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Illustrative Styles

The illustration of children's books has a very long history. Its significance was reinforced by a comment by John Locke in 1693 recommending the necessity of illustrations in children's books. Although Locke’s prescient statement had little immediate impact, from the 1750s onwards, illustrations appeared in substantial ways in the children's books published by John Newbery and also in chapbooks, cheap early versions of children’s story books, usually available for the sum of one penny.

During the Victorian age picture books flourished in England when Kate Greenaway, Walter Crane, and Randolph Caldecott created illustrated books especially for children. Of these three, Randolph Caldecott is regarded as the real inventor of the picture book as we know it today. He perfected the unification of text and illustration, allowing illustrations to interpret and extend text beyond words, and created illustrations without borders. His significance was commemorated by the creation of the Caldecott Medal in 1937 by the American Library Association. The award is presented annually to the most distinguished American Picture Book for Children. Not only is the award named for Caldecott, but the image on the Caldecott medal depicts the cover image from his The Diverting History of John Gilpin (1878).

Techniques through which illustrations have been created have evolved over time, but the development of newer techniques did not mean older ones were abandoned. Authors of one generation have frequently borrowed technique from their predecessors to achieve a certain effect.

The earliest techniques of illustration ranged from wood block printing through woodcut and metal engravings. Evaline Ness’s illustrations for Lucille Clifton’s Some of the Days of Everett Anderson (1970) present a nice use of the older technique of woodcuts in a newer book. Another early technique popular throughout the 19th and 20th centuries was pen and ink illustration, sometime done in conjunction with watercolor, which we see in both Arthur Rackham’s The Peter Pan Portfolio (1914) and Caldecott award-winning artist Trina Schart Hyman’s illustrations for Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1985).

Rackham (1867-1939) was one of the most acclaimed illustrators of his time, and the Portfolio was an enlarged version of selected illustrations he created for his 1906 edition of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens; the Portfolio contained twelve images from the original book, and was published with large proof-size color plates in mats that were intended to be suitable for framing. While Rackham was not pleased with the quality of the reproductions, the book went on to become one his most successful. Similarly, Hyman (1939-2004) was also a tremendously popular illustrator, and her use of color and style show the strong influence of Rackham over her work.

Painting and drawing were also popular forms of illustration, appearing in a variety of styles throughout the 20th century. Margaret Wise Brown’s and Clement Hurd’s Goodnight Moon (1947) is a classic of Children’s literature.  Hurd’s acrylic paintings provide an excellent example of the appeal of basic colors and simple lines. Similarly, highly renowned and Caldecott Award-winning artist Jerry Pinkney is known for his colorful and beautiful watercolor paintings; his illustrations for Julius Lester’s John Henry (1994) bring the African American folk hero to life.

Satoru Sato’s and Tsutomu Murakami’s I Wish I Had a Big, Big Tree (1971; translated to English 1984) is another example of illustrations rendered in watercolor, this time combined with ink and gouache. The book’s design is also interesting, since it not only progresses from right to left but also needs to be turned vertically at times in order to look at the picture properly. Kevin Henkes, who won the Caldecott medal for his Kitten’s First Full Moon (2004), also utilizes gouache but combines it with colored pencil. His black and white illustrations provide a startling change from the full color illustrations popular throughout the 20th century. However, his use of strong lines and simple shapes draw the eye’s attention, and his poetic wording makes the story easily accessible for even very young readers.

Another 20th century development in illustration includes the use of collage. Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day (1962), which won the Caldecott award, is an excellent early example of this technique in children’s book illustration. The book is also significant because it was the first American picture book to be published with an African American protagonist, and is thus recognized for introducing multiculturalism into mainstream American Children’s literature. Keats is also considered one of the first illustrators in the English-speaking world to use urban settings for his picture books.

David Diaz uses collage as well as acrylic paintings in his illustrations to Eve Bunting’s Smoky Night (1994). The book, which also won the Caldecott award, tells the story of a young boy’s experience of the Los Angeles riots in 1992, and ends with a strong and positive message of multiculturalism. Diaz’s illustrations reinforce the book’s theme, uniting not only acrylic paintings with collage, but creating collages from disparate objects ranging from canvas and bubble wrap to broken glass, matches, cereal, and Styrofoam crinkles, to name but a few. Moreover, his acrylic paintings render all of the people with similar facial features, all of which are African American in style; his choice to depict a kind of ‘Everyman’ with African American features, despite the characters’ different Asian American, Latino, and other ethnic backgrounds, reinforces the ways in which our perceptions of culture are finally changing and expanding to become more inclusive.

Illustration style can refer not only to media, but also to the way in which an artist creates stories through both text and illustrations. Anthony Browne, a British illustrator who won the Hans Christian Andersen medal for lifetime achievement in 2000, stretches the boundaries of picture book illustration with his Voices in the Park (1998). His watercolor paintings provide a near-photographic sense of realism, but they are blended with fantastic touches that strongly show the influence of both surrealism and post-impressionism. Containing numerous intertextual references to such artists as Edward Hopper, René Magritte, and Edvard Munch, Browne still creates original illustrations which contain such whimsical details as a man nonchalantly walking an alligator. Moreover, his narrative in this story, which splits into four different voices with each telling the same story from a different perspective, introduced a relatively new approach for storytelling in picture books.

Similarly, Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm have borrowed an older style and rendered it new: their cartoon-like story and illustrations for Babymouse, Queen of the World (2005) illustrates the movement towards graphic images for not just young children but for older readers as well, a phenomenon that took off in the late 1990s and remains popular today.