Historical and Contemporary Illustrations

This week, I was asked to compare illustrations in contemporary and historical children’s literature and asked to vote for my favorites.

For Birds, I chose Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late by Mo Williems over Potter’s The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck. I have always been drawn to a more graphic style. In this particular example, I find Williems’s birds more expressive and relatable than the historical example. Potter’s illustrations are certainly beautiful, and they have sentimental value for me because I remember reading them with my grandmother who loves Beatrix Potter, but I don’t feel the strong connection I do to Williems’s illustrations.

When asked to choose between Mo Williems’s Elephants Cannot Dance and Babar the King, again, as a big fan of Mo Williems’s work, I chose Elephants Cannot Dance. I do love Babar for much the same reasons as the above choice, as I have memories of reading this book with my grandmother as well. But, I think, in general, I tend to prefer a simpler, more graphic style. That said, there is so much more to look at in De Brunhoff’s example – so many details and secret surprises to discover with closer examination. I find that in my classroom, children will spend a great deal of time ”reading” the pictures in their books, exploring moments that they might have missed in the first reading of the text.

The most difficult choice for me was between Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Leo Lionni’s Inch by Inch. I ended up choosing the Lionni illustration over Eric Carle’s. It was a painful choice because I love everything I have ever read by both of these authors. They share a similar style – both using collage and inspirations from nature, though, in the given examples, Lionni’s illustration feels a bit more quiet and soft. Honestly, this choice was so close for me that it could go either way.

Our final choice was between Ezra Jack Keats’s Peter’s Chair and David Shannon’s No, David! From these two, I chose Peter’s Chair. I wasn’t initially familiar with this book, but the touch of the father’s hand on Peter’s shoulder is so tender, and perfectly placed, and the expressions on their faces feels genuine. I appreciate Shannon’s work, and I might have chosen his illustrations in a different circumstance, but in this example, I find Keats’s illustration more moving.

I notice that the more contemporary illustrators did tend to have a louder, bolder, and often less detailed style. I wonder if that is in part due to our changing exposure to media and constant stimulation. Contemporary readers are accustomed to loud, moving images, with continuous , rapid changes. The characters in the provided books – their mannerisms and behaviors – reflect our own changes in behaviors over time. Jemima Puddleduck makes me want to whisper, while Williems’s pigeon is clearly using his “outiside voice.” Even David’s hug, while sweet and tender, has an electricity about it that let’s the reader know that naughty David is still in there.

Upon reflection, I don’t think my choices were influenced by whether or not the given illustrators were historical or contemporary, but instead based on my emotional responses to the images and my connection to the stories. I ended up choosing two historical illustrators and two contemporary. I would have expected that all of my choices would have been contemporary given my personal preferences, but these images show that great art has a lasting impact – and resonates well into the future.


Image Source

Jimia Puddle-Duck

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