I always adored illustrated stories when I was little. Even when I started reading books for older children, I kept coming back to my illustrated stories. As an adult, I’ve hung on to the ones that I found most fascinating.
Today, I will revisit them to take you through a selection of these stories and their illustrations, and why I found them so engaging. There are so many that this post will be divided into more than one part.
In no particular order, the books featured in this post are:
- Outside Over There – Maurice Sendak
- Beauty and the Beast and Other Stories – Adèle Geras & Louise Brierley
- Snow-White – Josephine Poole & Angela Barrett
- The Orchard Book of Stories from the Ballet – Geraldine McCaughrean & Angela Barrett
- The Orchard Book of Mythical Birds & Beasts – Margaret Mayo & Jane Ray
- Masquerade – Kit Williams
- The Arabian Nights – Neil Philip & Sheila Moxley
Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak
Today, Maurice Sendak is best known for Where the Wild Things Are, about a little boy named Max and the beasts he meets. Sendak’s works were sometimes criticised for being dark or frightening, but this was part of their fascination for children everywhere. This was certainly the case for me, as Outside Over There deals with some dark themes, like goblins coming through the window to steal your baby sister…
…and replacing her with a changeling made of ice.
Although the storyline is dark, it has a happy ending. The hooded goblins evoked both fear and fascination, while the intricate drawings offered more to see the more you looked. Here is a detail showing Ida’s lonely mother sitting in the garden.
This was one of my earliest picture books, and some of the pages are ripped from all the times I poured through it.
Many of the books featured here in Part 1 are re-imagined stories or well known tales re-written by various authors. Although the trope of goblins and changelings had been reused throughout literature, Sendak made it his own in this story. As a gifted illustrator who also took on the role of author to create his own captivating tale, I have great respect for the accomplishments of Maurice Sendak.
Beauty and the Beast and Other Stories – retold by Adèle Geras & illustrated by Louise Brierley
A much wordier book than Outside Over There, Beauty and the Beast and Other Stories retells well known classics for children. Intentional or not, many of them also had a dark twist, as can be seen in list of stories included on the contents page, which is whimsically illustrated with daisies.
Many of the stories have themes of jealousy, vanity, greed or danger, and the drawings by Louise Brierley add to this. She creates depth through darkness and a sense of threat through muted colours and indistinct forms.
In Beauty and the Beast, we never see the Beast clearly; he is only represented as an indistinct figure at the end of a corridor. This threat of an unknown presence lurking close to the vulnerable Belle made the story enticing and frightening at the same time.
The depth of Louise Brierley’s illustrations draw you in. The shapes of buildings or trees are made squatter, while people are stretched or elongated. The waving branches of the trees and the reduced colour palette make the drawings feel somehow bleak, and the world in which the characters are living appear threatening.
While the stories retold here, such as The Tinderbox and Hansel and Gretel do have happy endings, they also include themes of threat and death. The author and illustrator have successfully walked the fine line between fascination and fear to create stories you want to read again.
Snow-White – written by Josephine Poole & illustrated by Angela Barrett
Angela Barrett is a supremely talented illustrator, and I always loved books illustrated by her. The retelling of this popular classic is no different. She brought a darkness to the story. We feel the wildness of the woods and Snow-White’s panic as she runs through them.
I loved the emotion that she brings to her illustrations. You can feel the strong emotions the characters feel for each other. We can see how much Snow-White enjoys dancing, and the affection she has for her dancing master in this picture.
But off to the side we can also see the malevolent presence of her step-mother, a dark figure watching her from the shadows. This composition creates foreshadowing, while also encouraging the reader to look further into the image.
The emotions that Barrett evokes in the reader are also very potent. Here, she makes us feel concern for Snow-White’s safety at the door of the dark cottage surrounded by the tall trees and long shadows. This emotional pull was part of what attracted me to her work as a child; I could imagine myself in Snow-White’s place.
One of the things I often notice about Angela Barrett’s work is how she appears to pays hommage to classical art through her illustration. I feel that the classicism of some of her illustrations gives them a flavour of traditional Italian portraiture, and this scene from the poisoning of Snow-White reminds me of The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis, because of her pallor and the serenity of her features.
Photo credit: Google Art Project/ Wikipedia Commons
The Orchard Book of Stories from the Ballet – written by Geraldine McCaughrean & illustrated by Angela Barrett
Another gem illustrated by Angela Barrett, Stories from the Ballet was a book I found enchanting when I was little.
There was always more to see. Rather than the large full-page illustrations which feature in Snow-White, Tales from the Ballet mixes text and images, so the pages appear almost like illuminated manuscripts. Spot illustrations feature on nearly every page. They help the reader become immersed in the atmosphere of the story. For example, we can feel the love of the Dollmaker for Coppelia, despite the small size of this illustration.
As in Snow-White, Barrett masterfully infuses her illustrations with emotion. They add immeasurably to the text. While the stories retold by McCaughrean were very engaging, it was the drawings that compelled me to keep reading. The intricacy of her illustration is also stunning. Barrett has a particular gift for representing briars or dense undergrowth, helping to bring a real magic to the text.
The Orchard Book of Mythical Birds & Beasts – written by Margaret Mayo & illustrated by Jane Ray
Another gorgeous creation produced by Orchard Books, this is one of my enduring favorites. Illustrated by the incredible Jane Ray, the stories here are drawn from many cultures. Overflowing with fantastic beasts, the exuberant illustrations are printed with gold, bringing them to life.
Jane Ray’s illustrations are all hand drawn, and the dedication she puts into her art is evident here. I always found her depictions of animals magical, and even spent hours copying her drawings when I was little.
The boarders are intricately drawn and coloured, inviting the reader into the image. The works are part layering, part collage, with a feeling of depth to them. Her works are stylised enough to have a consistent look, while the little embellishments on each page add to the overall theme.
Jane Ray’s style of illustration really suits the fantastical nature of the stories she is portraying. Like Barrett’s Tales from the Ballet, the pages here are also livened up with spot illustrations and colourful boarders.
Masquerade – written and illustrated by Kit Williams
One of the most detailed illustrated books I ever owned, Masquerade is a level above. A dedicated Fine Artist with a gift for the surreal, Kit Williams created detailed illustrations around the theme of a search for a real 18-carat gold hare in this intriguing book.
The mystery and possibilities of this story were fascinating for me. I tried to solve the puzzles hidden in the illustrations, but of course I never could. The actual story of what happened to the hare and how it was found was ultimately a little disappointing (see Wikipedia), but as an idea it is truly brilliant and formed the basis for this incredible illustrated work.
The paintings featured in Masquerade were beautifully coloured and included elements which made the images very surreal, such as reflections or seemingly bizarre compositions.
Kit Williams was driven to create this intricate treasure hunt through a desire to make an illustrated book which you linger over, rather than quickly discarding. He certainly achieved this, as I spent many hours of my childhood looking through this book. The detail of the artwork is really incredible, and I also enjoyed his use of colour.
Even without the extra fun of trying to solve the puzzle, the drawings have the power to suck you in and keep you looking for hours.
The Arabian Nights – retold by Neil Philip & illustrated by Sheila Moxley
Most of the stories on this list are re-tellings of traditional stories. The Arabian Nights is no different. However, it is the readable text by Neil Philip and the eye-catching illustrations by Sheila Moxley which give the stories of The Arabian Nights new life.
Even the end leaf of the book is beautifully colourful. The illustrations are simple and strait-forward, with a pleasing frankness. The exuberant colour pallet makes this a truly joyful creation which I loved as a child.
Sheila Moxley’s illustrations are zestful and lively, with the characters bringing the story to life.
All these illustrators have very different illustrative styles, yet all of them help to bring out the best of the story, and keep it engaging for their audience. I found these books endlessly fascinating. Although the illustration styles presented here are very different, they all help tell the stories brilliantly.
These are just some of the illustrated books I loved as a child. More to come in Part 2…