We’ve all heard that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Of course, we do, and quite literally! Publishers know this well, which is why new books compete for our attention with eye-catching dustjacket designs. These designs don’t exist solely for the ‘made-you-look’; they also signal to us what kind of story we’ll find inside, setting the tone of a book before a reader even gets to the first page. Yet, most of these efforts at visual appeal seem to end with externals for any book intended for teen readers and up. Illustrations are generally reserved for children’s picture books and the occasional special edition designed to appeal to bibliophilic collectors.
This wasn’t always so. From the dawn of setting stories to paper through the early 20th century, it was common practice to furnish books for all ages with illustrations. Early illuminated manuscripts (see this cool gallery of examples gathered by Encyclopædia Britannica) made stories accessible to the illiterate. As literacy – and book sales – grew, authors often partnered with artists to illustrate key scenes from their works. In what’s known as the Golden Age of Illustration (mid 1800s – early 1900s), the art of Edmund Du Lac (one of my favorites) appeared in many iconic books, from folktales to the works of the Brontë sisters. Another great artist, Arthur Rackham, advanced printing technology to accommodate his delicate illustrations.1 History is also full of artist-authors who conveyed their vision in both prose and pictures. Hans Christian Andersen, author of some of our most culturally enduring tales, was a passionate practitioner of paper cutting, an art which he called “the prelude to writing.” Leo Tolstoy – good ol’ War and Peace himself – was known to illustrate his own manuscripts, and even the copy of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days he’d bought for his children.2
But with the proliferation in the 20th century of easily accessible visual mediums that were associated with low-brow entertainment and communication – movies, television, advertisements, comic books, magazines, and eventually the internet – seemed to also rise a notion that for books to survive, and be respected, they must distinguish themselves from these alternatives. ‘Serious writing’ should be able to stand on words alone, or so the thinking seems to go; the value of books stands in opposition to all the other things that may grab our attention.
This defensive attitude reminds me of the historical debates over what materials are worthy of being housed in libraries, which saw people questioning the inclusion of novels long before objecting to the addition of graphic novels or video games. But behind the shifting particulars of these debates lies a timeless truth: great storytelling will never disappear, not even when it’s actively suppressed. People need stories. So why not embrace all the means and mediums available to tell them? Why not engage our senses as well as our sense? Perhaps the trend will reverse.3 Some of the most successful modern stories, eagerly devoured by people of all ages, take advantage of transmedia storytelling – stories that span books, films, and interactive websites. People clearly love to engage with the stories that capture their imagination in multiple ways. Illustrations can make you spend more time with a book, and imprint more viscerally on your memory. To any who would question the enduring value of illustration, I’ll close with another cliché to counter the one we started with: “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
See below for some illustrated books found in our catalog!
- Popova, M. (2016, February 1). How Arthur Rackham’s 1907 Drawings for Alice in Wonderland Revolutionized the Carroll Classic, the Technology of Book Art, and the Economics of Illustration. The Marginalian. https://www.themarginalian.org/2016/02/01/arthur-rackham-alice-in-wonderland/
- Quaxley, M.L. (2020, June 17). 12 Famous Authors Who Were Also Illustrators or Artists. Book Riot. https://bookriot.com/authors-who-were-also-illustrators-or-artists/
- Russell, C. (2016, January 14). A Brief History of Book Illustration. Literary Hub. https://lithub.com/a-brief-history-of-book-illustration/#:~:text=Book%20illustration%20has%20existed%20in,same%20block%20as%20the%20image.
Sacks, S. (2013, February 22). Bring Back the Illustrated Book. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/bring-back-the-illustrated-book