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Images of the Child

The image of the child as represented in Children’s literature has changed through time. While Philippe Aries’ claims of childhood being a concept that did not develop until the 18th century have been challenged by recent scholars such as Nicholas Orme, it is true that the few books published for children from the 17th through 19th centuries were often devoid of images portraying children. Those few that did include images of children often portrayed them as being either miniature adults who were attractively dressed but often unrealistic in their size or proportion, or appealingly (at least from an adult perspective) helpless, round-faced, cherub-like creatures often sitting in gardens or linked in some way with baby animals.

Kate Greenaway’s Marigold Garden (1900) presents this first view of children, and shows them as highly romanticized little adults who were clean, neat, and beautifully dressed. Similarly, John Tenniel’s illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) show Alice as being childlike in size, yet looking older in both her facial features and proportions than her seven years would indicate. Arthur Rackham’s 1907 illustrations for the same text show some progression from Tenniel’s, but although Rackham portrays Alice looking a little more realistic than does Tenniel, she still appears older than the text suggests.

In contrast, Randolph Caldecott’s The Babes in the Wood (1878), based on a story that appeared in 1595 entitled “The Children of the Wood,” shows two helpless children cowering together in a forest where their wicked uncle has abandoned them in order to claim their inheritance. The children seem very tiny and vulnerable, and almost doll-like in their shapes and proportions. Ernest H. Shepard presents a similarly innocent view of a child in his depiction of Christopher Robin in A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh (1926); here, however, the child is looked down at (in both Shephard’s illustrations and Milne’s text) as being incredibly tiny and charming, but with not very well-defined features.

One contemporary illustrator who shows a strong influence from these old-fashioned ways of viewing children is Maurice Sendak, whose illustrative styles vary considerably depending on the type of story he is telling. In Outside Over There (1981), a Caldecott Honor book and the final book in his Where the Wild Things trilogy, Sendak presents a mythic investigation into how children cope with their daily, internal pressures by finding solutions through fantasy. Invoking the 18th century in which the story was set, Sendak’s illustrative style hearkens back to the vision of children as both innocent and helpless creatures, as we see in his depiction of the baby, and as little adults with his protagonist, Ida, who rescues her baby sister from being forced into a nefarious goblin wedding.

As the 20th century progressed, Children’s literature often represented children somewhat more realistically, both in terms of their size and proportions and also in their behavior. The illustrations of the children in Laura Lee Hope’s The Bobbsey Twins (1940) show realistically-sized and proportioned children enjoying a winter sleigh ride, and indicate how far the depiction of children in illustrations progressed in forty years. Garth Williams’ illustrations for E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952), a Newbery Honor book, show this even more. While the idealization of childhood and its connections with nature and baby animals is still present, especially with Fern, Williams’ illustrations have a veracity to them that influences the depiction of children for the rest of the century. This can be seen in both Caldecott award-winning illustrator Robert McCloskey’s illustrations for Keith Robertson’s Henry Reed, Inc. (1958) and Louise Fitzhugh’s illustrations for her Harriet the Spy (1964).

With Henry Reed, McCloskey’s pen-and-ink illustrations show realistically proportioned children wearing typical clothing for the time; moreover, his illustrations add details of characterization that add to the realism of the story. Similarly, Fitzhugh’s illustrations of Harriet present a realistically-sized child wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Even more importantly, both her illustrations and text indicate a shift in thinking about childhood. Harriet is far more autonomous than earlier fictional children were allowed to be, and she is treated by her nurse/governess Ole Golly as a person with independent thoughts and valid feelings.

This shift in thinking about childhood also appears in the perspective of illustration itself: instead of being rendered only from an adult point of view, illustrations today also appear from a child’s point of view. For example, in Alan Tiegreen’s illustrations to Beverly Cleary’s classic Ramona the Brave (1975), the pictures appear to be from a child’s perspective rather than an adult’s. As Ramona jumps out the doorway, we see not only the intensity of enjoyment on her face but also her interpretation of the surprise and perhaps annoyance on the face of the builder.

An excellent example of the shift in illustrative styles to indicate the progression in how children have been perceived appears in two different editions of American poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ Bronzeville, a collection of poems celebrating childhood with all of its delights, beauties, and freedoms. The book was first published in 1956 with pen and ink illustrations by Ronni Solbert, and the drawings depicted a number of apparently good little children having fun. Without looking carefully at the facial features of the children, it is difficult to tell that the characters are mostly African American; moreover, all of children seem very quiet and subdued, and the illustrations are static.

In contrast, the reissue of the book in 2007 with illustrations by Coretta Scot King award-winning Faith Ringgold celebrates not only the children’s African American identity but also their liveliness. Rendered in vivid color paintings, each of the illustrations shows children playing, running around, jumping, and generally having fun. The contrast between the two editions of the book demonstrates not only how illustration styles have changed over the past fifty years, but also how our perceptions of children and childhood, as well as our culture, have shifted and expanded.