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date: 22 March 2019

picture books

The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature

Daniel Hahn

picture books 

Illustrated books, most often for younger children, usually in a large flat format with relatively few pages (32 is typical). Unlike, say, some illustrated fiction, the artwork is in no way seen as subservient to the text, but part of a balanced, integrated whole.

Among the earliest ‘books’ combining words and pictures which were looked at by the young were the Japanese illustrated scrolls of the 12th and 13th cents. Medieval bestiaries, too, were often looked at by children.

In contrast, the earliest English printed books did not contain much in the way of illustration because of the technical limitations of woodcuts at that time. Caxton’s edition of Aesop’s Fables (1484) was one of the most generously illustrated books of the period. The first true picture book for children in England was Charles Hoole’s 1659 translation of the Orbis Sensualium Pictus of Comenius.

During the early 18th cent., pictorial ABC books for children began to appear. Newbery’s Pretty Book of Pictures for Little Masters and Misses (published by 1752) was a small picture book resembling the bestiaries. The first English children’s publisher to make a regular practice of issuing books for young children in which pictures predominated over text was John Harris; his Mother Hubbard (1805) and The Butterfly’s Ball set a new fashion and spawned countless imitations. Harris was also among the first publishers to produce children’s books in which colour played a considerable part.

Edward Lear’s drawings played such a large part in his Book of Nonsense (1846) that it may be considered as virtually a picture book; two years later came the first English edition of Struwwelpeter produced in Germany by lithography. In the next decade, the firms of Routledge and Warne were among those who began to produce their own toy books; from about 1865 Routledge’s list included many by Walter Crane, superbly engraved and printed in colour by Edmund Evans. Evans also began to produce books for Warne, and towards the end of the 1870s he started to commission work from Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway, who together with Crane raised the British picture book to a standard it had never before reached. (In the following century, these two illustrators would give their names to the most prestigious picture-book illustration awards in the US and UK, respectively.) Most other countries which now possess a highly developed literature for children produced their first picture books in the late 19th cent., for example, in Australia, Cole’s Funny Picture Book (1879), and, in Norway, the Norsk Billedebok for Barn (1888).

By the early 20th cent. the focus of the picture book was becoming less on instruction and more on entertainment. The most notable examples of the period were those of Beatrix Potter, whose Tale of Peter Rabbit, published in 1902, began a long and brilliant series.

In the 1930s auto-lithography, in which the artist draws directly on to the stone or plate, began to be used widely in the production of picture books, early examples being the French Babar series, and, in Britain, Kathleen Hale’s Orlando books. America’s contribution to picture books between the World Wars included the introduction of a cartoon-like graphic style, particularly in stories by Dr Seuss (1937 onwards). In Britain, Edward Ardizzone began to write and draw his ‘Little Tim’ stories, with Tim All Alone (1955) winning the first Kate Greenaway Medal. In America, Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd produced Goodnight Moon (1947), in which a little rabbit slowly falls asleep in a room full of objects that grows slightly darker at each turn of the page.

In the years after the Second World War, improvements in the process of offset lithography greatly widened the scope of the picture book. By the 1960s it was possible for artists to work in full colour, using such widely differing media as watercolour, gouache, collage, or pastel, and have their work produced comparatively cheaply. In consequence the picture book came into its first golden age in the hands of such notable artists as, in Britain, Raymond Briggs, Charles Keeping, and Brian Wildsmith, and, in America, Ezra Jack Keats, Richard Scarry, Maurice Sendak, and Eric Carle. Sendak’s subversive and many-layered Where the Wild Things Are (1963) is about as close to a perfect picture book as it is possible to be. Carle’s painterly and interactive The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969) is still one of the most popular picture books today.

The concept of the picture book began to be more sophisticated, with the text and illustrations working in conversation, rather than one merely reflecting the other. Examples include Rosie’s Walk (1968) by Pat Hutchins, where the seemingly bland text appears to tell one story, while the illustrations reveal something much more exciting. John Burningham’s Come Away from the Water, Shirley (1977) demonstrates an even greater distance between words and pictures. The deliberately pedestrian text depicts Shirley’s parents’ mundane view of their family trip to the beach, while the pictures show Shirley’s entirely different, highly imaginative experience of the day.

Throughout the latter decades of the 20th cent., picture books continued to grow in scope and inventiveness, in terms of their range of artistic styles (from traditional line-and wash to computer-generated), their interactivity (with pop-ups, flaps, and many other paper engineering devices), and their target audience (from babies to adults).

In the 1970s and 1980s, ShirleyHughes’s beautifully realized books depicted the minutiae of a small child’s daily life. These included Dogger (1977) and the Alfie books (from 1981). Quentin Blake is one of the foremost creators of the picture book in the modern age. His exuberant, deceptively simple illustrations and witty text can be seen in such classics as Mister Magnolia (1980) and Fantastic Daisy Artichoke (1999). Other illustrators prominent in the UK during this period included Helen Oxenbury, David McKee, Tony Ross, Janet Ahlberg, Michael Foreman, Charlotte Voake, Angela Barrett, Patrick Benson, Max Velthuijs, Judith Kerr, Jan Pieńkowski, Jan Fearnley, Debi Gliori, Helen Cooper, and Satoshi Kitamura.

By the 21st cent. the range of outstanding picture books has become overwhelming, both in quality and diversity of approach. In the US, leading creators of picture books include Chris Van Allsburg, David Wiesner, Chris Raschka, Lane Smith, and Jerry Pinkney; Ian Falconer has created the internationally beloved Olivia, while Mo Willems’ books about a headstrong pigeon have a cartoon style with quirky humour. Australian picture-book authors and illustrators who have led the way in recent years include Shaun Tan, Margaret Wild, Ron Brooks, Elaine Russell, Jackie French, and Bruce Whatley. From New Zealand, Lynley Dodd’s Hairy Maclary has been hugely popular for three decades. Canadian Jon Klassen’s This is Not My Hat is notable for its slightly surreal, offbeat humour, while his compatriot Melanie Watt has created the highly popular Scaredy Squirrel.

Lauren Child in the UK uses an eclectic mixture of painting, collage and photography, expressive typography, and a distinctively witty writing style. Nick Sharratt employs computer technology to produce bold, graphic images. Emily Gravett uses her remarkable drawing talent to produce picture books that are classic and beautiful in their appearance, but that subvert the whole picture-book genre in their content. Julia Donaldson is one of the outstanding picture-book writers of recent times, using that most difficult of forms, the rhyming couplet, to stunning effect. The Gruffalo (1999), created with her regular picture book partner Axel Scheffler, is a modern classic. Other notable British exponents include Emma Chichester Clark, Chris Riddell, Lydia Monks, Mini Grey, Adrian Reynolds, Rebecca Cobb, Ed Vere, and Catherine Rayner, while in Ireland, Oliver Jeffers and Chris Haughton have received much acclaim.

Picture books are by no means confined to the preschool age, with many complex and thought-provoking picture books existing for older readers, and indeed, for adults. The year 1998 was notable for such titles, all of them in the large format typically associated with books for the very young: Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish is surreally humorous; Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne is rich and multilayered; and Quentin Blake’s Zagazoo, although entertaining to a four-year-old, can only be fully appreciated by an adult.