History and Future of Children’s Book Illustrations

Tia Hendricks

Tenniel illustration

John Tenniel, “Off with Her Head!” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, 1867, Wood engraving. © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London.

The children’s books that I grew up with are nostalgic as the pictures’ bright colours, moralistic stories, and personified animals bring me back to childhood. Our favourite illustrated books may be action-filled, Christmas themed, littered with fairies, or from Whoville. Bringing the imagination to the future with doctors and firefighters or solving mysteries with our best friends, the few sentences illustrated with our favourite characters bring us joy and excitement. Children’s book illustrations have changed heavily over time due to many things: technology for how the illustration is drawn and produced, illustrators who have dared to create something different than the norm, and changing the focus of selling to a specific gender. Altering what was once lifeless pictures to a true art where artists can flourish with imagination and talent, using vibrant colours now available in publishing instead of black and white from older technology, and changing the scary morals that was once in every story to fantastical fairy tales and funny caricatures, all influencing our children’s book illustrations that kids enjoy today.

Technology for children’s book illustrations began with block books in the 15th century, “the illustration was carved with the story” (Russel), creating a pathway for art in other technologies. However, children’s books never became a generalized part of childhood until the late 18th century when printing and engraving techniques developed, and the Golden Age of Illustration begun. Due to more middle-class jobs and wealth available, more people were able to afford books written specifically for their children, instead of modifying the gruesome tales they had for themselves. These stories were “particularly about being honest, respectful to those of lesser social status, self-reliant… industrious and obedient” (Scapple 146). Authors and artists aimed to create illustrations that taught children to be well-behaved, which was important for selling to literate parents.

Potter illustration

Beatrix Potter, “Now run along, and don’t get into mischief. I am going out.” The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, 1901, Watercolor and ink on paper.

The Golden Age of Illustration brought along amazing British artists including George Cruikshank, John Tenniel, Edward Lear, Beatrix Potter, and Arthur Rackham, all of which influenced a change in the artform. George Cruikshank illustrated one of the most well-known children’s storybooks in history called German Popular Stories (featuring “The Fisherman and His Wife,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “Snow White”), famously written by the Brothers Grimm. These stories were not only educational, but fun for children to read, and changed the previous negative ideas towards folk and fairy tales: “Before the publication of German Popular Stories, children’s book illustrations tended to be static and lifeless rather than reflective of the lively characters Cruikshank created” (Kosik 8). His artwork influenced great works like John Tenniel’s illustrations of Alice in Wonderland, where the pictures perfectly represented the adjacent storyline. The publication of Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense in 1848 became the first children’s book that was written “simply to entertain children” (Kosik). Filled to the brim with limericks and caricatures, this book became revolutionary as it changed how people saw children’s books, being for fun instead of morality. An illustrator who represents the peak of the Golden Age of Illustration with her personified woodland creatures is Beatrix Potter. Her artwork is representative of children’s illustrations with her bright watercolours and detail in pastel clothing and bunny ears from The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Finally, the invention of Colourtype in 1905 by Carl Hentschel revolutionized colour in children’s book illustrations. Although an expensive process, all the colour and detail would be easily seen on the prints, becoming financially beneficial for Arthur Rackham’s career illustrating fairy tales and nursery rhymes. This useful invention has created a lasting impact on the fine art of children’s book illustrations.

Wyeth illustration

N.C. Wyeth, “I said goodbye to Mother and the Cove.” Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1911, oil on canvas.

Between 1880 and 1900, European and American Golden Age illustrators shifted their focus onto adolescent and pre-adolescent boys as they grew up after the American Civil War. These stories and illustrations were about adventures with pirates and knights, idealizing masculinity. Illustrators were aware of the influence their detailed uniforms, action-packed storylines, and historical settings would have on the boys reading them, preparing them for the battlefield as soldiers. For example, a scene by Robert Louis Stevenson in Treasure Island called “I said good-bye to my Mother and the Cove” (Wyeth) shows a young man facing his back towards his sobbing mother as his stance displays bravery yet his face proves he is nervous as he is about to leave her behind. These stories, showing boys become men through violence, torture, and a lack of female characters, influenced an equality shift as the stories represented white males: “The godlessness, the violence, the inhumanity of the enemy had to be stressed in text and in illustration, a means of proving the political, moral, and racial rightness of the protagonist’s cause” (Schulman 226). In 1911, these story lines helped to influence young soldiers into believing the brutality of their enemies as they saw them wickedly represented in children’s illustrations, showing illustrations are greatly effective in children’s minds.

Since the 18th century, children’s book illustrations and illustrators have brought many influential changes to the stories we grew up with. Illustrators have introduced purely enjoyable pictures instead of illustrations that used to be exclusively moralistic and dull, technology has advanced colour and boldness in illustrations, and stories, along with their pictures, changed their audience to influence young children of a specific gender. The future of the book will continue to uphold moralistic storylines with attractive drawings, but it will not be focused on selling to adolescent boys as it had in the past. Instead, books will focus on equality for gender and race and not worry about stereotypes. This is already seen in Robert Munsch’s story, The Paper Bag Princess, where he reads his story on a YouTube video for CBC: “Ronald says ’Elizabeth! Your hair is all dirty, your clothes are all messed up, you don’t have any shoes on, and you smell like a dragon’s ear. Come back and rescue me when you look like a real princess.’” In the story, the prince proves his ignorance of real beauty and does not thank Elizabeth, the main character, for rescuing him. So, the princess uses his words to tell him he does not have the manners of a true prince and they do not get married as planned. Michael Martchenko illustrates Munsch’s story with Elizabeth drawn in a paper bag and the prince looking clean and, comically, holding a tennis racket as he is being saved. Beginning the story with Elizabeth dressed elegantly and slowly becoming dirtier as she outsmarts the dragon, who is illustrated to look sassy before he passes out on the ground, shows Martchenko’s talent with children’s book illustrations. The future of children’s book illustrations will continue to be filled with Beatrix Potter’s pastel colours, Edward Lear’s caricatures, and Michael Martchenko’s illustrations for new moralistic stories, keeping the art alive and children entertained.

Works Cited

Kosik, Corryn. “Children’s Book Illustrators in the Golden Age of Illustration.” Norman Rockwell Museum, June 2018, Illustration History, https://www.illustrationhistory.org/essays/childrens-book-illustrators-in-the-golden-age-of-illustration. Accessed 8 Oct. 2020.

Potter, Beatrix. “Now run along, and don’t get into mischief. I am going out.”, 2005. Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/14838/14838-h/14838-h.htm
 Accessed 15 Oct. 2020.

Russell, Chris. “A Brief History of Book Illustration; Are We at the Start of Another Golden Age for Image/Text Collaboration?” Grove Atlantic, January 2016, Literary Hub, https://lithub.com/a-brief-history-of-book-illustration/. Accessed 8 Oct. 2020.

Scapple, Sharon Marie. “History of Children’s Books Revisited.” The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 21, no. 1, 1997, pp. 145-147. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/uni.1997.0005.

Schulman, Vanessa Meikle. “’The books we all read’: The Golden Age of Children’s Book Illustration and American Soldiers in the Great War.” The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 41, 2, April 2017, pp. 204-230. ProQuest, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/uni.2017.0019.

Tenniel, John. “Off with her head!”, 1867. Royal Academy of Arts. www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/work-of-art/off-with-her-head. Accessed 14 Oct. 2020.

“Watch world-renowned storyteller Robert Munsch perform The Paper Bag Princess.” YouTube, uploaded by CBC, 21 Dec. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1TYZ5xGJRM&feature=youtu.be. Accessed 8 Oct. 2020.

Wyeth, N. C. “I said goodbye to Mother and the Cove.”, 1911. The Informed Illustrator. https://www.theinformedillustrator.com/2014/09/concept-art-illustration.html. Accessed 14 Oct. 2020.

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