Book illustrations can be as iconic as the books themselves. It’s almost impossible to think of Alice in Wonderland without the Tenniel illustrations, or Wind In the Willows without the E.H. Shepherd illustrations (he also did Winnie the Pooh).
A good illustrator can bring the words to life, and helps to create the world. The Winnie the Pooh we all know is a wonderful combination of A.A.Milne’s words and E.H.Shepherd’s pictures, and it’s together that 100 Acre Wood becomes real.
It’s not just the classic works either. Quentin Blake creates wonderful, spidery, pictures for many books, but most notably Roald Dahl. His pictures look like something a child would draw, and I bet he’s inspired many children. Peggy Fortnum does the Paddington drawings, which became a cartoon, and whilst simple, they are full of emotion. Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo was beautifully made real by Axel Scheffler.
I remember the old Ladybird story books. They had the most wonderful, detailed, painted, lifelike illustrations. The modern ones, all simple exaggerated drawings and muted colours look very dull in comparison.
A writer and an illustrator work best when they work in tandem. E.H. Shepherd used A.A.Milne’s son and his toys as inspiration for his drawings, just as E.H. Shepherd did.
Sometime you get a writer who illustrates their own work and this can be wonderful, words and pictures entwining like flowers on a trellis. Cressida Cowell does these wonderful drawings for her books that wind all round the words. I hear J.K.Rowling’s manuscript for Harry Potter contained illustrations that caught the eye of someone who passed the book to a child (who said ‘publish it! And when can I read the next one?)
There are rarely illustrations in adult books. Maybe it’s because each adult has a very fixed idea of a character and don’t need a picture. But I have seen some beautiful illustrations in grown up versions of fairy tales. And of course, some graphic novels are basically books with illustrations gone wild. A book like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, or Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta are very good stories with some amazing illustrations.
However, children’s books, are the true home of an illustrated story because, for someone just learning to read a really good picture can not only explain the story but expand it, give it a new dimension or depth. It links in with the text to give a face to a character, and it introduces children to drawing.
So if you are writing a children’s book, pick a good illustrator. It’s very important.