Beautiful books – are they just for children?

I’d like to thank Broad Conversation, the blog for Blackwell’s Bookshop here in Oxford, for the inspiration for this post. In their most recent post, they take a look at beautiful books for adults. Check it out – there are some gorgeous titles on the list and they don’t all cost a fortune to purchase.

But it’s led me to a question that I’ve been thinking over for quite a while.

Why don’t publishers make beautiful fiction books for adults?

Whenever I go into a children’s bookshop, I have to order myself to step away from the tables and ignore all the new editions crying out to be bought. I’m not just talking about picture books, which by nature must be visually appealing. I am talking about longer novels for children that have received an expensive makeover. Take, for instance, Robert Ingpen’s versions of some of the classics.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Michelle Pauli, in an article in the Guardian in 2006, describes the appearance of these lovely books, two of which we have at home:

“They are beautiful books with heavy covers and thick parchment pages filled Ingpen’s paintings. He designs the whole of the book in each case and the illustrations work as a coherent whole with the story, fully integrated, spreading across pages, and creating a feeling of warmth throughout. Many take up full pages and are stunning evocations of other worlds, combining a level of detail guaranteed to keep children poring over the pages with a light-infused softness reminiscent of the great painters, such as Turner, Goya and Breugel.”

You can read more about Ingpen’s creative processes here:

Aesthetic bribery?

But why is it that we, as adults, are willing to part with cash on expensive but beautiful children’s books when we satisfy ourselves with an interesting cover and plain typescript, and no illustrations, on the inside? Is it because children’s books are seen as important and therefore worthy of expenditure? Do we hope that, because we want our kids to try the classics, they will be more likely to engage if the book looks pretty?

I remember my old Treasure Island that I bought in a second-hand bookshop. The reason I chose the ancient book, half-falling apart, because it was more in keeping with the story than a pristine copy. I could imagine other children and teenagers before me picking up the story and becoming engrossed in it and that was part of the appeal. (Mind you, this was in the days when children’s literature had not become such a massive field as it is now.)

Children’s books (but aimed at adults)

Part of me has this cynical belief that publishers are producing these copies to appeal to the parents, rather than the children. My daughter loves The Wind in the Willows but a hefty but beautiful copy of it wouldn’t necessarily have induced her to want to read it. She’s happy with lighter, but still attractive, copies, perfect for her smaller hands. Hardbacks can be difficult for her to keep open for long periods of time because her hands get tired and the pages cling protectively close to the spine, rather than opening out easily. So are these more coffee-table offerings to treasure rather than practical books to sit down and get close to? The argument could go either way.

Beauty everlasting

Blackwell’s kindly replied to my initial question on their blog.

“There is a school of thought that beautiful books will be the one type that will survive after ebooks have fulfilled their potential. Paperback fiction sales have declined across the board in the past year as these sales transfer to digital. The books that you want to own and cherish will be the ones that you pay for in hard copy…”

I totally agree with this. Children’s books will hopefully always exist in all their wonderful physical glory because we as adults want to give our children something tangible and beautiful to hold. There is money to be made in this area for publishers which is good – children need real books as well as their electronic cousins. And us adults, perhaps reliving our childhood dreams and fancies, will continue financially supporting the trade, buying beautiful books not just for our children but also for ourselves.

Question: What’s your favourite beautiful children’s book? (Or several, if you can’t pick one!) Please share!



  1. A difficult question. I don’t think that ‘picture books’ are restricted to children, there are now a variety of illustrated books that are not necessarily aimed at children, like Shaun Tan’s books. If I were to give a name of a current favorite, it would be Olivia the Pig. I love the simplicity of the illustrations, I actually just blogged about this! An old favorite would be any story by Beatrix Potter. I grew up with her stories and still love them.


  2. Hi Bec,
    Thanks so much for your reply – and I must check out your blog! I haven’t read Olivia the Pig yet but have heard great things about the book. We also have a Shaun Tan to look at here. I think you’re right about picture books having a more general age appeal – it’s a shame that many of the adult population miss out on them if they haven’t had a chance to share them with children. I don’t think I would have been so aware of them had I not had my daughter.


    • Oooooh, what Shaun Tan book have you got? Will you blog about it, once you’ve read it?? I could spend lots of money on picture books, I just love them! 🙂


    • I know what you mean. When I moved over here from Canada, there were two groups of things I insisted that I must have. One – my box of teddy bears. The second? All my books. Holly has already beaten me as to number of books but that’s because I buy her so many and she has my titles too!


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