The Surprising Darkness of Children’s Illustrations
Max Ingleby delves into the subtle art of the illustration, and reflects on the impacts they can have on our imaginations as children.
Nothing can capture the imagination like a good story, yet, it’s easy as an adult to forget that stories don’t have to have words. Long before you could read, or even before you could understand the words your parents said to you, your understanding of a story was largely visual. Pictures – illustrations – were the medium through which we discovered the worlds of our imaginations.
I remember poring over my grandparents’ copies of The Adventures of Tintin, despite the fact that they were all in French, and I spoke only English. The political implications of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets were lost on me; I was mesmerised by the strange, ghostly black-and-white images, the silent scenes of deep-sea diving, car chases and prison escapes. Despite not understanding a single word, I must have read through all twenty-four books a dozen times.
Looking back, the illustrated books that most commanded my attention were not those that shied away from the dark, scary aspects of childhood, but those that explored them, that made the unknown more familiar. I still viscerally remember the cornflakes and tinned sardines poking out of Mr Twit’s beard, and the terrifying Bloodbottler from the BFG. Quentin Blake’s knack for translating the grotesque and macabre aspects of Roald Dahl’s work was unparalleled.
The illustrated books that most commanded my attention were not those that shied away from the dark, scary aspects of childhood, but those that explored them…
Treading that fine line between intriguing and unsettling seems to be the key to effective children’s illustration. The eerie absence of a human presence in Goodnight Moon always left me searching the pages, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone hiding in a corner, and the way the trees sprouted from the floor of Max’s bedroom in Where the Wild Things Are was thrillingly uncanny.
Sharing a name with Max must have helped to some degree, but I’ve always felt especially attached to Where the Wild Things Are. With fewer words than this article spread over thirty-seven pages, the author and illustrator, Maurice Sendak, let the dreamy blues, greens and greys do the talking. Its yellow-eyed monsters will live in my mind longer than any sentence ever will, and they’re welcome to stay.