4th March is World Book Day. Stories are all well and good, but pictures make them better. The images gracing the pages of a book play a vital role in storytelling and developing young imaginations.
Can anyone hear the words of Roald Dahl’s glorious The Twits without conjuring up Quentin Blake’s ink creation of wicked Mr Twit ‘with hair all over his face’ and a moustache that contained ‘things that had been there for months and months, like a piece of maggoty green cheese or a mouldy old cornflake…’?
And Christmas is just not complete without the sight of The Snowman ‘walking in the air’ and Father Christmas and his ‘bloomin’ snow’, both masterfully written and illustrated by Raymond Briggs.
So what about the people behind the images?
Dahl’s stories may now be synonymous with Quentin Blake; however he was not the original illustrator of Dahl’s books, having been commissioned to work on The Enormous Crocodile in 1979. One of Blake’s golden rules of illustration is to play up to the author and he describes the point in Matilda where Trunchbull is so cross that she picks up a plate and smashes it over Bruce Bogtrotter’s head. Blake says, ‘I chose to draw the moment when she lifted up the plate, not the bit where she hits him with it, because that’s the writer’s moment. Your job is to work around that.’ Blake employs a lightbox technique of drawing and uses a waterproof black ink and Brause dip pens with different nibs, before adding watercolour afterwards. You can read more about his creative process here.
Beatrix Potter’s tales of animal folk were enhanced by a drawing style that had been honed from humble beginnings, producing technically accurate botanical drawings whilst studying fungi at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew. Largely self-taught, Miss Potter copied from books and drawing manuals and studied the works of John Constable, Gainsborough and Turner. In September 1893, Beatrix wrote and illustrated a letter to the son of her former governess about a rabbit named Peter – which became The Tale of Peter Rabbit. My personal favourite Potter character, the mischievous Tom Kitten, featured in his own story - The Tale of Tom Kitten - but it was his guest appearance in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers that still haunts me, when rodent couple Samuel Whiskers and Anna Maria wrapped the poor defenceless feline in a lump of dough and rolled him with a rolling pin.
Another author-illustrator was Edward Ardizzone who in 1936 started the first of maybe his best-known work, the Tim series of books, featuring the maritime adventures of its eponymous young hero. Fast forward 20 years and Ardizzone won the inaugural Kate Greenaway medal for Tim All Alone. Clive King’s Stig of the Dump had the Ardizzone treatment too, but it is his version of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, which transports me back to my school hall where as an 11 year old, I and the rest of the class had to individually recite a passage from the tale as our class contribution to the school Christmas concert. My mind’s eye focused on the illustrations, knowing that as soon as the words relating to ‘the postmen’ had had been uttered, then I was on - ‘Bags of moist and many coloured jelly babies and a folded flag and a false nose and a tram-conductor’s cap….’
The illustrators of many of the children’s classics of my own childhood are inextricably linked to the names of the authors; Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of Ratty, Mole and Toad in The Wind in the Willows immediately bring to life the adventures of the animal characters in Kenneth Grahame’s tale from a bucolic English Thames valley.
EH Shepard in his memoir recalled how working with AA Milne developed during the making of Winnie-the-Pooh, and of how the work was ‘sheer joy’ as Milne had given him a ‘free hand,’ which was highly unusual for a book illustrator. When Milne purchased Cotchford Farm near the Ashdown Forest in Sussex, he invited Shepard to make several visits there in the mid 1920s to review the landscape which Milne had described and for Milne to show him the specific locations for each story. The level of detail in Shepard's sketches brings to life the Hundred Acre Wood, which was based on the real life Five Hundred Acre Wood of Ashdown Forest.
My own favourite children’s book illustrator is not one but two: twins Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone. I was pleasantly surprised to be able to purchase Dean’s Gift Book of Nursery Rhymes, illustrated by the siblings, off an auction site when my original became just too fragile to pass on to my own children. The sisters at an early stage of their career worked extensively in British television, during the formative years of children's programming, producing a considerable amount of artwork for programmes including Andy Pandy and The Flower Pot Men. Left up to me, children’s book illustration would not have progressed from this genre, which captured both people and animals in a more life-like style.
Grumpiness may indeed be the prerogative of the middle aged being, but even this grumpy ‘old’ woman would not deny the part that Axel Scheffler’s pictures have played in the ongoing popularity of Julia Donaldson’s delightful books. And with The Gruffolo having celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019 it is testament to this author-illustrator partnership that The Gruffolo and the many other books borne out of this collaboration, delight children today as much as they did 20 years ago.
And so each generation will have its own favourites but think of the children’s books that made the greatest impression on you and your children – in our case Simon Bartram’s Man on the Moon, Lucy Richards’ The Magic Sky, the marvellous Tiger Who Came for Tea by Judith Kerr and Peggy Rathmann’s Goodnight Gorilla – the books that you pass down will say as much about the staying power of illustrations and stories as the way that they made you feel and the memories that they created.
2 March 2021