Wednesday 1 April 2015

The History of Picture Books: The Illustrations

"Caldecott's work heralds the beginning of the picture book." 
(Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Grow)

Ralph Caldecott courtesy

One hundred and thirty years ago, artist Randolph Caldecott was one of the first artists "to elevate the image into a storytelling vehicle" (  As Maurice Sendak explained:

"Caldecott's work heralds the beginning of the picture book.  He devised an ingenious juxtaposition of picture and word, a counter point that never happened before.  Words are left out -- but the picture says it.  Pictures are left out, but the words say it.  In short, it is the invention of the picture book."

The House That Jack Built and Ride a Cock Horse to Branbury Cross are but two of Caldecott's "toy books".  The precursor to the picture book, the toy book, popular in Victorian-era England, featured six illustrations, a small amount of text, and sold for six pence.

Caldecott's work was so influential that a picture book award was named in his honour.  The first Caldecott Medal, awarded in 1938 for "the most distinguishable American picture book for children", went to Animals of the Bible by Dorothy Lathrop.  It has been awarded every year since.

Walter Crane, another Victorian era illustrator, wrote toy books as well including Baby's Own Aesop, which included several fables, and The Alphabet of Old Friends, an early ABC book. 

According to blogger Maria Popova, picture books blossomed in the late 1800's and early 1900's thanks to the advances in print technology, the changing attitude towards children and the new class of artists.  

Picture books really came into their own in the 1920's.  The Story of Dr. Doolittle, which debuted in 1920, is about a man who discovers he can talk to animals.  It is one of twelve books written by Hugh Lofting.  The highly successful Millions of Cats, illustrated by painter Wanda Gag, appeared on bookshelves in 1928.  Gag penned over a dozen picture books.

While many successful picture books came out of Britain, we cannot neglect to talk about France. Cecile de Brunhoff used to tell her young sons a story at bedtime about an elephant who escapes from the zoo to a city which resembles Paris, marries and raises a family.  Her sons recommended to their dad, a painter, that he make the story into a picture book.  The result was Histoire de Babar which first appeared in print in 1931.  Two years later, it was translated into English as Babar the Elephant
Jean de Brunhoff, who wrote seven books, passed away in the 1940's, but his son Laurent took over the series, producing dozens more.

Cover of the first Babar story, Histoire de Babar (Story of Babar), published 1931

In 1937, Theodor Geisel debuted in the children's book field with his story And to Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street.  To learn how the former cartoonist broke into the children's book business, see my post "From Madison Ave to Mulberry St" at Full of unmistakable rhythm and rhyme, Geisel's books were an immediate success.  While his earliest works were drawn with pencil, he used pen and ink after the Second World War.  Later books, like The Lorax, were filled with colour.  Under the nom de plume Dr. Seuss, he published over 60 books.

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.png

While World War II limited the supply of paper and manpower in the publishing houses, new children's books still rolled off the presses.  Curious George, the creation of the Reyersbach's, a Jewish couple who fled Paris immediately before the Nazi invasion, was based on a monkey and his mishaps.  To learn more about how the book came to be published, read "The Journey that Saved Curious George" at  Still popular today, the series has sold 25 million copies.

Front Cover

The line between author and artist started to blur in the 1950's.  Paul Rand, a proponent of visual thinking, produced such books as Sparkle & Spin, Little 1, and Listen!  Listen!

British artists, known for their use of vibrant paint and colours, appeared in the 1960's.  Maurice Sendak produced his famous story Where the Wild Things Are (1963).  Meanwhile, in eastern Europe, Miroslav Sasek, a Czech immigrant to Germany, wrote Stone is Not Cold (1961) and This is Paris (1959) the first of 18 such books.  

Political subjects infiltrated the world of picture books with stories like The Butter Battle Book (1984), a Cold War tale, by Dr. Seuss, and No Hay Tiempo Para Jugar or No Time to Play (2004), based on child labourers in Mexico.  

Today, e-books are all over the Internet.  It's a Book (2010) by Lane Smith features a character examining a good old fashioned book and asking:  How do you scroll down?  Does it need a password?  Can it tweet?  But good old fashioned books continue to grace the shelves of our bookstores and libraries, full of beautiful artwork and compelling stories.

Note:  For more information, read Children's Picturebooks:  The Art of Visual Storytelling by Martin Salisbury & Morag Styles.

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