Joanna Carey appraises the shortlist for the UK’s most prestigious award for illustration in children’s books.
It was back in the 1970s that line drawings ceased to be de rigueur in children’s novels. Those finely crafted (now much missed) black and white illustrations – an art form in their own right – were created by some of our finest illustrators, and it was one of those, Charles Keeping (1924-88) whose work sprang to mind on looking at David Roberts’s magnificent monochrome illustrations for Tinder, Sally Gardner’s reworking of The Tinderbox. The natural elegance of Roberts’s style marries perfectly with the supernatural elements of Gardner’s powerful narrative – by turns ghostly, tender, dramatic. And there’s a great sense of theatre when the black binding opens to reveal blood red endpapers.
As with Keeping, Roberts’s drawing has a supple linear quality that can shift from ghostly to ghastly: from tender drawings of the lovely Safire to the screaming bleeding phantoms of hollow-eyed dead soldiers looming out of a sepulchral mist.
Darkness abounds, shifty shades of grey are stippled smudged in the moonlight and there’s a sudden surprise when a girl in a red cloak dashes across the page leaving just a ghostly mist of colour and there’s humour in the clenched buttocks of our hero when he’s seen naked by the innkeeper’s wife. You might be tempted to sprint ahead of the story to see what images await you, there are so many … But you mustn’t. This is a rare collaboration – one to savour.
Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse is written and illustrated in black and white by Chris Riddell. When author and artist are one and the same person, a different kind of magic kicks in, the author/artist decides for himself whether he’s going to use words or pictures to tell the story, and when the author/artist is Riddell, the whole thing will be overflowing with imaginative wit, literary jokes, visual asides, historical japes, maps, poetic pastiche, cruel caricatures and a wealth of irresistible detail.
Ada Goth stands out from a seething cast of caricatures and grotesques. In addition to his eloquent use of body language, Riddell has endless skill with facial expressions … Easy perhaps with grotesque and comic characters, but Ada is an engaging child drawn with a touching finesse, with cascading curls, tender little bee-stung lips, sensitive slightly asymmetrical eyes, adorned with darkly delineated mobile brows.
Riddell employs a very fine ink line endlessly creating inventive textures with finely executed hatching and cross hatching that puts you in mind of Tenniel’s engravings.
With the flourish of metallic purple on the cover, and the silver skulduggery of those William Morris-ish endpapers, this compact little graphic novel is something of a treasure chest, with multitudinous illustrations that are as compellingly easy to read –and re-read – as its text.
Dark Satanic Mills is a very different kettle of fish, a hard hitting comic book for an older age group. The work of Marcus and Julian Sedgwick, John Higgin and Marc Olivent, it’s an action-packed graphic novel in which a complex story is set in a dystopian future inspired by the writings of William Blake. Told in a series of frames or panels that illustrate the events sequentially, sending the story hurtling from page to page, making dramatic use of light and dark, urgent close-ups, explicit violence, speech bubbles, BLAMS, WHUMPS and SPLURRGES, and fiercely angled images. (Although Blake is a powerful voice in the narrative, his influence doesn’t extend to the artwork.) You soon learn how the pictures work together – there’s jagged rhythm in the layout, and occasional show-stopping full page illustrations that give you time to collect your thoughts. It’s unusual to find this kind of comic book in the company of conventional picture books and illustrated stories, but things change, and the field is clearly wide open.
The Promise by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Laura Carlin, is a thoughtful urban parable in which a stolen bag of acorns brings hope and renewal to a grey, unloved city. Carlin makes emotive use of light and colour and draws with a gentle enigmatic line, and even before the acorns sprout, the city she paints is an atmospheric place, a patchwork of subtle hues, harsh textures, dingy concrete, stained brickwork, and vast murky buildings pierced and patterned with myriad windows, like sightless eyes. These forlorn areas of skewed perspective are stitched together with rickety railings and tram lines, and punctuated with stray dogs and shadowy figures. But when the acorns take root and grow, what a transformation! Spirits lift, children thrive, tails wag and the streets come alive with movement, colour and communication as the built environment is soothed and comforted by the lush green upholstery of the natural world. Having just written this I see that a new OUP Children’s Dictionary has caused a stir by leaving out a huge number of ‘nature words’ (including acorn) because they are ‘no longer in use’.
But picture books will never forsake the natural world. And the dogs in Smelly Louie by Catherine Rayner will always be drawn to an outdoor life, rolling in mud, bathing in organic filth and sniffing out mouldy bins. Louie is a rangy, tousle haired lurcher, and in close-up his coat becomes a gloriously unkempt landscape, which could itself be home to all manner of wildlife. The scratchy squiggly mixed media drawing is fun to investigate, but ultimately this is something of a shaggy dog story.
In The Rules of Summer by Shaun Tanis, in a succession of richly textured painterly spreads, a boy and his little brother spend their days inventing, pretending imagining, surviving, fighting and scrambling towards an understanding of the world, and how to cope. The drawing subtly expresses the relationship between the siblings, and with his use of colour, light, texture and scale, Tan’s paintings cast a surreal light across the glorious landscape of childhood.
Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill: what a joy to find a meticulously researched, hugely informative factual book of real historical importance illustrated with such warmth, humour, and without resorting to a simplistic or cartoon approach. What makes Grill’s wide-ranging pictures so irresistible and compelling is his use of coloured pencils, which gives the drawings a tactile quality that children will recognise and feel familiar with, something you just wouldn’t get with polished diagrams or photographs.
Jim’s Lion was written some years ago by the late Russell Hoban, and is now re-illustrated by Alexis Deacon. Seriously ill in hospital, awaiting a vital operation, Jim is frightened. This is delicate territory and Deacon handles it accordingly, addressing Jim’s fears with myriad watercolours and sequential brush drawings. There are surreal feverish images – like the eccentric operating theatre Jim innocently envisages, the bewildering landscape of mazes he must seemingly negotiate. And there’s the solemn beauty of the seaside watercolour sequence when a distant lion-shaped rock rises from the water and approaches Jim, and Jim finds courage to confront the situation. Open to all kinds of imaginative interpretation, these drawings are both insightful and profound.
Joanna Carey is a former Children’s Books Editor of The Guardian.
The CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal 2015 shortlist:
Tinder by David Roberts (illustrator) and Sally Gardner (author), Orion Children’s Books
Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse by Chris Riddell, Macmillan Children’s Books
Dark Satanic Mills by John Higgins and Marc Olivent (illustrators) and Julian Sedgwick and Marcus Sedgwick (authors), Walker Books
The Promise by Laura Carlin (illustrator) and Nicola Davies (author), Walker Books
Smelly Louie by Catherine Rayner, Macmillan Children’s Books
Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan, Hodder Children’s Books
Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill, Flying Eye Books
Jim’s Lion by Alexis Deacon (illustrator) and Russell Hoban (author), Walker Books