Author-Artist Double Acts

One of my most treasured possessions is a copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. While growing up, Andersen’s stories unnerved me. Very few of them had positive closure and at times highly ambiguous (Ugly Duckling, anyone?) and for a little girl who liked utopian, apple-pie endings where everyone lived happily ever after, Andersen’s stories usually left me sad. The Little Mermaid dies, the girl with the red shoes dies, the matchstick girl dies, the fir tree dies, the emperor in the Emperor and Nightingale, also dies – do you see where I’m going here?

But then I received a beautifully illustrated copy of Andersen’s stories from my mum’s friend which slightly altered my attitude to Andersen. It was the books I read as a kid which paved my gradual interest in art and soon I started taking note of various illustrators as well.

I know most people agree that Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl were the quintessential writer-illustrator duo but I could never reconcile myself to Blake’s scrawls and always felt that it detracted from Dahl’s genius instead of complementing it. I’m aware that I’m a minority here because Blake has been hailed as one of England’s foremost illustrators and the Dahl-Blake combo has been described as a perfect example of author-artist chemistry. But I always felt disappointed to see my favourite characters reduced to almost careless squiggles, with large dots for eyes and overlarge hands. I get the feeling that Blake was trying to balance a fine line between both caricatures and sketches but it never worked for me.

Two double acts I really enjoyed were Jacqueline Wilson-Nick Sharratt and C.S. Lewis-Pauline Baynes.

Wilson was a staple in my adolescent reading and Sharratt’s simple line drawings went just right with Wilson’s writing which was catered mainly to girls aged 11 – 16. Obviously, I went through a Sharratt phase where I tried (unsuccessfully) to model my drawings according to his. Sharratt had an excellent eye for just the right amount of detail – a print on a dress, an extra fluff on a cloud, markings on leaves – which I really liked.


Bayne’s simple sketches brought to life characters I’d never even heard of before.  Detailed illustrations of battles, Mr. Tumnus, Aslan and the Pevensies were beautifully bought to life – but done in a way which didn’t impinge on the reader’s imagination and their own versions of the scenes and the characters. I loved the Narnia Maps and later read that Pauline occasionally illustrated for Tolkien as well. The Telegraph has an obituary on her, I think she sounds fascinating.

But, my (insert superlative of choice) favourite was my Hans Christian Andersen book. The book is filled with beautifully intricate, whimsical, old school illustrations which you’d be hard pressed to find amidst the sea of mediocre illustrated children’s books these days which look positively kitsch in comparison. Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone (they were an illustrating duo) and the author were centuries apart but the obvious chemistry between the artists and Andersen’s stories pervades the book. I think the illustration eclipsed the stories at times, because I would pore over the drawings and make my own stories with spectacular disregard for authorial intent. The pictures really don’t do justice to the drawings. I would love to get my hands on a copy of their illustrations of the Grimms Fairytales – the Grimms Brothers are dearer to me and this combination would have been electric.

Despite my fondness for illustrated books, I’ve never actually warmed to comics and graphic novels. The lines between comic s and graphic novels have always been slightly blurred for me. I grew up on a steady diet of Garfield, TinTin, Asterix and Calvin and Hobbes but my die-hard graphic novel fan-friends scoff at me and tell me that these don’t count/aren’t enough. From what I see, the crux of graphic novels are basically comics – But with fancier packaging, marginally deeper story lines and a lot heavier on the purse. Yes? No?

I remember my dad presenting me with comic versions of Oliver Twist and Kidnapped years back. I looked  at the too-bright colours of the comic strips, the dialogue watered down to a handful of words peppered with exclamation marks with all my 13 year old contempt, wondering sadly when words ceased to be enough.

I like art and I like reading but I’ve always felt that graphic novels tended to compromise on the literature aspect instead of synthesising words and art. When classics are condensed into 50 page graphic novels, the nuances in the language and the detail are also watered down. I haven’t written away the genre completely though, so there might be hope for me yet.

This started off as an elegy to my beautiful Andersen book and to Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone but as you can see, I got a little carried away. Chemistry between an author and an illustrator is a beautiful thing. Do add in your favourite author-artist combos if you have any. If you’d like to browse more book illustrations, this site has some nice stuff


14 thoughts on “Author-Artist Double Acts

  1. Those are gorgeous. Like TMnY, my head went straight to Blyton illustrators. But before that there’s the immense flood of Chinese storybooks translated to English and Sinhala that showed up in the 90’s. Some of those had amazingly gorgeous illustrations

    Re: graphic novels. All I’m going to tell you is to read Neil Gaiman’s magnificent Sandman series. After that there’s a pantheon of graphic novels with themes as deep as any other printed word if you so desire to brave the waters; Transmetropolitan, Death – The High Cost of Living, 300, Persepolis, Death Note, V for Vendetta etc.

    I think Frank Miller’s Sin City is the best example of words and illustrations coming together in perfect synergy. Fair warning, it is extremely dark in tone. The illustrations compliment the impact of the words or vice versa if you so prefer.

    Marvel and DC with their superheroes are not the high point of graphic novels. They are the “pop” to a greater less famous “classic”. Its like comparing Bieber and Britney to The Beatles and Led Zeppelin.


    • Thanks for the recommendations 🙂 I recently wrapped up Blankets – Loved the illustrations, hated the way the story had been written. I’ve watched Persepolis but haven’t read the book and of course Sandman has been recommended by everyone I know. I’ve never come across these Chinese story books, strangely. Shall hunt around for them.


  2. Beautiful post, and you took me on a walk through childhood. Back when I used to actually read. 😀

    Some of the most beautiful illustrations I’ve seen were on Russian books, but I’m also a fan of comic art (Tintin) and that kind of thing. Of course as I grew older I came to realise that the most beautiful drawings were maps and flags and stuff like that… *floats off into nerdville* 😀


    • I remember the Russian books! I think my cousin had a few fairytale books and I borrowed them off her. I preferred Asterix over Tintin in terms of actual reading, but I enjoyed the illustrations in Tintin better 🙂 Flags and maps eh? Interesting!


    • Haren, that was a great read. Thanks for sharing. Terribly perturbed by the cannibal stew story and the one about the stubborn child. Didn’t realize the Grimm brothers were so..well.. grim. Been meaning to pick up a copy of Politically Correct bedtime stories as well – for kicks 🙂


  3. Hi! You may find this a nutty request out of the blue, but right out let me tell you that I have the very same Hans Christian Andersen book!
    I have been looking for another copy online on and off for years and I can’t tell you how delighted I am that i finally found someone else who does.
    You see, in a mass moving of all my books the first two pages went missing — and I would really, really do anything to obtain at least scanned copies that I can get printed once again to complete it. Like you, I’ve had it in my family for decades and it’s my very favourite…
    I live in Mumbai…would you be willing to help me, please, may I email you regarding this? It really would mean the world to me….
    S. Dalal


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