Getting in the Picture

“To really instil a love of art, children need to be encouraged to have a go and be creative themselves.”

— James Mayhew

In the last three blogposts I have shown how James Mayhew brings life to museums in Katie’s Picture Show, and now in this final post I want to explore how he brings life to the artwork itself.

Katie frame 1

Mayhew’s story begins in the Classical world. In the 8th poem of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c.800) a statue comes alive with a kiss. Since then, “the idea of art coming alive…in children’s fiction is not an uncommon fantasy. But I think Katie’s Picture Show was the first-time real paintings were used in a picture book story for young children,” observed Mayhew. As the paintings come alive, Katie discovers life beyond the frame. Katie is quickly drawn in by the story and characters within the 5 oil canvases that span 100 hundred years of predominantly 19th century art (1821-1916).

Katie Frame 2

 As Katie stands in front of each painting for the first time, Mayhew includes photographic replicas with illustrated frames as opposed to his usual watercolour and ink style. In contrast, the exhibit labels next to them are blurred sketches – the names and dates are not her focal point. The effect is electric for us adult readers. The accuracy of the reproductions brings authenticity to Katie’s fantasy world.

Katie Frame 3

One minute Katie is standing in front of the photograph, the next, with a dramatic turn of the page, there is a Mayhew-illustrated double page spread of Katie fully immersed in her fantasy world having broken the frame of the page. How did she actually get there? The touch of the magic finger, the climb, the turn of the page and a whole lot of imagination.

Katie Frame 4

Katie jumps into them chronologically giving life to static creations. She begins in Constable’s grand six foot The Hay Wain (1821), which helped revive classical landscape painting. Katie’s next stop is tea and cakes with Ingres’ Madame Moitissier (1856). This formal neoclassical portrait might not seem interesting to a child but Katie “likes it best” (11). Perhaps it is the lady’s faint welcoming smile in her Greek goddess pose that beckons her in.

But it is a little playmate that Katie is really after. She spots a little girl in Renoir’s The Umbrellas (1881-6). Amidst the combination of impressionistic strokes and inspiration from Italian classical art, they share cake and play with a hoopla, until the runaway hoopla ends up in Rousseau’s Surprised! (1891). Chasing after it, Katie is now face to face with a dreamlike tiger suspended above the grass who not only does not devour the tasty Katie but assists in the rescue mission.

Katie Frame 5

With the hoopla returned to its rightful owner, Katie has one last run-around in Malevich’s Dynamic Suprematism (1916). The abstract colourful geometric forms are the ideal climbing frame but like most visits to the playground, Katie needs rescuing from modern art’s lack of boundaries as she falls deeper and deeper into the painting (Mayhew, Katie 29 [2014]). Thank goodness the guard is there.

Such a magical introduction to fine art. Whether playing with her new friend in The Umbrellas or rescuing a hoopla from Surprised! Mayhew shows how much fun Katie is having without knowing a biography of Renoir. This is out of the question for most grownups, let alone children. When we think of art history, it is often the dates and facts. When we think of art, it is often creativity, self-expression, imagination. Art and art history are often disconnected. The artists that have made it into the history books, are often remembered not for ‘perfect’ painting skills but because they challenged the status quo. They made people talk. They pushed the boundaries and questioned the ‘norm’. Why is Rousseau’s jungle so dreamlike? What is Malevich doing with all those shapes? Their creativity and imagination are why they are remembered, why Mayhew includes them, why they are on the walls of the National Gallery, why we want our children to see them and why Katie jumps into them.

To think that most children first encounter fine art in a picture book rather than in a museum, makes Katie’s Picture Showall the more special. The idea of art history is gently introduced to young children, but with the aim of inspiring them to become creative themselves. In an earlier post I discussed how Mayhew made some significant changes to the 25thanniversary edition of Katie’s Picture Show. One major change is the final page because Mayhew felt there was “too much emphasis on looking at artists and not being an artist.” Today he wants children to get their pencils out and get drawing.

So as this series of blogposts on Katie’s Picture Show comes to a close, curl up on the sofa with your little ones, introduce Katie to them and start planning a trip to your local museum this summer. It will be hard not to let her adventurous spirit inspire creativity, friendship, and a love for art.


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Make Art an Adventure: James Mayhew’s Katie Series 1

Katie’s Picture’s Show: The Ultimate Children’s Museum Guide 2

Katie’s Picture Show: Museums are Gateways to Adventure 3

Museums and Galleries with little ones

Children’s Book Recommendations

Summer Picture Books



Over 10 More Children’s Books 9+

I opened a book and in I strode
Now nobody can find me.
I’ve left my chair, my house, my road,
My town and my world behind me.

I’m wearing the cloak, I’ve slipped on the ring,
I’ve swallowed the magic potion. Continue reading

Easter Stories & Poems

Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.

— Martin Luther

With Lent underway and only 4 weeks until Easter, I’ve updated my Easter booklist below. Continue reading

20 Children’s Books 9+

Those who write for children are trying to arm them for the life ahead with everything we can find that is true.  And perhaps, also, secretly, to arm adults against those necessary compromises and necessary heartbreaks that life involves: to remind them that there are and always will be great, sustaining truths to which we can return.

— Katherine Rundell, Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise

Rundell’s words are ringing in my ears. Continue reading

Christmas is Coming

…the most startling thing about this wonderful tree was that hundreds of tapers glittered like stars in its dark branches, and the tree itself, shining with an inner light, invited the children to pick its blossoms and fruits.

The Nutcracker, E.T.A. Hoffman

In the midst of the chaos of 2020 and all that it has brought us, Christmas is still coming. There is true light in the darkness. What joy! So let’s get preparing….

Continue reading

Introducing South Africa

Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.

— Nelson Mandela


South Africa is a country dear to our hearts. My husband and I lived in Cape Town for the first three years of our marriage and so I have always been keen to introduce something of the place and people to our children. (A visit one day hopefully.) Continue reading

Read Alouds for 5 year olds

“…the voice that tells us a story aloud is always more than a carrier wave bringing us the meaning; it’s a companion through the events of the story, ensuring that the feelings it stirs in us are held within the circle of attachment connecting the adult reading, and the child listening. To hear a story is a social act.” — Francis Spufford, The Child that Books Built

I love Francis Spufford’s reminder that “to hear a story is a social act.” Continue reading

Children’s Fiction 8+

The children should have the joy of living in far lands, in other persons, in other times—a delightful double existence; and this joy they will find, for the most part, in their story-books”

— Charlotte Mason (Vol. 1, p. 153)

So it looks like holidays are off the cards this summer for most of us but in Charlotte Mason’s words we can still “have the joy of living in far lands, in other persons, in other times…”  So at a time when we can’t travel and see people so easily, books are a magical way of doing just that both for us adults and our children. So let’s help our children travel this summer and choose books to take them places.  They may even make some friends along the way. Continue reading

Tudor Books 8+

It’s all about the Tudors this term in our house.  There’s nothing like well-written historical fiction to bring history alive for young ones, alongside visiting museums and relevant places of interest. Continue reading

Children’s Christmas Stories

The Magic of Christmas
— Tom Krause

‘Joy to the World’, the carolers sang out
as last minute shoppers scurried about,
desperately seeking that one special gift
that would give Christmas morning a magical lift.

A old man standing still listening to the song,
amidst all the madness of the bustling throng,
in a shaky hoarse voice began to join in
singing the words of the famous old hymn.

One by one people stopped with their madness
to join with the old man for a moment of gladness.
By the time the carolers finished singing their song
the whole throng was united as they all sang along.

And as if by magic from out of the sky
church bells rang out from a chapel near by.
When the song finally ended the people greeted each other
with messages of good will they shared with one another.

You see that magical gift the shoppers sought for so long,
was not in the shopping or scurrying along.
That magical gift so desperately sought
was the Spirit of Christmas -which could never be bought.

Continue reading