I happened to be in the British Library this week, and there's a walk-in exhibition of children's poetry. I'd really recommend a visit if you can spare the time: one highlight for me was a notebook with Christina Rossetti's 'Who has Seen the Wind' in her own writing. There's also a letter by Ted Hughes, but the bulk of the exhibition is of printed books, old and new, open at some utterly wonderful poems, together with illustrations, some charming, others spine-tingling. Among the spine-tingling ones I'd include a version of 'The Highwayman' by Alfred Noyes, illustrated by Charles Keeping in his inimitable scrawly ink and wash. Atmospheric, menacing, and ever so slightly camp, his masked highwayman glitters in the moonlight on a pale ribbon of a road, under bare trees whose branches appear to undulate as if underwater.
As my new book, Dark Angels, comes out this week, it set me thinking about the relationship between art and text: particularly cover art. We set a great deal of store on the perfect cover these days: publishers, authors and booksellers alike worry over the exact impression the cover should make: will it stand out? Will it have 'pick-up-a-bility'?
This seems to be a fairly modern phenomenon; and I'm not sure that children are as fussed as we are about superb covers. The Harry Potter books fared quite well without them. And while some of the classic books I loved best as a child had amazing covers, others did not: some (like my version of The Wind in the Willows, which was a wartime austerity volume passed on to me by my mother), had no artwork on the cover at all, and none inside either, and it didn't put me off. In fact, thinking about it, that's probably where I gained my habit of pulling out the most obscure looking books from second-hand shelves - to see if a dull cover hides some treasure within. To the left here is the 1959 cover of Lucy Boston's The Children of Green Knowe. It wouldn't exactly stand out on the shelf, but I loved and still love its dark mystery.
Perhaps we didn't have great expectation of covers when I was a child, as witness this 1968 Puffin edition of Meindert DeJong's The Wheel on The School. No self-respecting modern publisher would dream of putting out anything so dull. Would they?
Yet really, it does everything necessary: it's got the intriguing title, the author name, and a mildly interesting picture - even if the cartwheel with nesting storks appears to be hovering in mid-air. Compared with my modern cover, above, it could even be regarded as pleasingly uncluttered. At any rate, with such a book one wasted no time in opening it to see what it was about, and so the decision whether to read it or not was prose-based...
Others were better. Here's my much-read 1965 copy of Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. I don't know what the first edition cover looked like, but this picture has stuck with me for life. I love the brooding gaze of the dwarf and the rich, magical colours. All the same, it's quite clearly an 'old' look. You wouldn't get that framing effect today: the separation of artwork from title and author name. And here's the 1961 cover of Rosemary Sutcliff's classic Dawn Wind: it looks more modern, perhaps because Charles Keeping, who illustrated nearly all her books, was such an strong and innovative artist. In fact, the art here is almost more important than the title, and the author's own name all but fades into the dark shadows at the children's feet. Today we'd be wailing for gilt or silver foil to 'lift' the cover. And yet I'd hate to see this changed. You could recognise 'a Rosemary Sutcliff' at a glance, precisely because Keeping's style twinned with her historical genius made such a fantastic pairing.
Back then, of course, books even for older children were full of wonderful illustrations, and nobody thought it babyish. (Even today I can't see that anything by Charles Keeping could be regarded that way.) My Dark Angels, in common with many modern books for the 9+ 'market', has no illustrations at all, which is a shame, really. Edward Ardizzone was another artist whose work was instantly identifiable: here's a cover he did for one of my favourite books by the much-neglected Nicholas Stuart Gray: Down In the Cellar (1961).
Here again, the artist is as important as the author and shares the credit on the cover. His work wonderfully expressed the spooky, yet homely world that Gray conjured up (a bunch of E Nesbit-style children come across a wounded man in an old quarry, and discover he has escaped from a nearby fairy mound.)
I do love the cover HarperCollins has provided for my Dark Angels, but it will have to make its way in the world without a friendly artist to interpret some of its scenes between the pages. I can't help feeling a bit wistful - but I'm sure that one thing hasn't changed over the years: what matters most is what is under the cover, not what is on it.