Tuesday 25 October 2016

Working on A First Book of Animals

This month we published the beautiful A First Book of Animals, a brand new treasury of poems by Nicola Davies featuring over 50 different animals illustrated by Petr Horáček. We went behind the scenes with illustrator Petr to find out the story of how the book came about…

When I’m working on my books, I “think in pictures”. I know more or less how the illustrations and the book will look way before the text is finalised. I studied Fine Art, so this way of working is only natural to me. I’ve been writing and illustrating my own books for more than 16 years, but for the last couple of years I’ve wanted to illustrate somebody else’s book. I wanted to know how what it’s like to reverse the process of working; the process of the text coming first and the pictures having to follow. I asked my publisher if they could find me a suitable text I could work on. They promised to do so, but they also said, “Let’s wait until something really good comes along”. I’ve been waiting for a long time and then it happened. Nicola Davies and her editor Caz came up with an idea to write A First Book of Animals – and they thought about me as a possible illustrator. A First Book of Animals is the second of Nicola’s books of poems. The first one is the very successful A First Book of Nature, beautifully illustrated by Mark Hearld. 

I was thrilled to be asked to work with Nicola Davies. She is a great writer, her books are beautiful and great artists illustrate them. Knowing all this was exciting, but also very nerve-racking. Suddenly I realised what the difference is between illustrating my own picture books and illustrating for somebody else. If I mess up my own book I can only blame myself, but what if I mess up somebody else’s work?! I panicked a bit. Then I had a meeting with Nicola and her editor, Caz. Nicola is very enthusiastic and passionate about the subjects she is working on. She has great knowledge about nature and it made me very inspired. After the meeting I couldn’t wait to start working on the book. I started sketching on the train home.

To be honest, sketching the first pictures was easy because I loved Nicola’s text so much. It triggered my imagination straightaway.   

At home I looked at the notes and scribbles I made on the train and started to do them again and in colour.

Here are some of the first sketches and notes. 

Thinking back, it all makes me smile. I was enjoying reading the text and drawing so much, that I did almost all the sketches in one go. I didn’t want to do anything else. 

This is a sketch of corals …

and birds of paradise. 

It’s strange, but most of the final illustrations are pretty much identical to the first sketches.

The zebras for example

…or Arctic Terns.


I remember the relief when I received the first feedback from the publisher.

Nicola was happy and so were Caz and my editor Louise. I had permission to get on with the final illustrations.

Yes, first I had to finish one of my books I was working on at that time, but having a break and a slight distance from A First Book of Animals helped me and made me even more excited about whole project.

Once I started working on the final illustrations it was very difficult for me to do something else.


The book has almost sixty illustrations and it did take me almost a year to finish them all. There was time when I had to travel and had to be away from my desk for a couple of days or weeks, but I was always looking forward to getting back to the book.

The picture of a gorilla and the baby was the very first illustration I finished. I choose this one, because I consider it to be the most challenging picture in the book.

Of course, in a book like this there will always be pictures which are easier and fun to do and illustrations which are rather more challenging.

Fireflies were one of the pictures I found quite difficult, but also great fun to illustrate.

The dragonfly was also a challenging picture. We wanted to show metamorphoses and the dragonfly nymph.

In the book I used techniques such as collage and printing. I also used different materials. For example pencils, colour pencils, acrylic paint, watercolours, wax crayons, pastels…

Different pictures asked for different approaches. I painted the animals living in the water with watercolours.

Some of them with wax crayons and watercolours.

The others with acrylics and watercolours.

As we were working on the book we had to abandon some of the ideas and animals, because we realised that the book would be too long, or not enough of some of the species.

The naked mole rat may be a rather interesting animal, but it didn’t get in.

We also had too many fish, so unfortunately the orca had to go too.

But we have an ostrich and humming bird.

And we also kept in jellyfish.

I have mentioned collage. This is how I did the picture of a snake.

I made a stencil to create the pattern on the viper.

I was rather pleased with the result.

The book, which is divided into four sections and has “end chapters” which explain certain details about some of the animals.

I tried to illustrate them so that it looks as if they are studies from somebody’s notebook.

I must say that working on A First Book of Nature was everything I could have wished for. Nicola was great to work with and she was always ready to give me explanations and encouragement, and so were the editors Caz and Louise. It is no secret that a good book doesn’t happen w ithout good collaboration without great editors and a great publisher, so THANK YOU to everybody who helped us to do A First Book of Animals.


Check out this short video we made with Petr, where we asked him five questions about working on A First Book of Animals...

A First Book of Animals is the second title in the First Book series, following the bestselling A First Book of Nature. Pick up a copy in your local bookshop.