Art in Children’s Books

Books are great tools to introduce the world to your children beyond your immediate surroundings. Books take them on journeys they have never imagined, do things they can never do, meet all kinds of people, talk to animals and vehicles and understand how the world around them works. Unlike television, books make them think. What happens in the gap between two illustrations is left to their imagination.

While choosing books for my children (aged 2 and 6) aesthetics is one of the most important criteria. I believe that great illustrations have the power to inspire. While reading to my kids, we spend a lot of time discussing the illustrations. Before they can read, they can understand pictures, and from pictures they decipher what is happening the scene. Often we do the story only by looking at the illustrations and not the text.

From my own memories I have “feelings” that I associate with a book. Tintin is of course at the very top. It evokes feelings of awe, adventure, fun, history, globe trotting, friendship, science and exploration and much more. I was lucky to have access to a local library that would allow me to borrow Tintin comics that I must have read and re-read dozens of times.

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The irrepressible Captain Haddock and the indomitable Tintin. Watch how Snowy’s footsteps show that he is happily hovering around the tired duo.

Disney

My mother had somehow manage procure a set of the books of the “How it Works” by Disney. Maybe it was a book expo somewhere but these books are never to be seen again. My memories of Disney are tied to these books that my children are also learning to love.

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The cover of “How it works in the City”. Disney characters are always doing important things. Like sleeping on the roof.
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You can look at the heater and the thermostat, or at the little mouse asking for a lift.
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Each picture tells a story. The letters getting mopped up by the street cleaner.

No wonder I became an Engineer!

Princesses

My wife and I have a strict no-princess policy. Our daughter, we figure, is not going to have things in life severed up to her, so we avoid the regular princesses stories. Barbie is out of the question.

In keeping with the times though, Disney has come up with a new princess, Sofia, who seems a lot more hard working and modest. They have also started experimenting with new illustration styles and settings.

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Sofia with Disney expressions, but not the usual shine.
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Friendly, humanist, feminist and bold typography

Thomas and Friends

For some reason, both my kids love Thomas and Friends. Its our go-to book when they are unwell or cranky. My younger one lovingly calls Thomas as “Panush”. We love the illustrations, characters, stories and of course the engines!

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Can’t make out if this is hand painted or computer generated. Must be computer assisted for sure. Look at Percy’s shadow on the rails and Thomas’ blur. The lighting is amazing. The typography is pretty slick too.
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“The Spring Surprise” is one of the best. Look at the cows, birds and the cat. That cat is amazing. Fun to discover things here.
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A closer look at the cat and the fluffy tail!

Topsy and Tim

Another British publication we fell in love with is Topsy and Tim. Even though my wife does not approve of the modern stay-at-home mom, the illustrations are wonderful.

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Great use of water colors, a bright palette and contemporary styling. Look at those shoes and bags.
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Busy scene while getting on the train. Kids love spotting the red bag!
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Minimal yet realistic. Topsy and Tim illustrations strike a fine balance.

Ladybird

Ladybird books are another childhood favorite for me too. Though mostly they contain grimm stories that we don’t approve of (I mean like Hansel and Gretel. What kind of a story is that?! Parents leaving their kids in the forest since they can’t feed them). They still have some gems (esp Dick Whittington) and their illustrations and typography are top-notch. Says something about age and maturity.

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Love everything about this. The typography is beautiful, so is the patch on the Shoemaker’s jacket.
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My son loves to mimic the surprised expression of the Shoemaker!

At some point I realized that children’s stories are completely dominated by the British and it goes right up to Enid Blyton and Harry Potter. I wonder if this is why they dominated the world. Because their kids were told the best stories?

Indian Publications

A few Indian publications like Pratham and Tulika are making brave moves to tell stories to children that have an Indian context. I love the politics of the books, but the illustrations can do with a lot of improvement. Many of them are amateurish, especially when you consider the amount of talent available.

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Ari’s eyes are captivating, but so is the distracting shop in the background. This would look amazing with some depth.
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Love the hyperbolic sneeze of Gajapati Kulapati
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The shabby colouring and white spots on the edges are a big turn-off. Pratham could do wonders if they ask their illustrators to be a bit more careful.
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Naisha books seem robotic. Shree Book Center illustrators seem to be using MS Paint.
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Bruno/Pepper (Shree Book Center) tries to do a competent job, but lacks depth (both in narrative and illustrations) and the typography is inconsistent.
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The adventures of Toto the Auto is a favorite with the kids, the stories are fun and the illustrations seem fresh.
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Another scene from Toto the Auto. Another case of lack of depth (3rd dimension) and too much distraction. Try to find the distressed teacher and children. After looking at a few pages, you feel dizzy and unsatisfied.

These are still early days for Indian publications but I see a lot of potential for many of them to improve and take illustrations more seriously.

Conclusion

The difference in the investment in illustrations by various publications is very clear. Not only the layout and content but also the style leaves a deep impression for children. My older one is just beginning to get awed by Tintin. I don’t think there is anything that will make you appreciate art at such a young age other than Tintin. Each slide is a masterpiece.

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Tintin comics have a rare cinematic feel. The proportions are perfect, the details are delightful.
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I wonder how this scene was composed and the number of hours they must have spent on this! Take a bow Georges Remi and team :)

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