I’m looking forward to watching Picture Book on BBC 4 this evening, which looks at the history of children’s illustrated books. I hope this won’t just mean picture books, important as they are, because for many people text illustrations in books intended for much older children are just as significant. I seem to have discussed this somewhere before but one can hardly imagine Arthur Ransome without the stick figures or Molesworth not illustrated by Ronald Searle (many people seem to think Searle wrote the books).
Victor Watson describes this effect very well in his wonderful book Reading Series Fiction. (As soon as this book came out, I ordered it from my local bookshop. I see I paid £13.99 for it, so it’s rather shocking that Amazon’s price has nearly doubled.) He writes, ‘At this point I ought to confess that at the age of ten I fell in love with Petronella Sterling, otherwise known as Peter, heroine of the Lone Pine series. …when recently I looked again at the first illustration (in Seven White Gates) …I found I remembered it in such detail as to suggest that as a boy I had studied it with some attention.’
Isn’t that just it? You come across a book you haven’t seen for years and view the pictures with a shock of recognition. With some books, the illustrations are an intrinsic part of the reading experience. Classics like Black Beauty, Heidi and Little Women have been reissued countless times with different illustrations; it doesn’t matter very much because no one artist has made a mark sufficient to link his or her work with the book forever. Beatrix Potter’s books are another matter and children are deprived, in my opinion, if they are given the Ladybird version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit rather than a copy with the original illustrations.
The British Council has a touring exhibition, Magic Pencil, curated by Quentin Blake. The National Portrait Gallery put on an exhibition of Portraits of Children’s Writers . If you visit Newcastle, you can see thousands of illustrations at the Seven Stories Centre for Children’s Books. It’s good to see so much interest in children’s books these days.
Joyce Lankester Brisley
Joan Kiddell Monroe
I could have picked so many more!