Is digitalisation paving the way for more illustration?

This might not seem like the most relevant post for a children’s book review site, but many of the illustrators cited have worked both in children’s and adults’ literary arenas.

In a blog post for the Guardian from the Edinburgh International Book Festival, popular children’s illustrator Chris Riddell is getting excited about what he sees as ‘a new era for illustration’.

He opens the piece talking about the brilliant illustrator EH Shepard, who was as comfortable submitting cartoons for the satirical magazine Punch as he was drawing the unforgettable pictures in Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows.

A scene from The Wind in the Willows, with Ratty and Moley (Image courtesy of

As adorable as always: Winnie and Piglet (Image courtesy of


When EH Shepard was at the peak of his career, illustrations were commonplace in literature, and not just for little ones: older children to adults were catered for. However, as Riddell explains: ‘… in the latter half of the 20th century, illustration went into decline. Children’s books that in Shepard’s day would have been automatically illustrated were deemed no longer to require an illustrator’s input. A case in point are the defiantly un-illustrated Harry Potter books.’


Picture prejudice?

It’s interesting to ponder why this might be so. Did a prejudice emerge against illustrations? Did pictures make a book seem less worthy – as though images were needed to add value to the written word? Some of the children I work with think that books containing illustrations are in some ways more ‘babyish’ than ones without any, while Holly doesn’t feel hard-done-by because of the lack of pictures in Harry Potter:  ‘You can imagine things more without illustrations.’

It appears that a change in technology is behind the drop in commissioning illustrators, and presumably linked to this are cost implications. ‘In newspapers and periodicals, Photoshop and montage replaced illustrators and cartoonists,’ says Chris. ‘No mainstream publisher these days would dream of commissioning illustrations to a new edition of Pepys’ diaries. In fact, by the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, illustration had vanished from adult literature more or less entirely.’


Drawing a conclusion

Riddell feels that traditional print publishing is going to have to change thanks to what is going on in the digital world. Today’s smartphones and tablets and iPads and iPods present information in a visually stimulating way, combining text with stunning images. To keep up with readers’ expectations, he argues that ‘we need illustrators of the calibre of EH Shepard more than ever.’ It’s already happening too: ‘…look at Posy Simmonds’ wickedly perceptive novel Tamara Drewe, David Roberts’ brilliantly quirky illustrations to Mick Jackson’s Bears of England and Shaun Tan’s surreal and exquisite wordless story The Arrival. Like Shepard, these illustrators’ work reaches all ages.’

When I think about it, this has been happening for a long time in the cinema. Many of the films aimed at children in the last decade or so have been so technologically advanced in the way they have been filmed that adults have been lured in and are often as enthusiastic as children to see the latest Shrek or Ice Age.

I feel quite excited at the prospect of beautifully illustrated adult books. There is definitely a place in literature to combine the written word with images, and not just in a cartoon or graphic novel way (I can’t actually read these books because I find there’s too much competition on the page for the reader’s eyes). But, used effectively, images can complement words, as any fantastic children’s picture book will show you. Let’s hope they get it right for the adults if Riddell’s predicted movement happens.


What do you think? Do pictures have a place in older children’s, young adults’ and adults’ literature?



  1. I think I ‘m a bit with Holly on this one. I like to use my inner illustrator to help me imagine. That’s why I don’t much like films of what I’ve read because the characters are so rarely what I had in my head.
    On the other hand, I love old books with their illustrations and just adore Pooh Bear! I will be interested to see what evolves. 🙂


  2. I’ve been away for a few days and missed this article, so am really glad to discover it via your blog post. I’m a massive fan of illustration, but I’m not sure that going down a route where everything is done visually is a great way to go. Just recently there was some research in the news with the unsurprising conclusion that being able to concentrate in a sustained manner is “the key” to success – and sometimes I feel that as we become ever more visual in our environment we do lose some of our skills at concentration. But of course I’d love to see more illustrations in books for all ages…


    • Agree with you. I’d love to see more visual attention paid to some books, though I am not expecting to see it in adult fiction all the time. I doubt it will totally take over but it will be interesting to see if it will be used in a similar way to EH Shepard’s time.


  3. Although I agree with Holly in that I feel you can use your imagination a bit more in books without pictures, I do enjoy the occasional illustration, like when they are placed at the beginning of a chapter 🙂


  4. I agree with Zoe about novels. Research suggests that the ‘constructive heart’ of reading is deep concentration and associations (aka ‘imagination’) which create new pathways in the brain. Less research has been done on picture books but I suspect that a richly composed visual story can also be a deep reading experience. I find that children are more skilled at reading visual language. As for illustrated novels, my favourite is the Moomins – which, of course, are just as the reader would imagine the characters.


    • Thank you for your comment and for pointing out the research on the constructive heart of reading – I must look into that more. I wonder if reading is more ‘active’ an activity if there are no pictures? We’ve never read the Moomins so I will have to add that to our list.


  5. I am most excited about an increase of any kind of quality book publishing! I rarely read anything but print in adult books I choose, but I adore great illustrators in the children’s books I read. My adult son reads manga and has introduced me to a world of illustrated literature that I appreciate, even if I tend not to choose it.

    So I say bring it on! Let there be choice, more choice, and more wonderful books to read, view, devour, enjoy!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.