children's book illustration

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children's book illustration, any type of picture or decorative work produced for books specifically intended for a youthful audience.

Beginnings of a Genre

Among the first picture books produced in the West and intended for children is Comenius's Orbis Pictus, a primerlike text written in Latin about 1657 or 1658. Earlier works meant for adults but suitable for children include the Japanese Scroll of Animals (12th cent.) with animated sketches by Toba Soja and the first English edition of Aesop's Fables, printed by William Caxton in 1484 and illustrated with woodcuts. John Newbery included woodcuts in The Renowned History of Little Goody Two Shoes (1765). The earliest illustrators of children's books were usually anonymous, but with the appearance of Thomas Bewick's art for Pretty Book of Pictures for Little Masters and Misses; or, Tommy Trip's History of Beasts and Birds (1799), well-known artists began to receive credit for their work in this field.

William Blake printed, engraved, and hand colored his own Songs of Innocence (1789). The Butterfly's Ball (1807), by William Roscoe, was illustrated by William Mulready, and illustrations for the first English version of Grimm's Fairy Tales (1824) were created by George Cruikshank. John Tenniel's remarkable drawings for Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) remain unsurpassed. His art creates a visual framework through which the characters of the story come to life.

A Great Tradition

Illustrations for children's books usually enhanced or explained the text, but in the latter quarter of the 19th cent. three artistic giants, Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway, and Randolph Caldecott, gave a new dimension to illustration. They produced the picture storybook in which interdependent text and illustration are given equal emphasis. Crane's nursery-song prints in Baby's Bouquet (1908) combine soft colors with bold composition. Greenaway's Under the Window (1878) is enhanced by delicate garden colors. In the 1870s and 80s Caldecott's nursery books displayed harmonious linear composition and warm color.

The exquisite watercolors in Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit books reveal her careful observation of small wild animals. The grandeur and dignity of Howard Pyle's portraits intensify the heroic adventures of Robin Hood (1883) and Men of Iron (1890). Two of Pyle's students were Jessie Wilcox, who illustrated Robert Louis Stevenson's Child's Garden of Verses (1905) and N. C. Wyeth, whose dramatization of individuals and landscape enriched Treasure Island (1917), Robinson Crusoe (1920), and many other works. The master illustrator Arthur Rackham produced a host of magnificent books beginning in 1900 with The Fairy Tales of Grimm. His work is noted for brilliant use of color and dramatic, detailed composition. Ernest Shepard's drawings for A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and for an edition of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows (1931) are warm and humorous.

The Golden Age of Illustration

After a decline during the early 1920s, the golden age of the picture book began with the publication of Wanda Gág's Millions of Cats (1928). In 1938 the American Library Association instituted the Caldecott Medal for the most distinctive American picture book for children. The first recipient was Dorothy Lathrop for Animals of the Bible (1937). A number of major illustrators whose works are still popular emerged in the 1930s. Kurt Wiese illustrated Kipling's Mowgli Stories (1936). Helen Sewell employed a realistic style for The First Bible (1934).

Maud and Miska Petersham's The Christ Child (1931) and Jean de Brunhoff's broadly drawn, delightful Story of Babar, the Little Elephant (1931) were among the outstanding books of the 30s. Robert Lawson's Ben and Me (1939) was the first of many witty books that he wrote and illustrated, including Rabbit Hill (1944) and The Fabulous Flight (1949). Dr. Seuss's popular, cleverly drawn books for young children began with And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). Boris Artzybasheff illustrated Aesop and The Seven Simeons (both 1937) with bold woodcuts.

In the next decade Robert McCloskey produced superb illustrations for Make Way for Ducklings (1941). Garth Williams's realistic, expressive drawings brought to life E. B. White's Stuart Little (1945) and Charlotte's Web (1952). The painter Maxfield Parrish created a series of glowing and colorful illustrations for a children's version of The Arabian Nights (1947). Wesley Dennis created powerful watercolors for many horse books by Marguerite Henry. The first book in the charming Madeleine series, written and illustrated in a broad, painterly style by Ludwig Bemelmans, appeared in 1939; his Parsley (1953), the story of a stag, incorporates a colorful catalog of wildflowers. Marcia Brown's Puss in Boots (1952) is light and whimsical.

The 1960s and Beyond

During the 1960s a number of seldom-used techniques were introduced, and color printing was much improved. Drawing was freed from the constraints of realistic representation, and fantastic imagery flourished. Photography enriched texts, as in Astrid Sucksdorff's Chendru (1960). Illustrations combining graphic art and collage graced Ezra Jack Keats's The Snowy Day (1962) and Leo Lionni's Inch by Inch (1960). Outstanding folk and fairy tales in a picture-book format include Adrienne Adams's Shoemaker and the Elves (1960) and Evaline Ness's Tom Tit Tot (1965).

A landmark in illustrated books of the 1960s is Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are (1963), depicting a surreal and menacing world of make-believe creatures. Sendak's Higgelty Piggelty Pop;or, There Must Be More to Life (1967) is a fantasy reminiscent of Tenniel's work. His In the Night Kitchen (1970) depicts a dream world in robust detail; it was the first children's book to portray nudity. Sendak's style has had a profound influence on contemporary illustration, as in Harriet Pincus's droll figures for Carl Sandburg's The Wedding Procession of the Rag Doll and the Broom Handle and Who Was in It (1967) and Mercer Mayer's comic A Boy, a Dog, a Frog, and a Friend (1967). Mayer's book spawned a number of books in which the story is carried entirely by pictures.

In the mid-1960s a new kind of picture book emerged in which the illustrations dominate the text. Ben Montresor's illustrations for Cinderella (1965) and for Stephen Spender's The Magic Flute (1966) are based on his opera stage designs and incorporate the glittering color of that medium. Brian Wildsmith made expressive use of intense, jewellike colors for many works including La Fontaine's The Lion and the Rat (1963) and Little Wood Duck (1972). Eric Carle's bright, bold collages made from painted tissue paper debuted in Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (1967), and his Very Hungry Caterpillar (1967) has become a preschool classic. Among artists who choose to interpret a single type of book to which their styles are best suited, is Nancy Ekholm Burkert, whose specialty is fantasy and fairy tales; in Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs (1972) her sweeping design and minute detail recall the works of Rackham. Margot and Harve Zemach illustrate and retell folk stories, including the rollicking Duffy and the Devil (1973).

By the 1970s children's book illustration had developed into an artistic feast of incredible variety and richness, expressive of a particularly imaginative range of individual creativity. The 1980s and 90s produced a number of remarkable illustrators as well, including Chris van Allsburg, Barry Moser, Jerry Pinkney, Alice and Martin Provensen, Trina Schart Hyman, Susan Jeffers, and Jeanette Winter.


See B. Hürlimann, Picture Book World (1965); R. S. Freeman, Children's Picture Books (1967); B. Doyle, The Who's Who of Children's Literature (1968); M. Hoffman and E. Samuels, Authors and Illustrators of Children's Books (1972); L. E. Lacy, Art and Design in Children's Picture Books (1986); P. Nodelman, Words about Pictures (1989); J. I. Whalley and T. R. Chester, The Bright Stream (1989).

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