Children's illustrators say: 'we're undervalued'

Children's illustrators say: 'we're undervalued'

Children’s book illustrators have argued that award organisers, the media and sometimes even collaborating writers are failing to give them enough credit for their work.

American-born Ted Dewan, who created the Bing Bunny series of picture books for HarperCollins Children’s Books, said the lack of respect for illustration is a particularly British phenomenon, and that the country has traditionally revered the written word ahead of pictures and images. He said: “So long as members of the public say to those of us who write and illustrate our own books, ‘oh, you did the pictures too?’, it would appear that the illustrator’s role in crafting what is predominantly a visual medium isn’t appreciated by the general public.”

An Vrombaut, who lives in London but was born in Belgium, agreed, saying: “’You’re too old for pictures’ is something I often hear parents say. It’s such a shame. On the continent, particularly in France and Belgium, illustrated books for older children are held in much higher regard, as are comics.”

Simon James, author and illustrator of the Baby Brains series (Walker Books), said when it comes to picture books the illustrator often “writes” the text by visually adapting it. “The illustrator not only designs the look of the book—breaking the text up into pages that create pace and intrigue, and inventing visual characters—but also provides essential sense and meaning to the text through interpretation and adaptation.”

Dewan added: “I see the director’s role in a film as being analogous to a fraction of the illustrator’s role in a picture book; the illustrator acts as casting director, director of photography, set designer, scene editor and all the actors. I’ve always thought it was peculiar to categorise picture books by the writer rather than by the illustrator, who creates most of the world of the book.”

The media is also culpable, according to Axel Scheffler, a frequent collaborator of Julia Donaldson, who was the UK’s most valuable author in 2014. “The press often doesn’t pay tribute to the illustrators, when and if a book happens to get on the bestseller lists, for example. I think one should always mention both author and illustrator if it is a picture book. Text and images are of equal importance, yet in most cases only the author gets mentioned.”

Sarah McIntyre, who last year highlighted the fact that illustrators are not mentioned in the nominations for the CILIP Carnegie Medal, said writers often forget to credit the illustrator they have worked with. “Writers will call an illustrated book ‘my book’, or newspapers will talk about ‘Julia Donaldson’s picture book’,” she said. “If you call a writer up on it, they will get flustered and say, ‘of course, my illustrator, yes, I have huge respect for them!’ But they will just forget to mention it.”

McIntyre said the word “author” should not be limited to the writer of a text. “To refer to writers and illustrators as ‘authors and illustrators’ is not comparing like for like,” she said. “Both are ‘authors’ of the creative work—one author writes and the other author illustrates.”

However, Dewan pointed out that one area in which things are improving is in the number of galleries devoted to illustration. “When I moved to London in 1988, I believe Chris Beetles was the only specialist book illustration gallery,” he said. “Now there is John Huddy’s Illustration Cupboard, The House of Illustration and Bristol’s Children’s Book Illustration, which suggests there is an increasing interest in illustration, because it is worthy of exhibition and sale as gallery artwork.”