With picture books from European countries other than Britain and from countries that are further afield breaking new ground, how do new British picture books stand up? Martin Salisbury finds much of quality to celebrate but is there enough surprise?
A wander through Halls 27 and 28 at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair can be a slightly depressing experience for the picture book art-lover. There are eight halls in all and these are the two that predominately house the British publishers. It is quickly apparent that if it’s visual surprise and innovation you’re after, Halls 29 and 30 are the places to be, where hoards of art students pore over the output of publishers from France, Spain, Germany, Scandinavia or far flung surprises from, for example, Korea, Japan or Iran. This increasingly apparent culture gap is further evidenced by the growing presence of some of Britain’s more interesting illustrators between the covers of books published abroad and the virtual absence of British artists in the prestigious selected exhibition of illustration at Bologna.
British picture books
Coming so soon after the inspiration of Bologna, the arrival of the parcel of newly published British picture books to be considered for this article is anticipated with mixed feelings. But there is real quality to be found in this mixture of established and emerging talent and indeed the occasional surprise. One such is The Opposite by Tom MacRae and Elena Odriozola. It is a genuinely unusual book that plays cleverly on the idea of opposites with the kind of wordplay that will delight and amuse. ‘“Dad!” cried Nate. “There’s an Opposite on my ceiling!” “Where?” said Nate’s Dad, poking his head round the door. “There!” said Nate, pointing upwards. But The Opposite had already happened, and it wasn’t there any more.’ Eventually, Nate learns to play the Opposite at his own game, telling him that he’d love him to stay around for ever… ‘But then The Opposite happened.’ MacRae’s CV includes a BAFTA nomination for his television scriptwriting. This quirky concept is his first picture book and he has been shrewdly coupled by Andersen Press with an artist whose pictures are highly stylised but have warmth, character and humour along with a sort of understated graphic flair. Odriozola is well known in her native Spain, where she has contributed to over 50 books.
The work of Ian Beck is perhaps more familiar to British children and his work matures like a fine wine. Memories of early 1970s album cover designs for Elton John remind us just how long this artist has been working and how enduring his illustrations are. He is a consummate designer with an educated eye. Highly visually literate, he draws on classic English influences such as Harold Jones and Robin Jacques. In Winston the Book Wolf (words by Marni McGee) Beck also makes playful reference to the misregistered colour of early printing processes. Winston learns that his hunger for words can be assuaged without actually eating the books. He learns to consume them with his eyes. The book comes with a fabulous bite-sized hole in the cover.
John Segal’s Carrot Soup cleverly uses the disparity of message between words and pictures to guide us through Rabbit’s day of anticipation, loss, anger and ultimately, joy. Rabbit arrives excitedly with his wheelbarrow and tools to harvest his crop of carrots, only to discover that someone has got there before him. As each of his friends professes ignorance of the crime, the pictures reveal skulduggery afoot. But all’s well as our hero skulks home to be met by a surprise carrot soup party thrown by his animal buddies. New York based Segal’s delicate, sensitive watercolours are reminiscent of Japanese design traditions; beautifully rendered, simple stylised shapes, judiciously placed on the page. A handy guide to carrot varieties and a favourite recipe for carrot soup complete the picture.
The Australian, Bob Graham is a real one-off. Words like ‘quirky’ or ‘off-beat’ do not do justice to his highly original ideas. His preoccupations with outsiders, travellers, performers and little people are given full reign in the 40-page Dimity Dumpty: The Story of Humpty’s Little Sister , a heart-warming tale of sisterly love overcoming shyness. Graham’s extraordinary ideas are articulated through apparently simple, economically drawn illustrations that exude charm and humanity.
The British graphic tradition
Chris Wormell’s illustrations are rooted in traditional, highly skilled rendering techniques and solid draughtsmanship. He seems to be equally at home with watercolour as with engraving and lino cutting. As an artist he works across a range of areas, his prints being particularly prominent in a national advertising campaign for a well known brand of beer. Every dog has his day, so they say and in Henry and the Fox Wormell introduces cowardly cockerel, Henry. The hapless Henry has only one friend, Buffy the bantam. Buffy cooks up a clever plan to raise Henry’s self-esteem and general standing in chicken society by staging a mock triumph over a fox (actually an old red jumper). Henry’s big moment comes but he gets more than he bargained for as a real fox is sleeping on the jumper. Fox is so shocked by the attack that he beats a retreat and Henry is acclaimed a hero before he has time to register what’s going on. Wormell uses highly naturalistic watercolour painting here, with little or no attempt at anthropomorphism in his animals. Character is expressed primarily through storyline and natural animal gestures.
Little Rabbit’s New Baby by Harry Horse, on the other hand, has echoes of Beatrix Potter and E H Shepard in its fully clothed, humanised animals. Horse, a former Smarties Prize winner, is another artist whose work sits solidly in the British graphic tradition of illustrative draughtsmanship and densely rendered cross-hatching. He has worked as a political cartoonist alongside his book illustration. The well trodden path of ‘new baby syndrome’ is treated here with humour and warmth, a highlight being an epic double page spread depiction of a rabbit burrow maternity ward, awash with cots, cradles and beds full of broods. Little Rabbit’s irritation with his new siblings’ shortcomings as playmates is gradually replaced by pride and pleasure in new found big-brotherliness.
A more contemporary visual approach is evident in Catherine Rayner’s Augustus and his Smile . Like many young graduates of our art schools, Rayner favours a highly graphic use of picture space, concentrating on the formal arrangement of shapes on a page rather than attempting to create an illusion of depth and space. This is a simple but uplifting sequence reminding us that happiness is to be found in the joy of everyday things. Augustus’s lost smile is eventually found ‘… there, under his nose… He only had to swim with the fish or dance in the puddles, or climb the mountains and look at the world – for happiness was everywhere around him.’ These sentiments are saved from the cheese factor by the unsentimental rendering of the pictures.
The truly ground-breaking
Curiously, we have to look back in time for a taste of the truly ground-breaking British picture book. Egmont Books have reissued Brian Wildsmith’s Jungle Party , originally published by Oxford University Press in 1974. Wildsmith had burst on to the scene in the previous decade, his intense palette and daring use of space benefiting from the arrival of new printing processes and the visionary commissioning of the legendary Mabel George. The careers of the likes of Raymond Briggs, John Burningham, Charles Keeping and Victor Ambrus were also taking off at this time, but it was Wildsmith’s spectacular use of colour in books such as his award-winning ABC and later Birds and Fishes that really caught the eye. The reappearance of Jungle Party brings a welcome reminder of what a picture book can be when draughtsmanship, colour, design and a real feel for the ‘bookness’ of a book come together. Wildsmith spends much of his time painting these days at his home in France. His love of colour and the dynamics of composition are beautifully showcased in this simple concept, a vehicle for a highly visual procession of animals that is all about the celebration of shapes and colours on the page. These pages still seem fresh and alive over 30 years later with their great sweeping foregrounds of colour and pattern, mixing ‘wet-on-wet’ watercolour with vigorously applied wax crayon. Somehow these coexist successfully with delicate filigree pen work describing tiny animals in vast expanses of white paper. The influence of Chinese brush painting is clear here too in the rendering of many of the shapes, especially the exquisite cheetah whose elegance is captured and reflected with flowing lines and dabs of wet paint on absorbent paper.
In many ways, Wildsmith redefined the children’s picture book by bringing his painterly concerns to the pages of books with a tacit respect for children’s ability to appreciate good art. His work is never patronising and one reason for its continued appeal is perhaps what Douglas Martin, in his wonderful book, The Telling Line , identifies as its grounding in ‘true structural and artistic principles’. With far too many mediocre picture books being published today, this is a timely treat.
Martin Salisbury is an illustrator and Course Director for the MA Children’s Book Illustration programme at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.
The Opposite , Tom MacRae, ill. Elena Odriozola, Andersen, 1 84270 482 6, £10.99 hbk
Winston the Book Wolf , Marni McGee, ill. Ian Beck, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 7977 6, £10.99 hbk
Carrot Soup , John Segal, Simon & Schuster, 1 416 91114 6, £5.99 pbk
Dimity Dumpty: The Story of Humpty’s Little Sister , Bob Graham, Walker, 1 84428 067 5, £10.99 hbk
Henry and the Fox , Chris Wormell, Jonathan Cape, 0 224 07044 4, £10.99 hbk
Little Rabbit’s New Baby , Harry Horse, Puffin, 0 14 138044 6, £10.99 hbk
Augustus and his Smile , Catherine Rayner, Little Tiger, 1 84506 282 5, £10.99 hbk
Jungle Party , Brian Wildsmith, Egmont, 1 4052 2154 2, £10.99 hbk, 1 4052 2155 0, £5.99 pbk
The Telling Line , Douglas Martin, Julia MacRae (1989)