A recent research report by the National Literacy Trust found that more than half (56%) of children and young people read non-fiction to help them learn more about their world, satisfy curiosities, foster social connections and support mental wellbeing.

To celebrate Non-Fiction November,  Joe Lillington tells us why non-fiction books are so important to him.

"I’ve always been interested in history, technology and how things work and I think that comes across in my work which often has a strong attention to detail."

How I got the non-fiction bug!

Some of my favourite books growing up were historical-inspired fiction, particularly the Asterix comics. What appeals to me about creating projects based in history is the opportunity to recreate a completely different world with unique buildings, clothing, culture. Everything is distinct from our modern-day world but also similar in many ways.

When we had the chance to do self-directed projects on my degree course at Falmouth, I often gravitated towards subjects with some kind of historical basis. Towards the end of my third year I knew I wanted to work on a book project that I would be able to show to publishers and as I was searching for topics that interested me, I came across an article about mammoths and all the different animals that lived during the ice ages. When I continued to explore the topic, I got really inspired imagining scenes showing the size of some of these extinct animals. What captivated me the most was the fact that modern humans co-existed with these remarkable creatures.

I knew I wanted to create a book in a picture book format, but decided that rather than create a fully non-fiction book, I would combine a narrative with facts to make it more engaging to a younger audience. My first book Toby and The Ice Giants was the result!

Spread from 'Toby and the Ice Giants' written and illustrated by Joe Lillington

Narrative elements

Since that first book I’ve continued working on a lot of non-fiction titles and I still think it’s really good to incorporate some kind of narrative thread.
Personally, when I’m reading about a subject, even if I’m really interested in it I find it hard to get through the material I’m reading as it just doesn’t seem to hold my interest for long. But, when I’m reading fiction I can easily get lost in the text and immersed in the story and world. So when working on books packed full of information adding in narrative elements with some light heartedness or humour is really important to me. I try and combine the two so that the interesting information is presented in an exciting and accessible way.

Why I like non-fiction

Working on non-fiction projects and combining narrative elements is interesting and varied - I enjoy the mix of drawing characters and scenes as well as depicting artefacts and objects in detail. When you draw things you tend to observe them more closely and gain a deeper understanding of their form and function. For me, creating non-fiction work is just another way to learn about something. Even if you are just drawing an object from one viewpoint, you need to understand it from all angles to make the illustration.

Ancient Civilisations



Reference is particularly important in my work so I can understand something well enough to be able to draw it. It’s best to have as much and as varied reference material as possible. When I work with a publisher on a book I usually receive some reference material from them. I then add to this by searching online and in books for further material. At the start of a project I always make a private pinterest board and fill it with everything from accurate references, inspiring or interesting things that are adjacent to the project and ideas on how to approach the illustrations visually. With some topics it’s important to communicate with the publisher to check that certain details are correct. Some small visual details can turn out to really matter!

Ancient Warriors
Ancient Warriors

Challenges of working for non-fiction

Balancing narrative elements with non-fiction can be challenging because it's tempting to get caught up in making the illustrations work narratively and creating visually appealing images. But you always need to pay attention to the accuracy and details of what you are depicting.

Sometimes, especially when I'm on a tight deadline, it's easy to fill in details unconsciously so it’s important to refer back to the reference and research. Even the basic composition of the illustrations can be a challenge. Non-fiction books often have a significant amount of text and can include pop-ups and flaps. If there is a narrative component as well, that may mean even more text. With all these elements needing space on the page, you can sometimes be left with a strange and restricted space to draw your illustration. Although this can be difficult, it’s actually one of the parts of working on a project that I enjoy the most. I like the problem-solving aspect of shifting things around, trying different scales and perspectives and experimenting with different layouts to find a way to fit everything together in an exciting and appealing way.

From Myths and Sacred Tales
Myths and Sacred Tales


What I’m working on at the moment

Currently I’m developing a potential series of books for a young audience that focuses on different vehicles and forms of transport and how they contribute to the modern world. It’s designed for a young audience and while it isn’t strictly non-fiction it shares many of the same elements that interest me. I’m enjoying researching different designs and shapes of vehicles and creating the world in which the books are set.

cover and spread from 'At Work' written and illustrated by Joe Lillington

Future projects

I’d love to revisit the prehistoric world that I explored in Toby and The Ice Giants, but with a greater focus on the people who lived during that time. I’d also like to work more on historical and fiction books for a slightly older audience.

Thank you Joe!

Originally from London, Joe Lillington is currently based in Bristol. He graduated from Falmouth University in 2014 and since then has worked with many book publishers and also for museums and theatres. If you're interested in commissioning Joe please get in touch with us by emailing info@arenaillustration.com

You can see more of Joe's work on his online portfolio and don't forget to keep up-to-date with Arena Illustration's talented artists by subscribing to our weekly news