Illustrations for children’s books: what went wrong??

There was a Golden Age of artwork in children’s books. It combined originality with humor and a whimsically artistic approach. I’m thinking of Madeline, Wind in the Willows, The 500 hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and other Dr. Seuss. These are not isolated examples.

Now most children’s books have cartoon-like illustrations — often humorous, but rarely original, and hardly artistic. They are afflicted with a sameness that quickly palls, like a sauce served morning, noon, and night, over every dish.

Not all children’s books have this sickness. Not Roald Dahl’s books, heavy with great illustrations. Not The Edge Chronicles, which has held my granddaughter’s interest through many volumes. Not The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a ship of her own making. But these exceptions are all too few; in the river of children’s lit, most of the fish look alike.

I would say this cartoon-based style has poisoned the public taste, but in truth it is a symptom not a cause. What brought about this change?  Was it Disney, and a succession of lookalike princesses? Was it the trivial popular artwork of the Poky Little Puppy and the other Little Golden Books? Or is it a stylistic sea change? Have we passed irrevocably into the land of shallow?

An Amazon reviewer of our book caught the idea:

Is it terribly unfair, or naive, or plain stupid to give a book five stars only because the artwork is by the most brilliant, talented, wonderful artist in these otherwise burnt-black and bereft united states? Do you really expect me to answer my own rhetorical question? Just buy the book.

I admit it. I grew up with a working artist. When I look at a children’s book, the art comes first to my eye. If the artwork isn’t original, why would I want to read the story?

Let’s have a new age of reviews of children’s books. I hunger for reviews that remark on the illustrations as much as the story. When kids grow up, it’s the illustrations they remember. Let’s give them something worth remembering!    …/jay

Imagefrom Norm and Burny: The Black Square

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