Monday, April 20, 2009

Once Upon A Time

If we looked at the history of literature, I think a lot of the great books would be kids' books and I doubt this is just a coincidence. Now, more than anytime else, they've got a huge job to perform, engaging the toughest of audiences, and ensuring they maintain an interest in reading that serves them right into old age.

Comparatively speaking, however, children's books are a late growth in literature. Right up to the Georgian era in England there were few that were widely available, and certainly not to the masses. And God forbid they should aim to be readable! With few exceptions they were used purely as teaching aids, and usually with a strong moral overtone. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, specific children's books began to emerge, giving way over the course of the century for a growth of a dedicated market. The work of illustrators came to the fore, the pioneer of which was George Cruikshank, probably best known for his illustrations of the first English edition of the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales (1824).

Whilst the earliest illustrations were wood cut, by the 1860's or so, printing processes had moved into the mainstream, opening up new opportunities and a brighter, more colourful future. However, methods such as chromolithography, although radical and used in their day, soon became viewed as garish and limiting, giving rise to more technological advances in the area of photographic print processes.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer
via Wikipedia

The Old Woman Who Lived in A Shoe - Chromolithographic Print
via Wikipedia

Offset printing, an offshoot of the lithographic process fully emerged by the 1920's and really opened up the arena. With its ability to reproduce very fine lines, a wide range of paper stock could now be used and original artwork did not have to be reversed prior to reproduction. Another advantage of the method was that it allowed variations in the placement of text and illustration, integrating the two more organically and improving the aesthetics of the printed page.

The 1920's, 30's and 40's are often viewed as the golden age of illustration, seeing as they did, the emergence of such seminal books as
Jean de Brunhoff's Barbar the Little Elephant (1931), Dr Seuss's And To Think I saw it on Mulberry Street (1937) and in the early 40's and 50's E.B White's Stuart Little (1945) and Charlotte's Web (1952).

By the 1960's, technology had advanced yet again and a host of seldom used techniques began to be used in book illustration. The improvement in colour printing techniques meant that drawing was freed from the constraints of purely realistic representations, giving rise to fantastic imagistic fancies. Perhaps the most noted of these was Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are (1963) which depicts a surreal, almost nightmarish world and Eric Carle's tissue paper collage illustrations for The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1967) and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (1967)

All images above (including title image) via Vintage Children's Book Pool on

By the end of the 20th century, and now going into the next, illustration is at its most limitless. There is an incredible wave of new talent emerging, with an unparalleled variety and richness of voice. Nevertheless there remains for me a nostalgic fondness for the books I recall from my own youth, a sense of a time that was less knowing, less demanding, less cynical, maybe. A time when reading was one of only few pleasures...

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