Thousands of new picture books are published each year – from simple board books for babies, to the works of artists like Raymond Briggs, Quentin Blake, Michael Foreman and Maurice Sendak – books for which there is really no upper age limit. But with so many books around, have we begun to take the skills of the illustrator for granted? Joanna Carey looks at some recent titles.
Learning to read pictures
Given the vast range of talent that exists, the different aims and intentions of the artists, the variety of techniques, from the traditional to the innovative, and the myriad ways in which images can relate to words, it is frustrating, as a reviewer, that there are so few opportunities to select – let alone evaluate – more than a handful of the picture books that jostle for attention. Too often reviews are restricted to just a brief outline of the story, and a couple of words to sum up the illustrations…’delightfully rumbustious’ perhaps, or ‘breathtakingly magical’ – nice quotes for the back of the paperback, but inadequate in every other respect. Other art forms aimed at children – like film, television and music (even trainers) – are regular subjects for critical discussion in the media, so why not picture books? The National Curriculum has cited the development of ‘visual literacy’ as an important part of art education: picture books not only give children their first experience of art appreciation, but also offer opportunities right across the age range to ‘explore the art of looking’ and to understand and respond to the many ways in which we learn to read pictures.
Early reading skills – both visual and literary – are given instant lift-off in Charlotte Voake’s Alphabet Adventure which takes the reader on a journey from Atlas to Zebra in a rickety little plane. Even as you open the book there is a promise of adventure in the wide blue yonder of the airy endpapers. With black line and watercolour wash, Voake sends the spindly little plane swooping and looping over castles, forests, fields and mountain, with frequent stops to pick up new words. The drawing is fast, the mood is buoyant and breezy. Rather like Quentin Blake, Voake wields her pen with an emblematic flourish, conjuring birds… binoculars… yachts and volcanoes from just the merest squiggles as the story skims along. With mercurial colour washes, the carefree, free-flying spontaneity of Alphabet Adventure is heightened by the formal elegance of the beautiful hand-drawn lettering, whose easy graceful rhythms are, in turn, echoed in the swift calligraphy of the drawing… just look at the delightful plump zebras on the last page, and the complementary curves of the lettering. (And it is interesting too to look at other books by Voake, like Here Comes the Train, where the (typeset) text strikes up a different but no less resonant relationship with the drawings.)
Sensitive and Precise
Patrick Benson also uses line and wash but creates a very different effect with a more ordered technique. His drawing is sensitive and precise and he uses an intricate system of hatching and cross-hatching to create tone, form and texture. Let the Lynx Come In by Jonathan London is set in a log cabin in a snow covered forest. Colours are soft, and the intimacy of the dark shadowy interior is emphasized by the richly textured wood-grained surfaces that enclose it. It is peaceful. Dad sleeps in a chair by the fire, but the little boy’s eyes immediately alert you to the window and beyond… There is suspense as the page, in turning, becomes a door, opening on to the inky luminosity of the night sky, and there, in the snow, a wild cat. The child’s eyes meet the mesmerizing gaze of the lynx, who as in a dream, looms larger and larger on the page then, (like Briggs’ Snowman) takes him on a soaring adventure through the night. Up and up they go to the moon… could those craters be giant paw-prints?… while the child clings to the close-textured luxuriance of the cat’s fur. With atmospheric colour changes, vertiginous aerial perspectives and dizzying use of scale, this is a thrilling fantasy which sees the boy brought safely back to earth, back to the close-knit cross-hatched security of the cabin where the inert – but reassuring – figure of his father still sleeps by the fire.
Eloquent use of colour
Emma’s Doll by Brian Patten is another after-dark fantasy which again makes eloquent use of colour. Working with oil paint, and framing each picture with gentle sfumato textures, Alison Jay sets the mood with warm earthy colours, lit from within by a glowing translucence. But there is a sadness here, evident in Emma’s melancholy pose. Her doll – an intriguing replica of herself – is broken and lies lifeless on her lap. The iron bars of the bed cast sombre, cage-like shadows on the wall and through the square panes of window Emma looks out on a cold moonlit scene. She needs help. She clearly needs magic, and, defying her (unseen) mother, she carries the lifeless doll down the gently seductive curve of the staircase, out along a winding path… and into the woods. With the wistful, elongated Modigliani-like proportions of her figures, the symbolic symmetry of the houses she draws, the spiky, swooning trees and the stiffly prancing animals, Alison Jay has an enchanting visual language all her own that invests this already poetic text with a further gravity and tenderness. (And with much the same imagery – she brings a similar magic to the spacious airy design of The Lion Treasury of Children’s Prayers.)
One of the (many) unusual things about Squids will be Squids by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith is that the designer’s name (Molly Leach) joins those of the author and illustrator on the title page. This off-the-wall collection of ‘Beastly fables with fresh morals about all kinds of bossy, sneaky, funny, annoying, dim-bulb people’ certainly leaves no stone unturned in the pursuit of inventive design. Sporting a wide range of typographical styles, quirky collages, eccentric blurbs, and historic endpapers featuring an Old English woodcut representation of the legendary Stinky Cheese Man, this book is suitable for ‘Ages 49-630 (in dog years)’.
The fables – gross, cheeky, poignant and hilarious by turns – feature some rum characters including a Tongue, a pair of Scissors and a self-centred Slug – who is so busy making a friendship bracelet (for herself) she doesn’t notice the approaching steam-roller. The extravagant, often savage wit of Lane Smith’s illustrations is heightened by the extreme delicacy of his technique – the stippled, speckled, finely enamelled textures have a bewitching finesse and the larky snippets of advertising material put a streetwise contemporary spin on these wacky morality tales.
Soft, grainy pencil line
Paul Howard is one of a select number of naturalistic illustrators. His is not a photograhic realism, but one based on drawing, understanding and observation of the human form. The Year in the City with a text by Kathy Henderson, is a succession of images – full-colour plates with accompanying sprightly vignettes – that take you through the seasons in a city chock-a-block with traffic, people and buildings … but it is not a moan about pollution but a multi-layered, multi-cultural celebration of life in an urban environment – a study of human activity, group behaviour, with everyone, young and old, rubbing along together, hustling, bustling on their way to work, to the shops, to school, to the park – or simply sitting it out, like the old man dozing by the bouncy castle. With a soft, grainy, pencil line and the rich tonality of his watercolours, and, working from every conceivable angle, these busy compositions are full of humour and incident. The drawing is witty and detailed in its observation, but fresh and unlaborious in execution. Children of all shapes, sizes and colours are unsentimentally portrayed and there is an underlying sense of community throughout. Seasonal changes in light and colour and texture are perfectly captured and the final spread shows a firework display over the roof tops for New Year… A lively, intelligent book – an uplifting and affectionate chronicle of the late twentieth century.
There is a rather different fin-de-siècle feel to Joanna Walsh’s anarchic picture book What if? – a carnivalesque fantasy in which a small child imagines a day where all the usual order is turned upside down. At first sight it looks like the work of a small child, with crude, schematic drawings and torn paper collages, but this is a cunning blend of purposeful naivety and sophisticated design that borrows freely, not just from the nursery but also from David Hockney’s ’80s paintings with their wide flattened out perspectives and bold staring colours. The story is slight and the text is minimal but Walsh makes maximum impact with clever use of scale, engagingly comic characters, rich patterns and strikingly theatrical page design.
Joanna Carey is the former Children’s Books editor of The Guardian and a writer and illustrator.
Alphabet Adventure, Charlotte Voake, Jonathan Cape, 0 224 03596 7, £9.99 hbk
Here Comes the Train, Charlotte Voake, Walker, 0 7445 5582 5, £9.99 hbk
Let the Lynx Come In, Jonathan London, ill. Patrick Benson, Walker, 0 7445 4038 0, £9.99 hbk, 0 7445 6041 1, £4.99 pbk
Emma’s Doll, Brian Patten, ill. Alison Jay, Viking, 0 670 87523 6, £10.99 hbk, Puffin, 0 14 056245 1, £4.99 pbk
The Lion Treasury of Children’s Prayers, compiled by Susan Cuthbert, ill. Alison Jay, Lion Publishing, 0 7459 3961 9, £20.00 hbk
Squids will be Squids, Jon Scieszka, ill. Lane Smith, Viking, 0 670 88227 5, £12.99 hbk (Puffin, 0 14 056523 X, £4.99 pbk – August 1999)
The Year in the City, Kathy Henderson, ill. Paul Howard, Walker, 0 7445 2579 9, £9.99 hbk, 0 7445 6042 X, £5.99 pbk
What if?, Joanna Walsh, Jonathan Cape (A ‘Tom Maschler’ book), 0 224 04752 3, £9.99 hbk