I adore children’s fiction. I may legally be an adult, and spend my days at university reading the great works of Literature, but I never have got rid of the children’s books still lining my bookshelves. I often go back and read them as well – there is just something about them, and it’s not simply nostalgia (though I’m sure that plays a part). Whenever I go return to these books, I am often amazed at their freshness, even though I know the stories inside-out and back-to-front. The eminent C.S Lewis wrote that “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story”, and I could not agree more. These beloved books were some of the best tutors of my youth – why should they suddenly stop being relevant now that I am a few years older?
One of the reasons I particularly enjoy children’s fiction is that they often contain illustrations. This may sound a little odd, which indeed I think is a bit of a shame. For some strange reason, modern literary culture has cultivated something of a sense of disdain for the illustrated novel – or books containing motionless graphics in general. Diagrams and maps are for non-fiction; comic books and even graphic novels are still considered the playthings of children and not ‘real’ literature. Novels with more stand-out jackets or those (heaven forbid) displaying a still-shot from a movie tie-in are seen as tacky and ‘low’. Readers expect walls of text from their ‘serious’ books, sandwiched between fairly bland covers; occasionally the chapter headings might be allowed a little ornamentation, but anything beyond that is a bridge too far! As such, I have only children’s fiction to reliably supply me with gorgeous illustrations to complement my reading.
The strange thing is that this is a (relatively) recent concept. Books have been illustrated for hundreds of years. First, this was due to their great rarity; copied laboriously by hand, books were treasures, to be valued alongside beautiful artifacts. Just look at almost any book from medieval Europe; they are lovingly decorated, often with pictures illustrating the text. But even after the introduction of the printing press and the reclassification of the book into something more commercial, the pictures remained.
16th century pamphlets, perhaps the closest form the period had to mass-market paperbacks, were often illustrated on the title page at least; when the novel proper finally arrived in the 18th century (I’m sure I’ve raised the hackles of a few ‘history of the novel’ buffs just now), it was not unusual to find illustrations. Pamela (1740), a book often considered to be the first true novel in English (now I’ve really irritated them) came with illustrations in its first edition. By the Victorian period, of course, illustrations were commonplace; even today you can find the original pictures in good editions of the novels of Charles Dickens. I’m not entirely sure why the habit died out – I’ll blame my usual favourite scapegoats of Modernist snobbery (probably bloody Virginia Woolf) and that ever-present vice, money, but I’m sure there a range of factors that have left our novels so curiously bare today.
I love illustrations in novels. Some might say that they detract from the reading experience, or remove the power of the imagination, yet in general I disagree. There is something uniquely evocative about the still image; detailed enough to paint a scene perfectly, yet open-ended enough for your imagination to fill in the gaps for movement, sound, smell and all the other senses. A simple portrait can tell you so much about a character; a beautiful sketch can lay out the theme of a passage of text like nothing else. While I don’t deny that sometimes a sense of mystery is important, images can be crucial in helping you fully realise the author’s intended vision when the description can get skimpy (look at J.R.R Tolkien’s writings on Treebeard or the Balrog); at other times, they harmonise with and enhance an author’s particular writing style. The Edge Chronicles – one of my all-time favourite children’s series – is an excellent example. Paul Stewart writes in a fast-paced, action-orientated style, and his books are set in a uniquely strange and unusual fantasy world. As such, Chris Riddell’s incredible artwork perfectly complements the writing, providing the detail to serve the action, and realising the partnership’s vision of their somewhat eccentric universe.
I always like fusion within and between different mediums of art, especially those involving my favourite form: the written word. I’m the sort of person who browses the internet for artistic renderings of my favourite books in order to see them from different perspectives, or who light-heartedly tries to assign different works of literature ‘theme tunes’ (Paradise Lost and the chorus of From the Pinnacle to the Pit: trust me). Strangely, I’ve never really read much in the way of comics or graphic novels, though the ones I have – V for Vendetta in particular – I have adored. If nothing else, it has taught me that graphic novels are most definitely not just for kids.
However, as I often seem to be writing on this website, the times do seem to be a’ changing. Graphic novels are becoming more mainstream and accepted, and I would cautiously assert that maybe even the covers of serious literary novels are now less bland than they used to be. Perhaps it is due to the influence of the internet and the easy access to images it facilitates – for instance, these days it would be odd to find a web article completely devoid of pictorial embellishment. Perhaps it is simply a matter of changing tastes. Whatever the reason, we seem to be leaving a few of the literary prejudices of the 20th century behind; will we see a complete revolution and the commonplace adoption of Victorianesque illustrations in the novels of the future? As always, only time will tell.