This is the fourth in a series of articles on how to choose a children’s book. Last time, I talked about how to choose books with themes that will appeal to children. In this article I will discuss the place of a book’s illustrations in making it appealing to a child, and I will try to give some guidance on what to look for in children’s book illustrations. However, I should say up front that there is a lot of room for difference of opinion over what makes for attractive book illustrations, so take my guidance as applying only “for the most part”; there will be many exceptions to it, due to a certain amount of subjectivity inherent in any aesthetic judgments.
My central point: The illustrations of a book are perhaps the largest part of what makes a book attractive to kids, especially for children younger than eight years old. In fact, recently when I was re-reading Hi, Cat! in preparation for writing an author spotlight on Ezra Jack Keats, the images of mint green ice cream on Archie’s dark face, and of Peter’s dog Willie licking the ice cream off, jumped out as vivid memories from my own childhood. My parents had read the book to me when I was little and I still remember the images over 30 years later! I’ve had similar experiences while reading Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen to my children. The point is that attractive illustrations are almost always what focuses a young child’s interest and attention on a book-often in surprisingly enduring ways! Without strong illustrations young children may well lose interest in a book, even if the story is great.
Now, some guidance. In my view, there is no deep mystery to choosing books with illustrations that are appealing to kids: in general, if you think the illustrations are attractive and interesting to look at, so will a child. For example, both children and adults will revel in Jerry Pinkney’s delicious illustrations in The Lion & the Mouse. However, there will be some exceptions. For example, many children will not enjoy illustrations that are particularly dark, scary, or abstract, so if you are an adult with such aesthetic tastes, you should keep this difference of taste in mind when choosing children’s books.
Like the themes of a book, illustrations with content that connects with the experience and interests of the child will be more likely to make a book appealing to her. This criterion will not be hard to meet, however, since if you find a book with appropriate themes, the content of the illustrations will likely be on topic anyway (see my previous article on choosing books with appealing themes for more detail here).
Children in the infant-to-2-years age category will likely respond better to simpler and more concrete illustrations than to illustrations that are highly complicated or fanciful. Bold colors that catch the eye are also often especially attractive to toddlers. Helen Oxenbury’s Clap Hands is a book with illustrations that embody these characteristics of simplicity, concreteness, and bold colors, and so it is an especially good example of illustrations appropriate for toddlers. At best, illustrations with a lot of complexity and wild imagery will be lost on a toddler; at worst such illustrations might cause her to lose interest in the book.
However, slightly older children-in the 3-to-5- and 6-to-8-years age categories-respond very well to complex, detailed, and more fanciful illustrations. For example, my children (who are now six and eight years old) love Graeme Base’s books largely because of the intricate, detailed illustrations. In Animalia, Base packs his amazing illustrations with objects and details that my kids love to hunt for; on a few occasions we have spent hours at a time combing through his beautiful, detailed artwork.
Finally, while illustrations become less important as children get older-e.g., a good story alone might well hold a 9-to-12-year-old-illustrations can still help to tell a story, or illumine the content of a book for an older child. Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret is an example of a book for children 9-to-12-and-up that makes tremendously effective use of illustrations. Half novel, half silent movie, there are stretches of the book where Selznick uses only haunting black and white illustrations to recount the gripping tale. The resulting effect is enchanting.
In the next article in this series I will continue to discuss the particular factors that contribute to a book’s subjective appeal-i.e., the considerations that render a book appealing to a child-taking up the role that a good story plays in drawing children into a book, and how adults can identify books with attractive stories.