When Does a Children’s Book Illustrator Fail

Great illustrated books are a flawless amalgamation of words and visuals which make for publishing legends. But what happens when an illustrated book fails and how does the work of an illustrator contribute to this failure?

Writer-Illustrator Mismatch

Sometimes the writer-illustrator collaboration just does not work and this is reflected in the mismatch between the text and the artwork in the book. Surprisingly, this can happen to even the well-established professionals in the business. Several reviews of Jacqueline Wilson’s book ‘The Illustrated Mum’ have pointed to the wrong fit with respect to the illustrator Nick Sharratt, who has previously worked with the writer on ‘Tracy Beaker Series’. The lesson here seems to be that what worked once may not work repeatedly.

This brings to mind the famous illustrator, Quentin Blake’s golden rule for illustrators: “be adaptable”. Having worked with Roald Dahl, he elaborated on how he visualized each of the writer’s books differently because they were different books that needed different illustrations. “The Twits is a very stringent caricature sort of book, while others, like Danny, the Champion of the World are almost lyrical,” he said.

Illustrations do not support the narrative

Since children are very powerful visual thinkers, effective illustrations help with the sequencing of the story and in moving the narrative forward. Pictures also help children to interpret the story differently and to dig a little deeper into the written text. In the book “Where Wild Things Are”, the narrative speaks of “Max making mischief of one kind and another” while the illustrations detail the mischief in the narrative. This allows the young reader to explore the story independently of the written content. In many cases, the illustrators are not able to break out of the constraints of the story structure and enrich the story beyond the written words and this can be chalked up as a failure on the part of the illustrator.

Overshadowing the writer

The illustrator’s job is to complement the text and not to overpower it. Another of Quentin’s Blake’s rules is: ‘Play up the author’. As he states, the book is the brainchild of the author and he is the main character. The role of the illustrator is to back up the author and form a formidable double act with him. To illustrate the point he says, “There’s a point in Matilda where Trunchbull is so cross that she picks up a plate and smashes it over Bruce Bogtrotter’s head. I chose to draw the moment when she lifted up the plate, not the bit where she hits him with it, because that’s the writer’s moment. Your job is to work around that.” As he rightly points out, any illustrator who does not relinquish the lead to the author has failed to understand the true nature of book illustrations.

Too Scary, Too inappropriate

The illustrator needs to consider the age group of the child when he visualizes the story and begins the artwork. Consider the book, “That’s Not Your Mommy Anymore.” Since it is a zombie tale aimed at children in the 4-8 age group, the narrative needs to be softened with illustrations that counter the written text. Instead of working at a contrast, the illustrator has chosen to complement and accentuate the text with realistic visuals that are likely to traumatize little readers.

Similarly, Mem Fox’s latest book about a witch called Daisy O’Grady has illustrations that are not quite a match for the target audience. While the book is aimed at age group 3 and above, the illustrations by Vivienne Goodman are too scary for young readers. Illustrations of crawling insects, dead mouse and the witch herself are likely to scare away the target audience and make the book quite unsuitable for bedtime reading. Any children’s picture book that does not endear itself to children and parents because it is too scary can be considered a failure for the illustrator.

Too Boring

Since children’s picture books are often read repeatedly, it is important for the illustrators to conjure up unique characters who will grow on the readers. It is important for the illustrator to add to the detailing, until such a time that the readers actually look forward to meeting the characters at each reading. The intricate details that will reveal themselves over time are a great way to keep the young readers and the parents coming back to the book every night. An illustrator fails in moving beyond the ordinary if he is unable to break free of his inhibitions. Unless an illustrator has his own unique brand of artwork, he cannot really claim to have attained success as an artist.

Illustrated books are a wonderful art form and rightly considered so by popular opinion. They are wonderful to craft, lovely to share and the best of them are loved forever by the doting readers. To be a part of these iconic stories, an illustrator must work at honing his skills and learn from failures, his own and those of his peers!

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