We’ve been spoiled with some amazing books about children’s books lately. First came the essential Oxford Companion by Daniel Hahn, with three and a half thousand perfectly encapsulated entries on the entire history of children’s literature. Now comes a far more selective publication by Martin Salisbury, professor of illustration at the Cambridge school of art.
100 Great Children’s Picture Books is the antidote to unsatisfying polls like this one from the BBC which deliver lists of unarguable classics but offer up few surprises. Salisbury has taken the other tack; instead of trying create a comprehensive list he’s put together a highly personal list based on ‘un-academic, unscientific criteria, ultimately based on the ‘wow factor’.
This is a book that will appeal both to casual readers and obsessives who want to dig a little deeper into the rich history of the picture book. Even when dealing with famous names like Jon Klassen we’re invited to look at the work in new ways. On ‘I Want my Hat Back’ (2012) Salisbury writes, ‘All matters that are not hat related are presented in shades of brown; the only other colour – red – appears in relation to the missing hat. The tiniest changes in the depiction of the bear’s eyes assume massive narrative power indicating his moments of realisation. It is at these moments that he heads back in the other direction to solve the mystery.’
Maurice Sendak appears too, though we aren’t presented with another ride around the familiar sights of Wild Thing country, instead Salisbury takes us to the equally dreamlike land of ‘The Moon Jumpers’ (1959). ‘This is a book that finds the great master in lyrical sensual mode… Sendak’s images lend an almost pagan, ritualist feel to the book as he uses heavily opaque paint to create formalized shapes… the artist eschews representational interest in architecture or flora to create a primitive, Rousseau-esque atmosphere.’
Choosing a selection of books to represent this book proved a nearly impossible task – my copy is filled with dozens of bits of sticky yellow paper. Unable to choose the defining titles within the book I have stayed true to the author’s mission statement and chosen the titles that made me go ‘wow’.
Martin Salisbury reminds us just how young a medium the picture book actually is, not really coalescing into the form we know today until the 1920s. From this decade we meet one of the forgotten pioneers, the ‘infant prodigy’ Edy Legrand, who at the age of 20 produced the remarkable ‘Voyages et glorieuse decouvertes des grandes navigateurs’. Pictured below is a ‘stunning illustration of Robert Cavelier and his “courageous companions” receiving homage of native Americans as he takes possession of Louisiana.’ Politically correct this is not, but it is glorious.
In these early days we see that even great masters like Edward Ardizzone took a little while to strike a suitable tone for their very young audience. Even in 1937 his book ‘Lucy Brown and Mr. Grimes’ about a ‘friendship between a young girl and a lonely old man was deemed worrisome and inappropriate… and the book’s text does seem extraordinarily naive, even for times that were less obsessed with political correctness.’
He was at it again in 1939 when he took children to one of his favourite places – the pub. ‘The Local’ explores pub culture in full colour, ‘laden with narrative, anecdotal detail, informed by the hours that Ardizzone liked to spend in his favourite pubs in London’s Maida Vale.’ I would love to see some of today’s picture book writers drawing the adult world like this, to see inside Quentin Blake’s local maybe, or go with Shirley Hughes at the dog track.
There are many many great surprises here. Who knew for instance that Peter Rabbit – so inextricably linked with the craft of Beatrix Potter – was ever illustrated by other artists? Well it was, many times. The best was undoubtedly Leonard Weisgard’s 1955 update in which ‘Mr McGregor is transformed into a 1950s gardener and the rabbits are similarly updated. The adventure takes place against a backdrop of rich colour and pattern.’
A significant chunk is given over to the art school innovators of the ’60s. Of course the greats – Judith Kerr, Brian Wildsmith and John Burningham – are all represented, but there is plenty of space for lesser known names. Gerald and Elizabeth Rose specialised in animal characters and scenes from the natural world. Old Winkle and the Seagulls (1960) is a particularly joyous example.
At the other end of the decade we meet Ezra Jack Keats a self taught artist who learnt his trade working for Marvel comics. He moved into picture books, filling a gap in the market for depictions of street life populated by working class, often black characters. ‘Goggles!’ (1969) follows Peter and Archie as they flee from some older kids who are trying to steal a pair of motorbike goggles that they’ve found in the wasteland where they play.
There’s a nod to Keats’ comic book past in Peter’s appearance; his oversized goggles suggesting a super sighted X-Man and the expanded vistas of the picture book format are used to pack as much dynamic action into a double page spread as you’d get in a single issue of Captain Marvel.
As well as introducing treasures from the US and Britain, Salisbury gives a third of the space over to international picture books. Many of the titles included have never been translated, so there’s a very good chance English readers would have never seen them had it not been for this book. One book that loses nothing in translation is Shigeo Nishimura’s silent classic from 1980 Yako Ressha (Night Train). It’s a masterclass in how to use the format to convey narrative and movement.
‘Each spread continues in its long landscape format, showing the train at exactly the same scale page by page, on its journey as we observe the passengers on their journey in cut-out. We follow charming mini narratives of other passengers and their activities as time goes by… dad takes a little boy to the toilet; mum changes a nappy as the train continues its journey through the snow.’
There are lost classics from our own shores too. ‘The Favershams’ (1982) is Roy Gerrard’s ‘remorselessly whimsical’ (his own description) tale of a group of squashed colonial characters rendered in highly detailed watercolours. It’s Beryl Cook through the looking glass.
Contemporary illustrators are extremely well catered for. Salisbury’s favourite is clearly the French based Italian author Beatrice Alemagna, who graced the cover of his last book and is one of the few artists to get two entries (along with Sendak and Ardizzone). It’s well deserved, the 2002 book Gisèle de verre (Glass Gisèle) is a parable of fragile beauty. Gisèle is ‘a girl born with transparent skin. Everyone can see through her and her thoughts are visible to the world.’ Initially an object of fascination, as she grows up Gisèle’s thoughts become less charmingly innocent. ‘You cannot possibly think that? Are you not ashamed of such horrors?’
Gisèle de Verre remains unpublished in English, but hopefully Alemagna’s growing popularity with books like ‘A Lion in Paris’ might persuade her publishers to cast an eye over her back catalogue. 100 Great Children’s Picture Books is like that all the way through, constantly propelling the reader off in search of forgotten illustrators and lesser known works. It’s one of those books that will inspire a lifetime of discovery.
100 Great Children’s Picture Books is published by Laurence King