Monday, 7 August 2017

A Thousand Words - #favekidsbookart by Dawn Finch

Copyright Ezra Jack Keats Foundation
Today is #favekidsbookart day and so I thought I would share a few of the illustrators who defined books for me as a child. It was an absolute joy to see that illustrator James Mayhew was sharing lots of his favourite book art on social media, and that he was kicking off the hashtag #favekidsbookart today (7th August), and this got me thinking about the art that I most remembered from the books I read as a child.

I thought about the wonder that is Ezra Jack Keats Snowy Day. This book still makes me want to make snow angels, and I had no idea how important this book was until I became an adult. I had no idea as a child that this was the first children’s picture book to feature a non-caricatured black child who was just going about their business, playing in the snow. To me it was the book that made me want a red coat with a pointy hood, and it made me go to bed every winter night praying for snow. It's not only an important book, it's a beautiful one too.

I also thought about the Dr Seuss stable of books and in particular those with the wonderful illustrations of PD Eastman. I was so hooked (pun intended) on Fish out of Water (written by Helen Palmer) that I even named my cat Otto. Eastman’s friendly and charming style became an integral part of the making the Dr Seuss brand instantly recognisable. My favourite Dr Seuss books were the ones with Eastman’s illustrations, a fact I only realised this week.

When I began thinking about my favourite children’s book illustrators and cover artists, I began to realise just how huge that impact was on my life. When I became a parent myself I instinctively reached out for many familiar illustrated books to share with my own child. Sharing the wonder of EH Shepard’s gorgeous Pooh illustrations, for example, made me recapture the innocence and joy of being a child all over again.
Katie and the Dinosaurs by James Mayhew -
Oh how my daughter longed to be Katie!

My daughter grew up with both of us discovering a whole new world of illustrators. We shared the captivating worlds of James Mayhew, Shirley Hughes, Jackie Morris, Anthony Browne, Michael Foreman, Janet Ahlberg, PJ Lynch, Chris Riddell, Axel Scheffler and so so many more. As a children’s librarian the extraordinary illustrators working in the world of children’s books provided me with treasure with every new box opened.
A glorious polar bear from Jackie Morris from her book
Something About A Bear

With this vast abundance of hugely talented illustrators, I wanted to see if I could pick just one. One illustrator who stayed in my thoughts from childhood and who had a profound impact on my life and, after much mental wrestling, it came to me that there really was one who fitted the bill perfectly.

That illustrator is Charles Keeping.
One of Charles Keeping's illustrations
from Kevin Crossley-Holland's retelling
of Beowulf

As a young reader I was given a copy of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Silver Branch. This is a wonderful book, and it set me on the path to read almost all of Sutcliffe’s work, but the illustrations inside and on the cover really brought the story home for me. I began to look for other books with Keeping’s illustrations in and, as a result, discovered writers like Henry Treece and Leon Garfield. On each visit to the library I continued to keep an eye open for Keeping’s illustrations and even as a sulky teen he drew me to poetry like Alfred Noye’s The Highwayman (for which Keeping won his second Greenaway Medal) and to the superb adaptation of Beowulf by Kevin Crossley-Holland. In turn his illustrations also drew me towards illustrators like Victor Ambrus, and to the work of more great writers. The images and the art were the hook that pulled me into deeper waters.

One of Chris Priestley's
illustrations from Anything
That Isn't This.

I still search for illustrations in this style, and it makes me think how important illustrations are to young readers, and not just in picture books. Illustrations in longer chapter books are an essential draw that engage younger readers, but this also works for us older readers too. How many of us love a beautifully illustrated edition of a book? I would dearly love to see a resurgence of illustration in books for young (and old!) adults too. I would like to see many more books like Chris Priestley’s excellent YA novel, Anything That Isn’t This. The Gothic and atmospheric pen and ink drawings vividly support the text and enhance the reading experience. Illustrations of this quality in longer texts draw us in and enfold us in the prose. They are more than just supportive to the text, they breath extra life into it.

And so, for this first #favekidsbookart day, I would like to dedicate this post to Charles Keeping and offer thanks for the legacy that he left. His illustrations were not only pictures worth a thousand words, but tens of thousands.

Charles Keeping illustration from Charles Noyes' The Highwayman

Detail from Charles Keeping's illustration for Charles Noye's The Highwayman

Dawn Finch is a children's author and librarian, and past president of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. She is also a member of the Society of Authors'
Children's Writers and Illustrators Committee.


Penny Dolan said...

Keeping is one of my favourite illustrators too. Did you know there's now a Keeping Gallery in Shortlands, South London, looked after by their family? It's a private gallery (& house) focusing on his work and that of his artist wife. I haven't been yet, but met his son at a big textile exhibition & show up here in Yorkshire, where some of theri work was on display, particularly her textile art.

I think you have to book, rather than turn up expecting it to be open.

Susan Price said...

Oh yes, Charles Keeping - superb!
Also Maurice Sendak - and Jan Pienkowski - Voytech Kubasta - Miss Potter!

Joan Lennon said...

Charles Keeping - huzzah!

Anonymous said...

Oooh, great stuff. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

Helen Larder said...

What a lovely post and beautiful illustrations xxxx