Bloomsbury Children’s Books kindly helped me with some research into the reviewing of children’s illustrated books for this editorial. They sent me five reviews received of one of their recent picture books, What! by Kate Lum, illustrated by Adrian Johnson. (Five reviews, by the way, is not bad going these days. Some books don’t get any.) Most of these five, however, turned out to be little more than summaries of the plot with a few or no words at all about the illustration. ‘Funky artwork’ wrote one ‘critic’; ‘great use of colour’ wrote another; ‘Adrian Johnson’s pictures repay the most detailed inspection’ wrote a third. This sort of ‘criticism’ is hardly illuminating for the reader quite apart from being deeply disappointing for the illustrator. Why is the situation so bad?
Quite simply, too many people who write about illustrated children’s books (or are involved in judging them for prizes) are not visually literate. Trained as words people, they rarely have an understanding of illustrative techniques or the processes whereby an illustrated book is created. Publishers know, for example, that while a designer cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, a good design department can often make a respectable looking picture book out of some pretty mediocre illustration.
The result of all this is reviews like those inflicted on What! In addition the level of comment from librarians at last year’s Kate Greenaway Medal discussions was described by one illustrator at a recent Children’s Book Circle meeting as ‘terrible’. Prizes are increasingly tending to go to cosy and less challenging illustration by people who do commercially successful books but sometimes cannot actually draw.
It is thus the case that illustration is simply not criticised enough. There are illustrators who write superbly about illustrated children’s books but many of them are diffident about commenting on colleagues’ work. The proliferation of courses on children’s literature has resulted in some long pieces on illustrated books from academics full of desperate jargon. Rarely does one find comment on how difficult it is to do certain kinds of illustration for there is little appreciation of the challenges involved.
There is a need for a language to express the visual that can become a common currency. Knowing about techniques can help of course, but there is a great deal more to writing about illustration than that. Reviewers need to be able to understand and convey what is communicated to the reader by the illustration – in what way and how successfully.
The next issue of BfK will include articles on Spring picture books looked at from an illustrative point of view. There will also be the first of a new series of short pieces in which illustrators explain the techniques and the approach behind their work.