The Art of Children’s Books



Rules of Summer, written and illustrated by Shaun Tan



“Darkness Overcomes You,” from The Red Tree written and illustrated by Shaun Tan

Whenever I am browsing a bookstore, regardless of what I am shopping for, I inevitably find myself in the children’s section.  Thumbing through beautifully illustrated storybooks that seem able to find a satisfying and picturesque conclusion to even the thorniest of issues fills me with envy.  Viewing the colorful and creative approaches used to illustrate those seemingly uncomplicated stories makes me wish that reading for adults could be so visually fulfilling.


Revolting Rhymes, written by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake


Rabbit Hill, written and illustrated by Robert Lawson

However, creating illustrations for children’s books is far from simple as a successfully illustrated book must meet many requirements and there is no set formula to follow which will ensure that the book will be a hit on the market.  Countless books aimed at children are published each year and with the newfound ease of self-publishing, many aspiring authors try their hand at writing and illustrating children’s books as they mistakenly believe that it will be an easier market to break into.  As a result, there are many books available which are filled with subpar illustrations that serve no useful purpose and fail to benefit children in any way.


Goodnight, My Angel: Lullabye, written by Billy Joel and illustrated by Yvonne Gilbert



The Wild Swans, written by Hans Christian Andersen, adapted by Naomi Lewis and illustrated by Yvonne Gilbert

To add to this fact, many purchasers of children’s books have no idea how to determine the quality of goods available as they are unaware of what constitutes a “good” children’s book, or they judge the books erroneously by considering their own needs and preferences rather than the child’s.


Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears, written by Verna Aarderna and illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon



The Story of Ferdinand, written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson

This seems to be an issue that has plagued children’s books throughout their short history as they have their roots not as a form of entertainment, but as a didactic object used to instruct children in various aspects of life.  In fact, children’s literature did not truly exist prior to the 1600s.  As the concept of childhood came into existence, the main theory was that children were a “blank slate” which needed to be filled with knowledge.  Books began to be created specifically for them, but most had the purpose of teaching proper behavior, providing education, or imparting religious instruction.  This attitude is reflected in the first known picture book produced specifically for children.  Called the Orbis Pictus and published in 1658, it is an illustrated encyclopedia of sorts.


“Hey Diddle Diddle,” illustrated by Randolph Caldecott



People by Blexbolex

Thankfully, the subject matter for children’s books soon expanded to include illustrated fairy tales, allegories and fables, and by the 19th century the modern age of children’s literature had arrived.  This period of time was characterized by a new-found focus on humorous, child-oriented books and the advent of technology which allowed books to be printed more easily.  As result, illustrations finally became an integral part of story books aimed at children.  By the end of the 1800s, illustrated children’s books had become an established sector of the book world.  Some of the most noteworthy illustrators of the time include Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway, both of whom now have yearly illustration awards bestowed in their names.


The Pied Piper of Hamelin, illustrated by Kate Greenaway



Everything on It, written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein

There have been many iconic illustrators along the way such as Beatrix Potter, whose series of animal tales centered on the beautifully detailed paintings of the characters which she created in her stories.  In comparison, Maurice Sendak’s classic story Where the Wild Things Are, which was released in 1963, was considered controversial due to its acknowledgement of an emotionally unavailable parent and its illustrated portrayal of childhood anger.  These were two topics that were not thought appropriate as subject matter for a children’s book at the time.  Another notable example is The Giving Tree, written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein and published in 1964, in which Silverstein’s simple black and white drawings deftly illustrate the text to generate a cohesive and memorable message.



Where the Wild Things Are, written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak


The Tailor of Gloucester, written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter

At its most basic level, a well illustrated book provides a form of aesthetic entertainment for a child.  Most children like to read their favorite books again and again, and they take different things from the book with each reading depending on what is happening in their own lives.  Therefore, illustrations must provide a lasting visual appeal.  Children also look to books to provide a form of escapism.  When they see the actions of a character in a story, they often identify with that being and this provides them with the opportunity to experience life from another person’s perspective.  Some books may create another reality through the text and pictures which allows the child to feel that they temporarily reside within the pages of the book. Often times this alternative reality may be favored as it provides a visually safe environment; children can view its structure and parameters within the book.  Moreover, sometimes the illustrations of a book provide children with a source of inspiration, whether it is to create something similar to the pictures they have enjoyed, or to be something that they have viewed within a story.



Little Boat, written and illustrated by Thomas Docherty


Little Boat, written and illustrated by Thomas Docherty

It is common knowledge that most children are uninterested in reading a book unless they feel drawn or connected to it in some way; and the easiest way to establish this connection between potential reader and text is through the use of appealing illustration.  Of course, each child is different, and what one child finds alluring may not strike another child in the same way.  Some children feel a greater kinship to animals, while others prefer realistic interpretations of texts, and some are stimulated by chaotic splashes of color.  Therefore, it is impossible for one style of illustration to dominate the market.  However, the visual aspect must offer emotional appeal and a sense of mystery; something must exist which makes the child curious to learn more.


Eloise, written by Kay Thompson and illustrated by Hilary Knight



Gaston, written by Kelly DiPucchio and illustrated by Christian Robinson

An illustrator must also take into consideration how children view images.  As adults, when we view an image or object, our interpretation of the object is affected by our experiences and knowledge, so we see it from several perspectives at once.  Typically, we view things functionally, where we examine an object with an eye to how it might affect us in the future, or we view things associatively, where we associate the item with our past experiences involving similar objects.  The third way of viewing things is the pure mode of seeing where we focus on the object in its present state and examine its details and characteristics using our emotions and all of our senses.  While this third method of viewing things is frequently suppressed by adults, it is typically the dominant way in which children view images and objects.  They exist in the now and they easily form emotional connections to things they see.  Most children are highly observant, and relish the chance to examine and re-examine an image which captures their attention.  This is an important aspect which successful illustrators must keep in mind when creating the visual component of a story.



Madeline, written and illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans



Henri’s Walk to Paris, written by Leonore Klein and illustrated by Saul Bass

In addition, it is vital that the illustrations used offer a portrayal of the story, but not extensively so.  A good illustration should complement the story, not duplicate it. Most children learn intuitively, so a good illustration should provide suggestions and ideas which a young mind can interpret and build upon.  Visual symbols can provide children with clues about how to think or feel about different situations.  For example, a child viewing the emotions of a character within a story has an image to associate with the emotion.  The child may try to mimic this image or consider how the character feels.  As a result, when the child finds himself in a similar situation in real life, he will have a reference point from the story and this may aid him in acting appropriately.  So, a single illustration from a book becomes a learning experience.


The Great Paper Caper, written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers



Sparkle and Spin, written and illustrated by Ann & Paul Rand

Of course, it is essential that the illustrations of the book match the structure and pacing of the story.  The illustrator has to choose the appropriate page size and composition, and he must also determine the layout of each page and how the pictures and text should be combined.  The finished result should be a book that has its own visual rhythm which enhances the emotion of reading.  Reading a book is not just a mental experience, but a physical one as well, so a properly illustrated book should create a comprehensive journey for the reader.


Olivia and the Fairy Princesses, written and illustrated by Ian Falconer



Pelican Here, Pelican There. written and illustrated by Leonard Weisgard

Today, children are more sophisticated and discerning readers than ever before.  Advances in technology and the abundance of images that children are bombarded with on a daily level means that is more difficult to engage them visually through the pages of a simple story book.  As a result, illustrators have had to generate creative methods in an attempt to reach children and make a lasting visual impact.  For example, French writer and illustrator Hervé Tullet is known for his simple, yet colorful images which illustrate the basic interactive concept of each of his books.   By focusing on various senses in addition to reading, he creates books which require a response from the reader while providing inspiration and a source of creativity.


The Game of Finger Worms, written and illustrated by Hervé Tullet



Help! We Need a Title! Written and illustrated by Hervé Tullet

Another innovative approach can be seen in the work of Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett and illustrator Matthew Myers, the creators of Battle Bunny.  It consists of two books in one; first there is the original Birthday Bunny, a typical children’s book with a traditional and predictable storyline and gentle, unassuming illustrations.  But, it appears to have been thoroughly defaced and altered by a child, which results in the second story called Battle Bunny.  As a book on top of another book, Battle Bunny is a reflection of what many children wish they could do to their own books; it is an appealing social taboo and its appearance plainly tells all readers that it is a book created solely for children.  To encourage creativity in children, the original Birthday Bunny book can also be purchased so children can create their own interpretation of the tale.



Battle Bunny, written by Jon Scieszka & Mac Barnett and illustrated by Matthew Myers



Battle Bunny, written by Jon Scieszka & Mac Barnett and illustrated by Matthew Myers

Clearly, children’s books and their illustrations are at a stage of great change as reading is moving from a reflective activity to a more dynamic and interactive pastime.  This can be seen in the emergence of e-readers and tablets which have not only transformed how readers relate to a story, but they have also altered readers’ expectations.  As a result, illustrators must not only anticipate what visual approach is likely to engage a child, they must also examine how those images will be used within the confines of emerging technology.  While one might be tempted to lament the passing of a time when pretty pictures filled the pages and minds of children, it’s also exciting to speculate on what creative offerings the illustrators of children’s books will present in the future.



The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales written by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith



That’s How, written and illustrated by Christoph Niemann


That’s How, written and illustrated by Christoph Niemann


Flotsam, by David Wiesner





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