Little Big Books: The Secrets of Great Children’s Book Illustration
By Maria Popova
Looking back on the best children’s books of the year raises the inevitable question, “What makes a great picture-book?” — a question all the more essential given the formative role picture-books play in our emotional, psychological, social, and aesthetic development. That’s precisely what the fine folks of Gestalten — who have previously brought us Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, one of the best art and design books of 2011 — explore in Little Big Books: Illustrations for Children’s Picture Books (public library). The lavish large-format volume documents some of the best contemporary children’s book illustration, examining the trends, images, concepts, and materials that define the genre’s design and conceptual aesthetic today through the work of more than 100 artists and illustrators, including favorites like Rambharos Jha, Blexbolex, Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai and Ram Singh Urveti, Oliver Jeffers, and Rilla Alexander.
Sonja Commentz writes in the introduction:
Attuned to these changing tastes, narratives, and market movements, open-eyed editors and perceptive publishing houses continue to play a vital role in the discovery and cultivation of budding artists — and the resulting creative process tends to be a two-way street. Often taking a welcome long-term approach and vie, outstanding editors — like Harper & Row’s legendary Ursula Nordstrom who cherished, nurtured, and defended beloved recalcitrant geniuses like Maurice Sendak and Tomi Ungerer, among others — serve as headstrong and softhearted yet pivotal enablers who can set the stage and direction for an entire generation of picture books. And yet there is trouble afoot: pandering to economic trends in the growing — and increasingly competitive — picture-book market, actual contents, creativity, and originality might lose out, right down to the point where bookstores dedicate entire pink-clad corners to a monoculture of princess books.
(Indeed, Nordstrom herself lamented half a century ago that too many decisions in children’s publishing were being made by “mediocre ladies in influential positions.” Sadly, little seems to have changed in the mainstream publishing world.)
In the postscript to the introduction, Commentz offers a delightful disclaimer:
It order to really appreciate the depth of a story, its accord of image and text, narrative and spell-binding atmosphere, and to grasp just how some of the more radical an abstract samples truly work, there is no quick fix or detour. Just get the book, grab a willing child, find a seat, and read the entire story together: turning the pages, cover to cover. And then start again at the beginning!
In one of the interviews included in the volume, celebrated English illustrator Martin Salisbury — who co-authored the wonderful Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling — offers some practical guidelines to the art of the picture book and addresses the most pervasive pitfalls of the creative process:
There are many common mistakes made by those setting out to create a picture book for the first time. The first is the belief that it is easy. More than most areas, picture-book creation suffers from the ‘I could do that’ perception. There are many obvious mistakes, e.g., trying to write a narrative or sequence in words and then illustrating it in a way that means the words and pictures are saying the same thing. usually, the process of ‘writing’ or making a picture book has to be one that involves thinking about words AND pictures right from the start. A very common mistake is to make perfect pictorial double-page compositions and then ask yourself, ‘Right , now where shall I put the words?’ Right from the start, the words need to be an integral part of the shape of the layout — a visual element that is as important as anything else that appears on the page. The spread’s composition should seem ‘wrong’ before the text is added.
The process of ‘reading’ pictorial narrative from left to right (in the West at least) means that the rhythm, pace, and ebb and flow of the picture book need to be plotted carefully around this format and the act of page-turning within it — a form of stage direction if you will. In a way, the picture book becomes a theater where the maker is the director, stage manager, actor… and in total artistic control!
Salisbury stresses the formative role picture books play in cultivating aesthetic literacy:
After all, this is often a child’s first introduction to the visual arts: the picture book serves as a personal, private art gallery, held in the hand, to be revisited over and over again.
On the psychology of children’s response to picture books, Salisbury makes an important distinction between picture books and digital media and echoes Maurice Sendak in turning an eye towards censorship:
One of the problems of trying to research young children’s responses to imagery is the fact that they don’t have the language to express what they are experiencing. And of course they are just like us, individuals — with equally individual tastes and responses. But it seems clear that they develop the ability to process pictorial sequences very early on. In fact, this seems to be an ability that we — quite often — have to relearn as adults! My guess is that, even if everything in the images is unfamiliar, children are making their own sense of things. on a basic but important level, a picture book will allow time for the eye to travel around the page and explore shape, color and form. The key thing is that the speed is not dictated externally, as with many screen-based media.
Children seem to have a limitless capacity to absorb and handle all manner of thins that we might worry about. In recent generations, we have become much more protective and censorious. While we would not wish to return to the days when children’s books promoted the chopping off of thumbs if they were being sucked, I think a lot depends on the done with which such cruelty is portrayed. Roald Dahl’s enormous popularity reflects his complete absence of patronizing language and joy in the ‘incorrectness’ that children adore. I think we could afford, certainly in the West, to be a little less protective.
Of course, one of the main preoccupations right now is the role of downloadable apps and e-books in the picture-book market. At the moment, no one seems to know quite what their impact will be, but everyone is running around saying, ‘We should be doing something.’ One thing, however, is clear: printed picture books are becoming increasingly beautiful in their production with ever greater attention to the physical, tactile, ‘holding’ quality of the books as artifacts, in gloriously varied sizes and shapes. This process is carving out the territory of the book as a beautiful thing; a thing distinct from the screen that provides us with information but doesn’t allow us to own, feel, or interact with tit in the same way. Until very recently, most picture book apps were rather banal in their conception, concentrating on trying to shoehorn commercially proven books into an alien format with minor digital bells and whistles. It reminds me of the period immediately after the arrival of Photoshop when everything looked the same as designers decided they were no illustrators. Once the people who were most resistant to it (i.e., the ones who weren’t seduced by technology ) began to learn to use the program, however, things started to get interesting.
Complement Little Big Books: Illustrations for Children’s Picture Books with Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling, which examines the present as well as the past of the genre, including the legacy of such icons as Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, and Bruno Munari.
Published December 10, 2012