People assume that picture books are for children. They’re not, they are for the relationship between adults and children. In fact, picture books are some of the only books that are read by adults and children at the same time; one of their purposes is precisely to allow adults and children to enjoy books together, and talk about it together. Whether you are a parent, a teacher or a babysitter, while you’re reading a book to a child, they are often looking closely at the pictures. When adults do take time to look closely at the illustrations too, they will notice things hidden in there that add to the story, and are an essential part of the storytelling: emotions expressed, a sense of atmosphere, the reactions of other characters – things are that are not written into the words. The work of an illustrator is not just for the child, it is for you too, as an adult. So, when you’re next reading a book with a child, take extra time to really look at the work of the illustrator too – your time will be rewarded!
What about illustrated books for older children? Who decided, and when, that pictures in books were only for very young children? Historically, many adult novels were illustrated. Not only can images really enrich an older child’s (or an adult’s!) enjoyment of a book, but illustration has always been a vital part of storytelling. Indeed, some of our earliest stories are told in image form and not in words at all; as far as we know human’s have been using visual forms of storytelling for 45,500 years. Visual literacy is a vital part of a child’s education too, so please do not feel that if your older child chooses graphic novels or illustrated chapter books, that those books are somehow ‘too young’ or beneath them. These are still ‘proper books’, in fact I would argue that they are bigger and broader in content than unillustrated books.
We are in a great age of illustration – we have still got great illustrators from many of our own childhoods, such as Quentin Blake and Helen Oxenbury, and ALSO we have brilliant illustrators of our own generation, like Jackie Morris, Chris Riddell and James Mayhew working at the top of their game – and then also an entire generation or two of new illustrators emerging into the book industry. If you don’t know it already, check out work by Melissa Castrillion, Lauren O’Hara and Chie Kutsuwada.
Happily we’re seeing more and more illustrated books for older children and also for adults appearing in the market too. So next time you are in a bookshop or a library, think about exploring the illustration as well as the words!
Written by Tamsin Rosewell, Bookseller and Illustrator