Children's illustration grows up

Children’s illustration often seems to exist in a world apart from the rest of the illustration scene, sealed away near to greetings card design. Look at the children’s section in mainstream book, clothing and homewares stores and it’s not hard to see why: an awful lot of art and designs aimed at children are sugary, uninspiring affairs, packed with clichéd colour schemes and insipid character design – and in the case of books and animations, often stodgy moral lessons too.

But when it’s good, children’s illustration is one of the most powerful and influential artistic mediums of all – and it’s made all the more powerful by the fact that it’s the first experience many people will have of artwork. Good children’s illustrations will be pored over again and again, and truly brilliant ones can transform stories and linger in the collective consciousness for generations, such as Sir John Tenniel’s artwork for Alice in Wonderland, E H Shepard’s Winnie the Pooh illustrations, Quentin Blake’s drawings for Roald Dahl, or the works of Dr Seuss.

These are artists who understood instinctively that children are not just stupid adults, and they certainly don’t need talking down to. They dreamt up captivating characters and let them run riot in the most fantastical landscapes they could conjure up.

The best children’s illustrators relish the fact that children can have a pretty dark sense of humour, love the absurd and nonsensical and are fascinated by grotesque or slightly scary things. Sir John understood this perfectly, creating strange, distorted characters.

But children also have an underlying need for security and familiarity. Max, hero of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, spends much of the book being thrillingly menaced by huge beasts – but in the end he returns to the safety of home, where his dinner is waiting.

Illustrating for children is particularly complex as it requires creatives to make work that is simple without being simplistic. For artists who are firmly couched in the adult world, reverting to myths, animals, magical creatures and anthropomorphism can require quite a shift of focus – but that’s what many children’s projects require. Children’s illustrators effectively create their own worlds, which means a fertile imagination and a distinctive outlook are essential attributes.

Children’s books often combine stories and artwork created by a single illustrator (though there have been many memorable partnerships such as Astérix author René Goscinny and artist Albert Uderzo). Then there’s the challenge of structuring the story so it holds a child’s attention – engaging characters or bright colour schemes alone aren’t enough. Children’s illustration can encompass everything from cardboard books for toddlers to sophisticated comics for teenagers, and each age group has different demands. Very young children particularly relish repetition, while older ones appreciate a more story-driven approach.

In designing for children, illustrators have one key advantage: everybody was once a child. If you can rediscover that child’s perspective, you have a promising start. But you have to grasp what being a child is really like, rather than falling into the idealised, candy-coloured pastiche.

“Draw things that are strange,” advises illustrator Luke Pearson. “If you’re thinking, ‘this is terrible, but it’s what kids like’, then you’re doing it wrong. Draw things for the child you once were, or things that you’d like your own children to see.”

Here we introduce five illustrators whose work for children is a match for anything in the world of illustration for adults. Largely published by small presses and art illustration specialists, these five combine supreme artistic skills with a way with narrative, use visual styles that appeal to adult aesthetic sensibilities, deliver a childlike sense of wonder and mix just the right amount of innocence and knowing. They also give twee the kicking it so richly deserves.

Luke Pearson

By turns funny, scary and sad, Luke Pearson’s comic Hildafolk – and its recently released sequel Hilda and the Midnight Giant – is the story of a girl’s adventures in the eerie Scandinavian wilderness that is perfectly pitched to give kids a thrill without keeping them awake all night.

“The main aim was something that could be enjoyed across a range of ages, including my own,” says Luke, best know for his graphic novels for adults, such as the recently released Everything We Miss. “With the child reader in mind, I tried to create a world that was ripe for adventure. The landscape Hilda lives in is barren and cold, maybe a bit scary, but it’s offset by scenes of extreme cosiness.”

While Hilda is relentlessly chatty and upbeat, the chirpy tone of the comic is undercut by the unsettling characters she meets. “I didn’t try and avoid it being a bit weird and scary. There’s a layer of cuteness, but the woodman is a pretty strange character, and the scenes with the troll are really a bit sinister,” explains Luke. “But there’s no actual bad guy or anyone wanting to harm anyone. I’d like to think it’s a good story for a child to read before going to bed: just creepy enough to give them strange dreams, but making them acutely appreciative of being snuggled up.”

For Hildafolk, Luke used a brighter colour palette than he’d choose for his usual artwork. “I wanted it to be more like a Saturday-morning cartoon than an indie comic,” he explains. “I [also] dropped any real experimentation with panel layout or heavy design influence, and tried to make it as smooth and accessible a read as possible.”

Luke says he found the transition into writing for children easy: “I enjoy designing simple, appealing and fun characters. I like drawing strange landscapes and monsters. My adult comics have a simplicity that sometimes seems like I’m doing messed-up kids comics anyway – so in a lot of ways, children’s work comes more naturally to me.”

Hildafolk and Hilda and the Midnight Giant are available through Nobrow.

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