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Using Christmas songs to inspire kids’ creativity

Building on the success of his first illustrated song picture book, What a Wonderful World, award-winning author and illustrator Tim Hopgood has just published his second picture book inspired by a classic song: Walking in a Winter Wonderland. Here, Tim shares with us how he created the picture book and how you can use music to inspire your child’s creativity at home.

I struggled to learn to read as a child, and singing is an excellent way to engage reluctant readers in a book, as it helps them explore words and vocabulary in a new and exciting way. (Note from Oxford Owl: For more advice on helping reluctant readers, read ‘Five ways to encourage reluctant readers’). Everyone knows that babies love to be sung to, but we tend to forget that older children do too! And there’s something quite magical when a group of people of varying ages all sing together.

Following the success of my first illustrated songbook What a Wonderful World, my editor suggested I might like to look for a song suitable as a Christmas gift book. Any excuse to sit and listen to songs for hours on end is fine by me, so I started to make a list of possible contenders. One thing I quickly discovered is that you can think you’ve found the perfect song, the opening lines are magical, the tune is memorable, but then in the second verse you discover all manner of unsuitable and dubious references that would never belong in a picture book!

So what am I looking for in a song? I think any chosen song needs to have a really good tune, one that most people know even if they don’t know all of the words. So a familiar tune is a must. I’m also looking for lyrics that will inspire me to create great illustrations, scenes that will bring the song alive and delight the reader.

Tim Hopgood holding book

Walking in a Winter Wonderland was a favourite from the start. Written by Richard B Smith and Felix Bernard, it celebrates the wonder of winter, rather than Christmas, and this broader theme appealed to me. The song has been recorded hundreds of times; Peggy Lee’s version is upbeat and jazzy which I love. Her recording, with no mention of Parson Brown, is in my view more child-friendly.


Tim Hopgood bird spread
Rough pencil sketches:

One of the things I’ve come to love about illustrating songs is repeated verses. It may sound strange, but repeated verses force the illustrator to think; people would feel short-changed if you merely repeated the same illustrations! Repeated lyrics allow the illustrator to tell their own visual narrative, so what could be seen as a problem is actually quite liberating. As in the best picture books, the illustrations take on a life of their own, they accompany the lyrics rather than slavishly illustrate them. And it’s this that really interests me, how to expand an idea or theme that the songwriter had, and how to make something familiar like a well-known song feel fresh and new again.

Designing the endpapers and title page is always one of my favourite parts of the process. For this book I asked my wife, Wanda, to create some paper-cut snowflakes for me. These are a really effective and fun thing to do. All you need is some paper and scissors. Children are always amazed to see how different shapes when cut out of folded paper squares can create such intricate, beautiful designs. Try it! Just remember not to cut across the main fold.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland  is a whopping big picture book made for sharing. In it, I’ve tried to convey the joy of taking time out of our busy lives to be with friends and family. It’s a book that encourages you to go outside, to feel the cold on your face, to marvel at the beauty of the trees in winter and if you’re really lucky, catch a snowflake on your tongue! I hope you’ll enjoy sharing my new book as much as I enjoyed creating it.

tim hopgood holding Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Tim’s top tips for illustrating a Christmas song at home:

  • Create a Christmas playlist of your favourite family Christmas songs and then choose with your child the song they’d like to illustrate.
  • Talk to your child about what’s happening in the song and how it makes them feel. As well as helping them decide what drawings they’ll do, this is a great way of practising comprehension skills. Good questions to ask include the five Ws:
    • Who the characters are.
    • Where and when is the action taking place.
    • What is happening.
    • Why are things happening.
  • Challenge yourself – have a think about how you could illustrate repeated verses differently each time.
  • Gather up paints, pens, maybe even some glitter and start drawing!

Recommended websites

These sites will help your child explore their creativity through music: