(I wrote this for the November 2008 issue of The Book Review - an article on classics among children's books - stuff that left an impact on my mind, as well as picture books I wish I'd seen when I was a kid. Here there are a few tweaks and illustrations you won't see in the original!)
Among my first ‘friends’ in the world of books were two Russian girls named Masha and Zhenya. While Masha was resourceful and clever, with a ready wit, Zhenya was more me: a bit greedy, a bit dull, and definitely careless. Masha was to be admired, while Zhenya—so much like me—was just accepted. In case you haven’t guessed already, my ‘friends’ were characters in Soviet picture books which seemed to dominate the Indian children’s book scene in the ’60s and ’70s. Delightfully written (and translated), beautifully drawn and designed, they were cheap even for the time. Their illustrations covered a breathtaking range from the detailed, jewel-bright Russian-folk-style rendering, to pellucid watercolours, and impossibly scraggly black-and-white lines. If there is one thing I can blame for my abiding desire to look at and hoard children’s picture books, it has to be those bits of Soviet-era publishing.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote in a book he gifted a child:
…Stand up and keep your childishness:
Read all the pedants’ screeds and strictures;
But don’t believe in anything
That can’t be told in coloured pictures.
There is a curious sort of cyclicality in finding these words—I love Chesterton’s crime-busting Father Brown series. And Chesterton is supposed to have written the above words as part of a longer inscription in a book of Randolph Caldecott’s illustrations. Interestingly enough, Caldecott (1846–1886) a British artist and cartoonist, drew 16 picture books for children, which were subversive and highly textured, and went on to inspire generations of artists.
But picture-book illustrations are really more than just coloured pictures. As a writer of children’s stories and a mother, I think the illustrations in a picture book are supremely important. Primarily because they add another layer to the text—one that the non-literate child often ‘reads’ by herself. In the best picture books—where illustrations mischievously suggest more than is said by the actual words—this second level often breaks the fetters of the first. Not only do they create a playful other dimension, but illustrations also extend the frames of reference for a child, creating associations and levels of meaning that would be uneconomical if done with words.
When I read out or tell a story to children, I know that what is grabbing their eyes, making the words ‘real’ and enchanting for them, is the artist’s version of it. Of course the story is paramount, but the drawings are actually the bridge that takes the story to them. I’ve grown to understand that illustrating for kids is as much and perhaps more difficult than writing for them. The same rules of thumb apply: don’t talk down to your reader / viewer; be mad; be good; and most importantly, be a bit bad.
There is an essential and perennial confusion in the world of children’s books—what adults feel children should read versus what children themselves enjoy reading or seeing. This confusion—which enters the world of illustration as well—is a path both publishers and parents have to negotiate delicately. While there have to be the ‘good’ stories—the fables, the pedagogic tales, the ‘useful’ books, there also has to be enough of the mischievous, the naughty, the merrily subversive. Take Punch cartoonist E.H. Shepard, whose black-and-white, scratchy, seemingly-rough drawings were not considered the best choice for Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) by A.A. Milne. Milne still agreed to have him draw When we were very young (1924) and was so delighted, that he went on to commission him for the Pooh books as well. Pooh bear—inspired by Milne’s son’s toy in the story and by ‘Growler’, Shepard’s son Graham’s toy, in the illustrations—was captured by an artfully rough style (in fact you can see Growler/Pooh's precursor at the bottom right of the b&w drawing here). The stories and their endearing characters went on to enthrall generations of children (till, that is, the Disney machinery swept in with their trademark yellow-and-red bear, a far cry from the homely toy of Shepard’s imagination). Shepard was to extend his subtle ‘roughness’ to create far busier visuals for Kenneth Grahame’s timeless The Wind in the Willows (1931).
One of my favourites (though I must admit it took me time to realize that) has always been Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline books. Written and drawn by Bemelmans, Madeline (1939)—illustrated in a flat, uni-dimensional style, largely in black-and-white with a studied and painterly abandon—was considered too sophisticated for children. At first glance the visuals do seem forbidding—but one reading down, most children are glued to the fast-paced rhyming narrative and the seemingly off-hand illustration style.
The very spare classic Goodnight Moon (1947) by Margaret Wise Brown was illustrated in a rich yet somewhat muted style by Clement Hurd. ‘Goodnight’ is said to each thing in an anthropomorphized baby rabbit’s room. As a parent you can recognize the love for rituals that children have, and with subsequent readings, will sense how the book actually helps unwind. Goodnight … slowly reveals its illustrative richness—little details are noticed by the child in the ‘clean’ artwork, and a lot happens independent of the words. A tiny mouse, for instance, appears on every page, and children have fun spotting it.
When it comes to the mischievous-yet-delightful in children’s books, practically nothing can beat Theodore Geisel’s oeuvre, written and illustrated by him as Dr Seuss and sometimes as LeSeig. When asked by his publisher to create a picture book for children using less than 250 words, Geisel took 9 months to create the completely farout The Cat in the Hat (1957). A cat in a red-and-white striped top-hat drops in on a pair of unsuspecting siblings, and tries to entertain them while turning their house upside down, much to the consternation of their pet goldfish. It was funny, riveting, and literally ‘… a karate chop on the weary little world of Dick, Jane and Spot’ (Ellen Goodman). The Cat … was published under the imprint of ‘Beginner Books’ and much more literary mayhem was to follow.
As a parent and a writer, I marvel at the stunning simplicity of Geisel’s words, and at the vivid madness in his minimalist books. Geisel is in turn funny (as in the very basic Hop on Pop), crazy (as in Green Eggs and Ham, Mr Brown Can Moo, The Eye Book, The Tooth Book and Wacky Wednesday) and sometimes even political (like in Horton Hears a Who). Beginner Books went on to publish many fantastic titles by other artists and writers as well—the laugh-inducing Put Me in the Zoo (1960), written and illustrated by Robert Lopshire, is just one.
Eric Carle is another innovative children’s illustrator whose work simply refuses to conform to adult notions of ‘child-friendly’. With a background in graphic design and advertising, Carle created colourful books out of collage, using layers of hand-painted paper, that are stylish and yet earthy. Beginning with Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What can you see? (1967), he went on to create many classics like The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969) and The Grouchy Ladybug (1977).
A British artist who caused something of a paradigm shift in how publishers and parents would view illustrations forever was Quentin Blake. His seemingly casual, scratchy sketches have brought so many of Roald Dahl’s stories to life (The Enormous Crocodile of 1978 is a perennial favourite) that children often think he writes the books as well. Blake’s delightful illustrations have a breathless quality, and he has not only drawn books, but also written some like Mr Magnolia (1980), Fantastic Daisy Artichoke, (1999) and the Mrs. Armitage series.
The thing with children is that they recognize immediacy and sincerity in art. So whether or not a picture is ‘good’ by adult standards, a child’s response to art that grabs him is usually quick and instinctive. Often a book that I think will scare my daughter or alienate her, in fact ends up appealing to her the most. Artists, I conclude, must know something about her responses that I don’t!
Tuesday (1991) by David Wiesner and The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher (1980) by Molly Bang—both Caldecott Honor Awards winners—were startling examples of this. Tuesday is a wordless book, where you build the narrative as you go, finding new details and images with every reading. Just before on a Tuesday, near a marsh in small-town
It was a book I was sure would terrify my toddler. It had a quiet eeriness to it and the painstakingly rendered frogs were not your average picture-book froggies. But she found it riveting, enjoying the sheer craziness of the story and laughing at the frogs’ glee. The novelty came from discovering a new frog in the swarm, a new expression, and a new detail with every reading.
If Wiesner came as a surprise, then Molly Bang’s The Grey Lady … was a shocker. A wordless book again, it ‘tells’ of an old lady who buys a basket of strawberries for her family. Leaving the shop, she is followed by the ‘Snatcher’, a skinny, gangly-limbed blue-coloured man wearing a yellow-and-purple shawl and a red hat. Deviously, he follows the Grey Lady, making many grabs for her basket.
The Lady dashes into buses, hides in a swamp, climbs a tree, swings from a vine, and finally escapes the relentless Snatcher only by a last-minute authorial intervention. Fed up, he spots a mulberry bush, and eats enough to have his hair stand up on end in a blissful, orange afro.
The challenge of the book is not just the fear of the chasing Snatcher, but the fact that Bang uses a complex narrative style. The same page has the characters in two different positions—before and after an event. Surprisingly, kids actually get Bang’s complicated shifting of perspective and her elliptical story-telling device. Surprisingly, they seem to like rather than fear the Snatcher.
It took Bang two-and-a-half years to illustrate the book. When it came out, it was panned by critics as being ‘too flashy’ and ‘weird’. When Bang won the Caldecott, she writes, she was surprised and asked a committee member if they had read the reviews. The member replied, ‘We don’t make our decisions based on reviews.’
Target, a children’s magazine, seemed to attract the best talent in the ’80s, with illustrators like Atanu Roy, whose richly intricate lines were dramatic and nutty; Ajit Ninan who drew the hilarious, pot-bellied Detective Moochwala; and Jayanto Banerjee, whose Gardhab Das, the donkey-musician, perennially plagued us with his lousy singing.
Mario Miranda’s quirky, whimsical and sometimes even serious sketches in our Class 2 English reader left a huge impression. I’ve forgotten much of what I learnt, but his fat, funny, robust illustrations for Dhondu and the Rotten Eggs, and his solemn turn for a travel piece on
So the next time you want to pick up a picture book for your child, explore a bit and try to find exciting artists—the ones mentioned above are at the extreme, outermost tip of the iceberg. Look a little deeper and there’s a whole world of picture-book illustrators out there (flapping about like eager penguins, perhaps?), just waiting to be discovered and enjoyed!