Picture book

Adrian Shaughnessy finds out how publishers, writers and illustrators are trying to keep kids enthralled by books as all the modern-day distractions surround them

What makes someone become a graphic designer? The reasons are probably as varied and numerous as the spots on a leopard – as they might say in a good children’s book.

My own designer-epiphany came when, aged ten or 11, I watched an architect hand-letter a sign. It was a simple sign to be used on a busy stretch of road. It said: Dead Slow Children. I watched him paint the letters (a sort of condensed Perpetua), in red paint on to a white surface. He did this with a brush, and without any reference. I was mesmerised. And I can trace my interest in letterforms from that moment, an interest that continues today, and which was to lead me, in a roundabout way, to become a graphic designer.

Have you noticed in magazine interviews with 30-something designers the frequency with which Star Wars is cited as a formative influence? For many designers in their 30s, George Lucas’ cycle of films was a defining moment in the early life of many graphic designers working today.

But what about even earlier formative influences? Is there a sense in which aesthetic sensibilities and visual awareness might be formed in the pre-adolescent phase? When I watched the architect make his beautiful sign, I could at least claim a mild, juvenile interest in art, particularly illustration. I liked comics and I’d begun to notice album covers as an adjunct to my burgeoning interest in pop music.

And like most British kids, I’d already been exposed to an intense visual world, because since the age of two or three, I’d been given lots of books: books rich with images and bold typography. I remember the shock of recognition when, years later, I came across Gill Sans while studying typography. I remembered it from a favourite book from my childhood. I recognised it as a familiar friend.

It’s something we do well in this country: children’s books that is. Some of our best writers have produced them (Rudyard Kipling, Lewis Carroll, TS Eliot) and some of the best illustrators have created pictures for them (Kate Greenaway, Walter Crane, Edward Lear, Sir John Tenniel, Arthur Rackham). These luminaries, along with more modern practitioners (Edward Ardizzone, Raymond Briggs, Pauline Baynes, Jan Pienkowski, Quentin Blake and a thousand other less celebrated names) have probably exerted a disproportionate, if largely unrecognised, influence on the visual education of thousands of designers. Certainly the famous English whimsicality and warped surrealism so often found in the best children’s book illustrations can be seen in the psychedelic art of the 1960s, and perhaps even in the rave culture iconography of the 1980s.

But do modern British kids read children’s books? Haven’t they all become television and computer game addicts: hooked on Bob the Builder, Teletubbies and Barbie computer games? I gave my own kids Beatrix Potter, Alice in Wonderland, Roald Dahl, the Ahlberg’s books and dozens of others. They read them eagerly enough, but at the earliest possible moment they dumped them and moved to PlayStation, television soaps and the Internet.

So what is published today to wean kids away from the seductive glow of electronic media? Can books compete? A random trawl through some recent offerings produces an encouraging if mixed picture.

Traditionalists will be pleased to know that Quentin Blake, perhaps most famous for his illustrations for Roald Dahl’s books, is still producing evocative work. Fine examples of his effortless line drawings – small miracles of concision and expressiveness – can be found in an anthology of sparky poems called Because A Fire Was in My Head. In 101 Poems to Remember, published by Faber and Faber, Blake’s witty sketches work equally well when accompanying the verse of William Shakespeare, Ted Hughes or John Lennon.

Less conventional, and containing a dark undertow of psychological unease, are the vivid paintings of Lane Smith for the book The e e Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders and published by Bloomsbury. Smith’s illustrations have a warped eastern European flavour. For a certain kind of imaginative child they will be compelling and unsettling in equal measure.

All Smith’s adults have twisted malevolent features and expressions. They shriek and grimace, their eyes pop and their mouths gape. Great stuff when you’re five or six, and just beginning to realise how weird adults really are. If he hasn’t already done so, Smith should tackle Hans Christian Anderson.

Pitched at a younger age group, Follow the Line to be published in 2002 by Egmont and Billy Bean’s Dream, published by David and Charles Children’s Books, both by illustrator and writer Simone Lia, have the welcome virtue (in literature for very young children) of directness coupled with simplicity.

Lia, a recent Royal College of Art graduate, works with bold, black outlines that she infills with subtle colours to create a predominantly two-dimensional world of rockets, stars and potato-shaped people. I was tempted to say that her work is slightly dated, but perhaps it’s more accurate to say that her illustrations are timeless. She isn’t breaking new ground in either of these books, but perhaps when you’re age four that isn’t a terribly important consideration.

In contrast, the work of Sara Fanelli, also an RCA graduate, has a decidedly contemporary tone. The visual richness and sheer sophistication of her illustrations reveal a powerful aesthetic imagination. Born in Florence, Fanelli is a superb stylist and a genuinely original voice. Her sharp, idiosyncratic illustrations contain echoes of Edward Lear, Terry Gilliam, Yellow Submarine, Balinese shadow puppets and myriad other influences.

Her subtle incorporation of stray fragments of typography and printed ephemera is charming. She uses fabric patterns to impart a delicious sense of texture to her work. She occasionally resorts to the use of half-tone illustrations to render a face or a detail, a technique that made me think of Man Ray.

Like many great children’s book illustrators, Fanelli writes her own stories. Dear Diary, published by Walker Books, is a chaotic brew of scribbled diary entries, drawings, collages and visual rambling. Her handwriting is as evocative as her pictures (even the ISBN number is written in her spiky nervy script). Dear Diary makes you want to start keeping a diary.

First Flight, to be published in April 2002 by Jonathan Cape, contains an unexpected partnership. For this ambitious book, Fanelli has linked up with graphic V23 designer Chris Bigg. A long-time associate of record sleeve designer Vaughan Oliver, Bigg’s unconventional typography (thin columns of ranged-left type, one word per line) will remind 4AD fans of that labels’ iconoclastic record sleeves, designed by Biggs and Oliver in the 1980s and 1990s.

This is a gorgeous book. Rich, varied, mature and less chaotic than Dear Diary. It shows that Fanelli benefits from working with a sharp-brained designer; someone who can instil a sense of space into her pages without curbing her natural visual exuberance. Biggs manages to do this brilliantly.

As well as writing and illustrating more books, Fanelli should consider animating her work. It already has a strong sense of moment. The potential is enormous.

For graphic designers looking for a Christmas present for favourite children, Fanelli is a cool choice. You can retain your designer cred and at the same time give a book that will delight any bright kid. Whether it will divert them away from The Tweenies, Hear’say or Lara Croft is debatable. At least with illustrators like Fanelli, children’s literature stands a fighting chance. m

Adrian Shaughnessy is creative director of Intro

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