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 http://www.booksillustrated.com/