As part of its campaign to promote picture books, Booktrust announced in April the names of the top ten illustrators (out of a possible 250) who represent ‘the best rising talent in the field of illustration today’. What does their work tell us about the nature of picture book publishing in the UK? Joanna Carey discusses.
Picture books are fundamental to every child’s development. And not just for the very young – at all levels of understanding a good picture book can explore emotions, sharpen interpretive skills, and awaken powers of reflection.
As a teacher for many years in a pupil referral unit, I always kept a huge pile of picture books in the art room, and the responses to them – from children of all ages – were as rewarding as they were unpredictable and thought provoking. One child, for example, who spoke very little English, had no trouble understanding – and physically responding to – the body language in Quentin Blake’s drawings. Another boy, an articulate teenager with Asperger’s syndrome, would repeatedly read The Very Hungry Caterpillar: ‘It’s the saddest book I ever read,’ he said, ‘beautiful yes, but so tragic when he turns into a butterfly – how is he supposed to cope with such a traumatic change in his life?’
In some countries, like Japan, and America, picture books are regarded as artworks in their own right, but here they tend to get taken for granted. Hence the feeling that picture books are under-valued and insufficiently known about. This is what inspired Booktrust to launch The Big Picture last year – a nationwide campaign which, together with the help of art schools, teachers, libraries and literary festivals, is raising the profile of this all important art form.
Choosing the top ten
As part of this initiative, a Booktrust panel have chosen ten ‘new’ picture book artists, all of whom were first published in or since 2000. The work of 250 artists was considered from which a long list of 27 names was drawn up and then whittled down to a group of ten. There were five people on the selection panel, all connected with the world of children’s literature, but in very different ways: Nicolette Jones is a writer and journalist, John Huddy runs a gallery devoted to children’s illustration, Malorie Blackman is a children’s author, Antonia Byatt works at the Arts Council, and Anthony Browne is the creator of many picture books.
I asked Browne how he felt about being the only artist among them.
‘It did seem odd, but I soon realized it was a good idea because aside from certain basic criteria – flair, imagination etc, everyone had a very different, but informed opinion on what makes a good picture book, so we got a very rounded view of things and it worked well, with very few disagreements. I had worried that the work of some artists might seem to be appealing to their peers, rather than to children, but these were groundless fears. I was reassured, for example, by the way that collage, when it was used, was always used for very good reasons, and computer techniques, however brilliant, were employed with discretion and didn’t get in the way.
Ultimately what was important was that each artist had a real voice that came through, and that nothing appeared forced. And it was interesting that almost all the artists were illustrating their own texts.’
And in contrast to the regular awards for picture books, which usually have one outright winner, and perhaps two runners-up, Browne said that it felt good to be selecting ten illustrators on an equal footing. This meant that they could embrace a much wider range of talents, and somehow it felt ‘altogether more natural’. And there was no question of age groups which can create artificial divisions, and make nonsense of the fact that picture books are for everyone.
Somebody once said that a good shortlist is like a good anthology – and that is certainly the case here. And, as each artist on this list of ten has been able to submit up to three books, the resulting ‘anthology’ is one of considerable size and diversity.
The preponderance of fantasy
Like all art forms, picture books inevitably reflect, however obliquely, the times we live in and one thing that stands out is the preponderance of fantasy in the stories – there is almost nothing here that reflects the everyday life of today’s children – surprising when you think of, say, Shirley Hughes, who since the 1960s has so comprehensively shown the robust reality of children in the rough and tumble of everyday family life.
But apart from the real warmth and humour with which Polly Dunbar draws her young characters (see, for example, Flyaway Katie, Penguin, Dog Blue), in many of these books 21st-century children are depicted as slightly detached in their independence, or even rather lonely, with little sense of community.
But they are not without ambition, and in Oliver Jeffers’ stories (How to Catch a Star, Lost and Found), children routinely set off single-handed to fly to the moon, or to row to the south pole. Jeffers draws children with a comical, uncompromising minimalism that recalls ancient Cycladic figurines, with almost no features apart from a vertical line for a nose, often no mouth to speak of (or with), and tiny dots for eyes. Lots of illustrators currently use just dots for eyes, but Jeffers takes this to extremes and uses mere pinpricks – tottering along on their spiky legs, these curious little figures have a purposeful, heroic simplicity that makes one look again at real children – and see how strange they are too.
Jeffers’ ruthless minimalism is in sharp contrast to Lisa Evans’ very detailed, meticulously shaded pencil drawing in John Light’s fable, The Flower. Living alone in a city of lonely people. Brigg, a serious, strangely etiolated child (with huge dark eyes the size of saucers), longs for a garden and his solitary existence is pictured in sombre Edward Gorey-like monochrome into which colour is gradually introduced as the story – and finally a magical plant – unfurls.
Loneliness is also the theme of Alexis Deacon’s wonderfully poignant but entirely unsentimental book, Beegu, about a small yellow alien who, while stranded on earth, is befriended by some school children. Deacon’s great strength is his draughtsmanship. The children he draws, though very real, keep the reader at arm’s length with a solemn other-worldliness.
Humour and joie de vivre
The eccentric hero of David Lucas’ Halibut Jackson doesn’t mind being lonely – he’s shy, and goes to elaborate lengths to avoid being noticed. Then one day things go wrong… This book is a joyful, stylish, colourful affair that not only offers a puzzle on every opening, and a happy ending, but is a genuinely uplifting experience on account of the energy of the drawing and the composition, the gloriously decorative endpapers and the general joie de vivre. And it’s very funny.
Humour, of course, is always subjective but the humour in Mini Grey’s books works at many levels. Grey is one of the top ten’s most prolific and versatile illustrators. In The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon (based on the nursery rhyme) she reinvents the eponymous duo as lovers on the run in 1930s New York. Tragic, but desperately funny and laced with nostalgia, it’s a real tour de force.
Emily Gravett has a natural instinct for comedy and her vigorous pencil drawings have an engaging and robust spontaneity. Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears is a riotous mixture of drawing and collage on pages that appear to have been nibbled, torn, and burnt, mended with used sticking plasters, and stained with unmentionable fluids. Fungus the Bogeyman would relish this.
Gravett is just one of the artists on this list who draws animals with particular insight – and Catherine Rayner, in Augustus and his Smile (about a tiger) and Posy (about a kitten), captures the very essence of these creatures with the bold economy of her style – like Oliver Jeffers, she uses dots for eyes: she has a very confident, free, fluid technique and an unconventional approach to composition.
Vicky White, by contrast, is one of the few exponents of truly naturalistic drawing here with Ape (text by Martin Jenkins). White trained as a natural history artist, and working in pencil and oil colour on gesso her richly detailed, large format drawings of primates have a powerful, graphic presence. Sensitively exploring the apes’ expressive powers of non-verbal communication, these intimate portraits are both moving and slightly unnerving in their intensity, especially in the very realistic handling of the eyes – no dots or pin pricks here. Seemingly lit from within, with just a touch of colour, the wistful, penetrating gaze of the Bonobo for example, is hard to forget.
And finally, there’s Joel Stewart’s story about a bear who plays the trumpet. Stewart is already well established as a writer and illustrator. He works in a variety of media with remarkable computer skills. His drawing, reminiscent of Ardizzone, is both lively and gentle and full of subtle observation, and with its spacious page design, its atmospheric use of colour, its easy integration of words and pictures and its happy ending, Addis Berner Bear Forgets is a fine example of a traditional picture book.
When Booktrust launched this campaign, they described the chosen artists as ‘the ten best illustrators’ – perhaps they should have said ‘ten of the best illustrators’ which would have left the door open a little wider for those hovering outside on the long list, including David Roberts and Sam Lloyd, who did at least get a foot in the door with honourable mentions.
Another of those who didn’t get through is Gwen Millward who, unlike most of the artists here, hasn’t written her own text, but is lucky enough to be collaborating with the writer Jeanne Willis. With delicate line drawings that come to life as the colour creeps in, The Bog Baby is about two children on an illicit fishing trip, and their strange catch. With a gentle blend of fantasy, humour and practical good sense, these illustrations tenderly and light-heartedly celebrate the infinite wonders both of the natural world, and children’s imaginations. The tinted pages offer subtle mood changes and the penultimate moonlit spread is enchanting.
Picture books offer children a first experience of art appreciation. You don’t have to be an expert to be a discriminating reader but, as they get older, children respond well to investigating what it is that makes a good picture book.
We have an abundance of picture books in this country of which far too many are disappointingly mediocre. By championing excellence in this field, The Big Picture campaign looks set to raise not just the profile of picture books but also their overall standard. At the same time the campaign will provide a forum for discussion about an art form that is both important and accessible to all. Perhaps we can look forward to the day when art history exams – at O and A level – include the study of contemporary picture book illustration.
ALEXIS DEACON, Beegu, Red Fox, 978 0 09 941744 6, £5.99 pbk
POLLY DUNBAR, Flyaway Katie, Walker, 978 1 84428 517 4, £5.99 pbk
LISA EVANS, The Flower, text by John Light, Child’s Play, 978 1 84643 071 8, £10.99 hbk
EMILY GRAVETT, Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears, Macmillan, 978 1 4050 8948 7, £10.99 hbk
MINI GREY, The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon, Red Fox, 978 0 09 947576 7, £5.99 pbk
OLIVER JEFFERS, Lost and Found, HarperCollins, 978 0 00 715036 9, £5.99 pbk
DAVID LUCAS, Halibut Jackson, Andersen, 978 1 84270 371 7, £5.99 pbk
GWEN MILLWARD, The Bog Baby, text by Jeanne Willis, Puffin, 978 0 14 150030 0, £5.99 pbk
CATHERINE RAYNER, Augustus and his Smile, Little Tiger, 978 1 84506 283 5, £5.99 pbk
JOEL STEWART, Addis Berner Bear Forgets, Doubleday, 978 0 385 61004 9, £10.99 hbk
VICKY WHITE, Ape, text by Martin Jenkins, Walker, 978 1 4063 0376 6, £10.99 hbk
For further information on The Big Picture and the artists discussed, see Booktrust’s website.
Joanna Carey is a writer and illustrator.