According to Booktrust, an independent national charity that encourages reading in all age groups, it is about time we moved on from picture-book classics gathering dust on our bookshelves, including Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are, Brian Wildsmith's ABC, Raymond Briggs's The Snowman, Shirley Hughes's Alfie books, and Quentin Blake's Mr Magnolia, to shine a spotlight on the next generation of illustrators.
Contenders include Alexis Deacon, whose second book, Beegu, about an alien who gets lost on Earth, has a darkness reminiscent of early Sendak; and Mini Grey's picture books, which include The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon, partly a love story about a dish and a spoon, which won the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2007.
Booktrust launched the Big Picture campaign last year to promote picture books, illustrators and illustration as an art from in its own right.
More than 200 illustrators, from all the major publishing houses, flooded into the Booktrust offices to be considered as the best of a new breed of illustrators. A longlist of 27 was drawn up by a judging panel that included the famous illustrator Anthony Browne. The contenders were then whittled down to 10 finalists, announced by the Children's Laureate, Michael Rosen, at the Bologna Children's Book Fair, on 31 March.
"We judged how well the pictures helped or hindered a story," says Browne – now on his 40th picture book, including Gorilla and the Willy books. He was the first British illustrator to win the Hans Christian Andersen Award for illustration, in 2000. "I think the best picture-book writers and illustrators leave a gap that the child will fill in – so you don't write everything and you don't draw everything."
Others in the 10 include the 30-year-old rising star Oliver Jeffers, a painter who ventured into illustration via his first bold coloured picture book, How to Catch a Star, followed by Lost and Found. "He can stretch the lack of realism in his pictures. The figures are always stick legs and circular heads – almost childlike but sophisticated at the same time," says Browne. "He has been the most commercially successful, which is surprising given the slightly abstract nature of the pictures."
Lisa Evans illustrated her first book, The Flower, written by John Light, about a boy called Brigg who lives in a world without colour; her style is delicate and intricate, using conventional drawing materials with smudgy pencil and coloured crayon on tinted papers.
The fantastically creative Emily Gravett is now on her sixth book, The Odd Egg – but is best known for her first picture book, Wolves. "She is a real breath of fresh air into children's books. She's done a lot of books very quickly. There is a great liveliness and intelligence to her. Her work is modern without trying to impress other illustrators. The trouble with some of them is that they forget the children while trying to be too clever."
David Lucas first illustrated Ted Hughes's Shaggy and Spotty before embarking on his own picture books, including The Robot and the Bluebird, in which he creates a world that has been compared to Tim Burton's. Some consider Joel Stewart's Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie to match the draughtsmanship of Edward Ardizzone. "There is an old-fashioned retro look to that particular book, but his style varies with each book. He also illustrated Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, which had a more modern look."
Animal illustrator Vicky White has illustrated the non-fiction picture book Ape by Martin Jenkins. "She has taken a potentially boring kind of book and transformed it into something that has the excitement of a picture book. It is a difficult task and she has leapt to the front of non-fiction illustration." And Polly Dunbar has collaborated with her mother, Joyce Dunbar, on the picture book Shoe Baby, as well as working on her own picture books, including Penguin. "She is one of the most original illustrators, also Sendak-influenced. It is as though you can hear her speak through her images."
According to Browne, it is more difficult to be an illustrator today than it used to be. "Bookshops are stocking far fewer picture books and its shelf life is very short. Parents want children to grow up too quickly and move away from picture books." What does he think about the new batch of illustrators? "It is very positive. The new batch combines new and old technology. You can hardly see the join. I am pleased to see that there are people carrying on the tradition – but in a new way and with all the skill, humour and creativity of the established masters such as Raymond Briggs or Quentin Blake."
The exhibition of works by 10 Best New Illustrators will run at the Illustration Cupboard, 22 Bury Street, St James's, London SW1Y 6AL from today to 3 May. For more information www.bigpicture.org.uk