Elaine Moss looks at developments in picture books over the last twenty-five years.
How have picture books changed in the twenty-five years that I have been looking at the output of British publishers professionally? If there can be said to have been a recent turning-point in the long history of illustrated books for young readers, it occurred in the early sixties. For in 1962 the Oxford University Press published Brian Wildsmith’s A B C – a fifty-six page full-colour-on-every-side picture book in which the background colour for each letter-and-word (on the left) was a different shade of orange, blue, green, purple, grey, pink, whilst the pictures on the right were painterly representations – in the tradition of Matthew Smith – of butterfly, cat, elephant, zebra, against a swatch of bright but richly subtle backcloths.
In what way was this book revolutionary? One glance at the picture books of the 1950s tells the story. The fifties picture books, with one opening in colour, the next in line, were in essence line-work, with simple almost flat colour laid over it. Artists like V. H. Drummond, William Stobbs, Kathleen Hale had had to make their own `separations’ of the colours in their pictures so that the printer could then make plates from these, ink them with the relevant colours, then print the plates one on top of the other to form the colour pages of the book. But by the mid-sixties, the post-Wildsmith picture book could be (and slowly became) an experience not in line but in paint. This `new’ picture book was made possible by a technological process that separated colours in the artist’s work electronically. The artist could thenceforth use any mixture of colours – shades of green or purple or orange, knowing that the machine would separate these for him (in a. way the human eye could not) into large or small dots of the primary black, cyan, magenta, yellow – in much the same way that heavy and light dots `shade’ newspaper photographs.
The application of electronic separation to colour in picture books (it already existed in the fine art world at a high price) came about through a peculiarly fortuitous set of circumstances. Brian Wildsmith, a young abstract painter in the fifties, took a portfolio of his work in to the Oxford University Press where Mabel George, a printer’s daughter, had, after spending some years in the Production Department, recently become Children’s Editor. Most children’s editors are literary people who gather information about printing and book production techniques as they go along. Mabel George, however, knew all there was to know about paper and ink and print processes. So that when, shortly after Wildsmith’s visit (‘What a feeling for colour he had,’ Mabel George once said to me. `I felt, if only I could help him to use it for children’) a representative of the Viennese printers Bruder Rosenbaum came to see her, Miss George’s mind leapt to the possibility of encouraging them to adapt their colour processing techniques to the requirements of the picture book market. If they could find ways of reducing the cost of their process (which they eventually did) work like Brian Wildsmith’s could be made available for, in Mabel George’s words, `people who were ready for it’. In the early sixties, Brian Wildsmith’s A B C was printed for the Oxford University Press by Brüder Rosenbaum in Vienna, price in hard covers the equivalent of 62½p!
A new era had dawned. Raymond Briggs and John Burningham, the Charles Keeping of Through the Window and Joseph’s Yard were joys soon to come.
As well as Brian Wildsmith, Mabel George had Victor Ambrus, Charles Keeping and William Papas on her sixties list. All three were essentially good line artists whose development as the decade advanced bridged the gap between the fifties style of illustration in picture books, and that made possible by the new technology. Ambrus was a traditional illustrator of folk and fairy tales in those days, but both Keeping and Papas took the picture book onto new ground and laid the foundations of the explosion in the field that was to take place in the 1970s. Charles Keeping has steadfastly chronicled, in book after book (in which colours bespeak mood as the line drawing beneath tells the story) the joys and sadnesses, longings and satisfactions of the urban child’s world. Papas, all of whose books are now out of print, brought to young people of the sixties a sense of the absurdity of human progress if it, for instance, replaced the balalaika on a Greek island with a juke-box, or the water-carrier with piped water that didn’t actually flow.
Rich colour, concern with the urban child and sociological comment are just three of the features of picture books in the eighties that had their roots in the genius of Mabel George who published Wildsmith, Keeping and Papas at the Oxford University Press in the 1960s. They were the vanguard of a movement that has brought us artists like Michael Foreman, Anthony Browne and Dan Jones – artists who express their views about human problems (from the family to famine in the Third World) through picture books whose colours flow and glow, courtesy the new printing technology of the sixties.
The sixties brought other developments too, that challenged us at the time, I seem to remember, but have now become readily accepted. Could a wordless picture book be called a `book’, for instance? Renate Meyer’s Vicki (Bodley Head, 1968) was a sequence of paintings about the agonies of an exceptionally shy child. Silence was its natural medium – and that of its successor, Hide and Seek; but reviewers were uneasy, and teachers had not yet discovered that wordlessness offers a golden opportunity for talking with children about what they see in books and for telling stories together. Upon these have followed’ other textless works such as Anno’s Journey and Raymond Briggs’s cartoon story The Snowman, both of which have proved a wonderful medium for helping the diffident to `read’.
The strip cartoon, frowned upon in Britain as sub-literature, was also to ask us to think about it carefully in the 1960s. The first Tintin in translation had arrived in Britain in 1958, and during the sixties many Tintins and Asterixes, brilliantly translated by Lesley Lonsdale Cooper and Michael Turner (Tintin) and Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge (the punning Asterix) were published in quantity. Adults who were themselves totally addicted were still not too sure that the reading of strip cartoons, so reminiscent of the ubiquitous comics, should be allowed in schools – and the doubt persists. But we have now developed a strong British strain of cartoon story books – in Raymond Briggs’s Father Christmas and Fungus the Bogeyman, Bob Wilson’s Stanley Bagshaw series, Colin McNaughton’s Crazy Bear, to name but a few. That there can be excellence in strip cartoon and bubble talk as well as in any other art form is a lesson that, over the past twenty-five years, the British have somewhat grudgingly absorbed.
With the advances in colour printing and the rising cost of raw materials publishers have, over the past quarter of a century, tried to keep the cost of printing picture books for the home market as low as possible by selling the rights in those books internationally, thus increasing the print runs and reducing the unit cost. This commercial internationalism ran, at first, alongside another more altruistic and spiritual thrust: in the early 1960s people of goodwill like Jella Lepman, one of the founders of IBBY, and Dr Walter Scherf at the International Youth Library in Munich, were engaged in trying to foster international understanding among the world’s children in the hope that war would disappear from the Earth. (Erich Kastner, Walter Trier and Kurt Maschler had had the same idea in Germany in the ill-fated 1930s.) In 1964 the International Children’s Book Fair was established at Bologna, a Fair at which the rights in picture books – and other children’s books, too – would be bought and sold internationally. In 1967 the Bodley Head published The Animals’ Lullaby by Trude Alberti with pictures by Chiyoko Nakatani; on the last page is the following notice, redolent of the philosophy of the sixties:
The idea for this book came from an Icelandic lullaby. A German writer, Trude Alberti, devised a set of verses on the theme of the sleeping baby animals, and a Swiss publisher, Bettina Harlimann, asked a Japanese artist, Chiyoko Nakatani, to illustrate it. So the book, a result of true international cooperation, has been published simultaneously in Great Britain, Japan, Switzerland and the United States of America.
A good thing? Like all developments, the international rights element in picture books has its drawbacks: the British market is flooded, nowadays, with picture books of foreign origin in which the English text is either minimal or else so hurriedly constructed for a pressing international print operation that as a language experience for the listener it is null and void.
Many fairy tale picture books fall into this category. And on the picture side of the coin, run-of-the-mill artists and publishers attempt to iron out singularly British elements (like red buses and pillar-boxes, policemen’s helmets, cars with right-hand drive) in order to be flatly universal – to nobody’s advantage.
But it is interesting and heartening to see that many British books in which no punches are pulled either in text or in illustration – the work of Raymond Briggs, Anthony Browne, Quentin Blake, Shirley Hughes – do sell to the markets that appreciate them and appear in successful foreign language editions world-wide.
The technology for reproducing rich colour work; picture books that are more than entertainment; the exploration of mood; wordless picture books; strip cartoon stories of excellence; and a growth in the international market: these are the movements, the seeds of which were sown in the sixties, that we have seen growing over the past twenty-five years. With the decline in the library market, so buoyant in the swinging sixties, we have also had a rush of so-called `bookshop books’ – flap-books and toy books, pop-ups of all kinds and much Masqueraderie – that, we are told, bring a new public into the bookshops. This may be. What is doubtful is whether these books make readers.
The 1980s may prove to be as big a turning point in picture book publishing as the 1960s. But whether we shall scale fresh heights in the years to come or feed our special talents to the ever open maw of television and of computer graphics, only the truly creative talents in the book world can decide.
Rosie meets the Rooster
Pat Hutchins did her own colour separations by hand for Rosie’s Walk (in the tradition of the 1950s which continued into the 1960s). Compare this with the colour made possible by electronic separation in Brian Wildsmith’s A B C (1962) on the left.