The author and illustrator, Chris Riddell is the current Children’s Laureate, for those of you who are not up to speed with such things. The Children’s Laureateship was started a few years ago now, and unlike the Poet Laureate’s job, which is one for life, it gets passed on to someone new every two years. The first Children’s Laureate was Quentin Blake. Since then the post has been held by Michael Rosen and Malorie Blackman amongst others.
Each Laureate brings a different set of ideas and passions to the post. Each also has an agenda. Blackman, who was the previous incumbent, focussed on encouraging and championing diversity in children’s literature. Chris Riddell is passionate about celebrating both author and illustrator, and giving illustrators and artists their due weight and respect.
Picture books are where everyone starts their journey to reading these days. From books with no words at all, to simple ABC primers and single word books, to story books and comics, we should celebrate illustration in children’s literacy. It is one of the things that people consider separates work for adults from work for children. Well unless you count the renaissance of the graphic novel and the fact that lots of adult novels get illustrated too.
There is, however, some snobbery about pictures in books. There is an undercurrent of belief that somehow pictures in books make them babyish or infantile, that pictures are unsophisticated. There are those that believe pictures rob us of our imaginative powers, and that they dilute what books have to say, as well as the minds who have to work out what is going on in books.
I think this is a nonsense. Adult novels that are illustrated can be intensely imaginative and sophisticated. I am thinking in particular here of author/illustrators like Mervyn Peake and his Gormenghast trilogy. I am thinking about some of the spectacular artwork that accompanies the countless editions of The Lord of the Rings. I am thinking about the collaboration between Charles Dickens and the illustrator, Phiz.
Children’s books are not makeweight when they include illustrations. Illustrations can be the means of bringing a book to life. They open another door inside the door of possibility you’ve already opened when you read the first page. Not all illustrations do this, but many do, and we should appreciate and champion what they offer us.
Pictures can be incredibly sophisticated. They can add richness, and depth and texture to words. They can show us nuances in a story we might have missed. The best of them enhance the story they illustrate by giving us new ideas, new plot lines, new narrative possibilities to explore. They can be humorous, or sad, they can be terrifying or uplifting. They can tell us jokes. They can underline a moral point or question. They can capture expressions as well as fleeting moments in time. They can show us time passing, just like films.
Unlike film and television, however, where the image is on the screen for a fleeting moment and then it’s gone, the pictures in books allow us to immerse ourselves in the details of the story, to focus our attention on what interests us, to pick up on something we might have missed. They beg questions of us, and can keep us turning pages long after we should have put the book down. They can keep us glued to a single page, long after we should have turned it.
Illustrators should be carried through the streets on gilded chairs while we cheer and throw soft, lovely things at them in my opinion. Here are some of my favourites:
Chris Riddell is an obvious choice. His glorious collaborations with Neil Gaiman are a highlight for me, particularly the spectacularly gothic and beautiful Sleeper and the Spindle. My son was obsessed by Kathryn Cave’s Horatio Happens, which he illustrated. and Wendel’s Workshop, which he wrote and illustrated himself. My daughters, and me, love the Ottoline and Goth Girl series’. He is a genius.
Adam Stower is a fantastic author/illustrator. I particularly love his book Slam! which has only one or two words in it, and yet is utterly gripping. I have used it time and time again in schools to demonstrate the power of story telling without words. It’s a classic.
David Weisner is another author/illustrator whose book Tuesday, which has no words in it, is a fantastic, engaging, sophisticated text I return to time and time again.
Shirley Hughes, who I have written about on this blog countless times, is someone I love for her faithful rendition of the ordinary life of children through the passing decades. Her attention to detail, her affection for her subject and her skill is unsurpassed.
Korky Paul who illustrates the Winnie the Witch books by Valerie Thomas, is a fine artist/author whose work is funny and subversive and psychedelically vivid. He has written and illustrated countless books, all of which are amusing, absorbing and utterly skilful.
Quentin Blake has to be my final mention. Everyone recognises his style thanks to his collaborations with Roald Dahl, but he has done so much more than this, and his own books are fabulous. Cockatoos is one of my favourites and my children all loved Simpkin.
I have only scratched the surface here. I haven’t mentioned the greatness of Beatrix Potter or the beauty of E.H. Shepherd or the glories of Brian Wildsmith. I haven’t touched on the wonder of Emily Gravett or the delights of Neal Layton. I have barely had time to think about my undying love of Judith Kerr and how much I adore Lauren Child.
I’ve got no time to talk about how wonderful Levi Pinfold and his book Black Dog are, or why I get so excited by Jon Klassen’s work. I want to tell you more about Alex T. Smith and his fabulous Claude books. I want to put Sarah McIntyre’s pictures on my wall. Let it never be underestimated how much Tove Jansson’s art influenced my life as much as her words.
I could write about illustrators forever. Let’s celebrate what they add to books, how they bring books to life, how they make books accessible, how they make them deeper and better and make something fantastic more so. Hooray for them and their side.
There is so much to enjoy. Who are your favourite illustrators?