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



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

“A visit to a museum is a search for beauty, truth, and meaning in our lives. Go to museums as often as you can.”
— Maira Kalman

One of the most inspiring features of James Mayhew’s Katie series is the way in which museums and art galleries become playgrounds for adventure. Continue reading

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


Characters in storybooks can be many things – heroes, villains, friends, and mentors. But they can also serve as a guide – not only through a story, but in a story as they help us explore different aspects of life beyond our experience. James Mayhew’s Katie is just this, ushering us simultaneously through Katie’s Picture Show (2014) and 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

Oxford Stories

Excerpt from “Oxford” by Tom Lovatt-Williams

I see the coloured lilacs flame
In many an ancient Oxford lane
And bright laburnum holds its bloom
Suspended golden in the noon,
The placid lawns I often tread
Are stained and carpeted with red…

These lines from Lovatt-Williams’ poem ‘Oxford’ capture perfectly the beauty of this city over the last few weeks.  Lockdown has definitely made me far more appreciative of the  way nature is changing around us here in Oxford as we take our ‘daily exercise’. 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

Easter Books and More

With Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday upon us, I’ve updated my book list. Perhaps you are looking for ideas for your family or as gifts for godchildren or grandchildren, you can browse my list here, Continue reading

Maths through Stories and Games

The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colours or the words must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.

— G.H. Hardy

In a world that thinks of education through a post-Enlightenment lens, we need to hear Hardy’s words more than ever.  Maths is beautiful. Continue reading

Visiting Barcelona

Barcelona, a fountain of courtesy, shelter of strangers, hospice to the poor, land of the valiant, avenger of the offended, reciprocator of firm friendship, a city unique in its location and beauty.

— Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote, 1605

Half term took us to the wonderful Barcelona for a few days, both “unique in its location and beauty” as Don Quixote exclaimed.  Of course this was centuries before four great masters of modern art, Gaudí, Miró, Picasso and Dalí added their creativity to the city. Continue reading