Art in Children’s Books

I have long enjoyed good artwork in children’s books. First as a youngster, and later as an adult and parent. Some of the best illustration styles are epitomized by de Brunhoff (Babar) and the works of Richard Scarry. Other favorites include Katy and the Big Snow written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton, the tales of Jenny Linsky by Esther Averrill, and Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. Some years ago Brown’s book was revived and rather over-hyped, but it is entirely deserving of its fame. The illustrations by Clement Hurd (pre-Photoshop) achieve the enchanting effect of a gradually darkened room illuminated by a glowing fireplace and moonlight.

All of these books use what is basically a “cartoon” technique, emphasizing bold lines and bright colors and recognizable but simplified imagery.  Realism works for non-fiction books. Indeed I think children prefer it. But for fiction, the opposite is true. Realistic detail spoils the fairy tale aspect.  In addition, I dislike digitally generated art, which creates a very cold and flattening effect. By contrast, the imperfect lines of a real pen or brush reveal the living touch of the artist and add to the charm.

With simpler art, young readers can build out an imaginary universe, each in their own way.  The most endearing illustration creates a cozy microcosm. It is a world we want to live in, like the idyllic urban landscapes of Burton’s The Little House or Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings. You can have relatively little going on in a picture. You see this in the austere pen-and-ink work of Averrill’s Jenny and the Cat Club. Artistry is achieved by emphasizing interesting elements, like the little feline whose bright red scarf stands out from the simple black and white background. On the other hand you can have a busy picture, but one that remains focused and not too cluttered. Burton’s books pull this off nicely. Little children who can’t stay focused on a television show will pore over such illustrations for stretches as a time.

I find that the best period for children’s artwork was in the 1940s and 50s. By the late 60s and 70s  illustration went into a decline – albeit with some notable exceptions – as the arts in general eschewed symmetry and embraced ugliness. I never was a fan of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  But more abstract and artsy imagery can still work if handled well, as in Leo Lionni’s Frederick. One proof of good illustration is that it translates successfully into animation, whether Lionni’s tales, Schulz’s Peanuts or Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad stories.

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