Review: Katherine Woodfine’s historical Little Gems

Today sees the release of a new historical edition to Barrington Stoke’s Little Gem series. Elisabeth and the Box of Colours is written by Katherine Woodfine and illustrated by Rebecca Cobb. It tells the imagined childhood of eighteenth-century French portrait painter Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun whose days with her artist father and the rest of her family are full of colour. 

Little Élisabeth learns to express herself with her drawings and she joyfully captures her vibrant world with paint and paper. When she goes away to a new school her world becomes grey and sad. Colours are literally locked away and tragedy darkens her world even more. But can this darkness really supress the power of creativity and friendship?  

Elisabeth and the Box of Colours is a gorgeous book that tells an intimate little story but contains a huge message about embracing what we love and expressing ourselves through art. Woodfine is a master of filling simple sentences with emotion and she makes Élisabeth’s story both moving and inspiring. Her words are conjured into stunning illustrations by Cobb whose colour palette matches Élisabeth’s feelings and sets the tone for every page on which they appear.

Woodfine’s writing style perfectly fits with Barrington Stoke’s accessible and dyslexia-friendly style. She manages to be both concise and expressive while inviting us into the story of a person who had an extraordinary life. I love that it tells the story of Élisabeth as a child and sets out the things that might have inspired her to become an extraordinary artist as an adult. It is an enchanting and engaging treasure of a story.  

Katherine Woodfine is no stranger to researching history for her books and you can read our previous discussion about the work that went into her Taylor and Rose: Secret Agents series here. This is also not her first historical ‘Little Gem’ book and she has two other titles that similarly invent the childhood stories of incredible real-life women.

In Rose’s Dress of Dreams she introduces us to Marie-Jeanne Rose Bertin, a young woman who aspired to design incredible outfits and moved to Paris in the 1750s where she became a dressmaker. Her unusual designs were ridiculed at first but eventually became fit for a queen. Rose’s story shows that anything is possible if you work hard and have the determination to realise your passion. Kate Pankhurst’s charming illustrations delightfully bring Rose’s dream dresses to life and capture all the creativity of this lovely story.

Woodfine takes inspiration from the nineteenth-century balloonist Sophie Blanchard in Sophie Takes To The Sky. She tells an adventurous tale about a girl who learns to overcome her fears and see the world in a whole new way. It is a story about finding the courage to have exciting new experiences. Briony May Smith’s wonderful and detailed illustrations form the world in which Sophie feels safe but also evokes all the romance and magic of her adventures in the sky.

Elisabeth and the Box of ColoursRose’s Dress of Dreams and Sophie Takes To The Sky are all published by Barrington Stoke and I am grateful to them for supplying review copies of all three books. 

To find out more about Katherine Woodfine you can visit her website at You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

You can see more of Rebecca Cobb’s stunning illustrations on her website. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Kate Pankhurst shares her beautiful drawings on her website which you can visit here. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Briony May Smith’s gorgeous illustration work can also be found on her own site. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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