-ending process.

I have my favourite illustrators, too. Jiri Šalamoun, Brian Wildsmith, Lucy Cousins, Eric Carle, John Burningham, Anna Herbauts, Andrea Tachezy… to name just a few. What these artists have in common is not an artistic style. They all are very different, but what interests me is their free way of creating, which brings originality with it. It’s the spontaneity and joy in their artwork. Only when the artist is truthful to themselves can their work be good. You don’t look for your own style. The style will find you. And if you are honest and truthful in your work, children will notice.

About Petr Horácek

Petr Horácek is judging this year’s Klaus Flugge Prize, which recognises the most exciting and promising debut picture book illustrator. Fellow judges include 2023 Klaus Flugge Prize winner, Mariajo Ilustrajo and Olivia Ahmad, Artistic Director at Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration.

Petr Horácek grew up on the outskirts of Prague. From the age of 15 to 19, he studied at the High School of Art in Prague, which specialised mainly in design. From age 19, Peter worked in a state design studio for two years and then studied painting at the Academy of Fine Art in Prague from 1988. He graduated as a Master of Fine Art in 1994. Petr met his English wife Claire in 1995, when they were both students, and they moved to England.

Petr started to write and illustrate books soon after his first child was born.

The first books, Strawberries are Red and What is Black and White? were published in 2001, and he received the Books For Children Newcomer Award in the same year.

Since then Petr has written and illustrated many books for children including Puffin Peter, Blue Penguin and his latest book Tiny Owl’s Scary Day published Autumn 2023.  In the UK he is published by Walker Books and Otter Barry Books; his books are translated into many languages. Petr has won awards for his books in Britain, USA and Holland and has travelled all over the world doing events in schools and festivals.

Petr loves going to schools, making art with children, and encouraging them to send him their artwork. He believes that picture books are for everyone and that good picture books don’t just teach children to be readers but also develop a child’s imagination, encourage creativity, and teach them to be observant and investigative.

More about his books and paintings can be found at

Instagram: p.horacek_

Klaus Flugge Prize 2024: Longlist

The Slug and the Snail illustrated by Olya Anima.
Written by Oein DeBhairduin, editor Siobhán Parkinson, designer Louise Millar (Little Island Books and Skein Press)

Outside illustrated by Oren Lapwing (formerly Bee Chuck)
Editor Isabel Otter, designer Emma Jennings (Little Tiger)

My Bollywood Dream illustrated by Avani Dwivedi
Editor Tanya Rosie, designer Marty Cleary, art director Deirdre McDermott (Walker Books)

We Are a Circus illustrated by Rosie Fencott
Written by Nasta, editor/designer Emma Dai’an Wright (The Emma Press)

Ning and the Night Spirits illustrated by Adriena Fong
Editor Harriet Birkinshaw, art director Lilly Gottwald (Flying Eye Books)

We Dug Up the World illustrated by Kitty Harris
Written by Alexandra Stewart, editor Lucy Twist, art director Ella Tomkins (Laurence King Publishing)

The Crown illustrated by Emily Kapff
Editor Pauliina Malinen, designers Audrey Keri-Nagy & Marty Cleary, art director Deirdre McDermott (Walker Books)

Who Owns the Woods? illustrated by Jess Mason
Written by Emily Hibbs, editor Harriet Evans, designer Maddie Pilkington (Little Tiger)

The Dream Book by Bia Melo
Editor Amelia Warren, designer Christopher Stanley (Templar)

Brilliant Black British History illustrated by Kingsley Nebechi
Written by Atinuke, editor Sally Beets, art director Katie Knutton (Bloomsbury Children’s Books)

Wolf and Bear illustrated by Kate Rolfe
Editor Suzanne Carnell, designer Jo Spooner (Two Hoots)

The Little Fear illustrated by Luke Scriven
Editor Alice Blacker, art director Candice Turvey (HarperCollins Children’s Books)

Henri and the Machine illustrated by Olga Shtonda
Written by Isabelle Marinov, editor Sophie Hallam, designer Anna Ring (Templar)

Farah Loves Mangoes illustrated by Sarthak Sinha
Editor Harriet Birkinshaw, art director Lilly Gottwald (Flying Eye Books)

Bright Stars of Black British History illustrated by Angela Vives
Written by J.T. Williams, editor Anna Ridley, designer Kate Haynes (Thames and Hudson)

The Fossil Hunter illustrated by Kate Winter
Editors Anna Barnes-Robinson, Louise Rickwood and Lara Hancock, designer Monica Whelan (Puffin)

Animal Crackers illustrated by Ruby Wright
Editor Libby Hamilton, designer Ness Wood (Rocket Bird Books)

You may also be interested in …

Petr Horacek and Nicola Davies talk about their collaboration on a collection of poems The Star Whale