Guest post from Steven Lenton: Becoming a picture book illustrator

In this guest post, Steven Lenton shares how he became a picture book illustrator and allows us a fascinating insight into how he developed the characters, Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam.

In my first blog post on our ‘Diamond Chase’ Tour, I’m going to share how I became a picture book illustrator, got a book deal and how the world of Shifty and Sam began…

Designing Shifty and Sam was my first foray into the picture book world and how lucky was I?!


I had been trying to get into the children’s picture book industry for a year or so, building a portfolio of characters and ideas to send to agents and publishers.  As many of you reading this know, this is not an easy feat as there a literally hundreds of people all clamouring to do the same thing – but never lose hope!

I was chosen to illustrate Shifty and Sam for two reasons – Nosy Crow had seen my entry for the 2011 Waterstones Picture Book Illustration competition for which entrants were asked to design and illustrate a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast.



I HIGHLY recommend entering as many illustration competitions as possible as they challenge you to broaden your skills and open your mind to new subject matter and challenges. Kate Wilson at Nosy Crow saw my designs in coverage of the finalists: (a bumper crop of talent also featuring the now top-selling Elys Dolan, Sophie Henn and Matt Robertson) then when my agent, Sallyanne Sweeney, sent in my portfolio which also contained an illustration featuring cakes and dogs, I was called into the Nosy Crow nest for a meeting…

shifty 4

While all this was going on, author extraordinaire Tracey Corderoy was putting the finishing touches to a text all about dogs and cakes and her agent, Eve White, had just sent this to Nosy Crow.  I think there was a little EUREKA! moment in the Nosy Crow nest when they put Tracey’s text and my illustrations together and mine and Tracey’s worlds very happily collided!!

A somewhat topical analogy of this could be taken from the original Ghostbusters movie: Nosy Crow is Zuul, Tracey is The Gatekeeper (Dana Barrett aka Sigourney Weaver) and I am The Keymaster (Vinz Clortho aka Louis Tully aka Rick Moranis.)


You know those moments when you wish you’d never attempted an analogy…

ANYWAY the rest, as they say, is history and here we are in the publishing month of our third picture book together, Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: The Diamond Chase.

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In this first blog, I wanted not only to share the origin story of our partnership (strictly professional, though we are often mistaken for a newly engaged, nerdy couple as we wear matching black and white stripy tops for breakfasts and dinners when we stay in hotels for our events – oh, how we chuckle!) but also how I designed the original pair.


When I was given the original text, Nosy Crow gave me free-reign with no pre-conceived ideas or brief for the protagonists’ aesthetic.  As a trained animator and character designer (*SHOW-OFF ALERT –


I got a first for my BA and a distinction for my MA in Animation and Animation Design – sorry I don’t get to mention that very often – though it was LITERALLY a Mickey Mouse course!), I knew that one of the key elements essential in creating memorable characters is a strong silhouette and differentiation in height and proportions.  Also, I am a huge Home Alone fan and took instant inspiration from Harry and Marv, the two bungling burglars in said Christmas Classic.




So I knew that one should be tall, the other small and that they should be two different breeds of dog with neither of them a pedigree to help emphasise visually that they are very normal, seemingly average, rather naughty dogs. We tested out the dogs in both ‘on all fours’ and standing ‘on hind legs’ poses and decided that the latter was the preferred option as this gave us more scope for interaction with the other characters and standing on their hind legs enables them to hold objects and be generally more expressive.



Clothing-wise the stripy robber dog tops were a given, and we all decided on a hat for Sam, a mask for Shifty and of course a SWAG bag for good measure.


Part-way through the making of the book I came up with the idea of having a third little character and this little  lady has now become an intrinsic part of the Shifty picture books and also features in the up-coming fiction. Can you guess who I mean……no, it’s not Duchess the Poodle or Len the Scotty dog, it’s the spider!  Children LOVE to search for the spider who is hidden somewhere on each double spread.  Readers are often concerned that the spider doesn’t have a name though, so we might have to rectify that in a future title – I’d like to put in a vote for Charlotte please Tracey!


The environments in the Shifty and Sam books are set in the real world where we see houses, shops and of course cafes! The only difference to our world is that only animals inhabit this world and where I can, I like to add lots of canine references and details.


To end my post, here is a very sneaky preview of a new environment for our fabulous baker boys from our next book! Can you guess where they are headed in book 4..?shifty17

Tracey and I absolutely love working together on this series and we can’t wait to meet you all at our events around the country, details of which you can find on our websites;

Steven –

Tracey –

Nosy Crow – nosy

I hope you have enjoyed this insight into our world of Shifty and Sam and look out for my next two blog posts on our little tour!


Steven X


The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.





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