1900-39: the emergence of the picture book - The picture book - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


25. The picture book


Michele Anstey and Geoff Bull


1900-39: the emergence of the picture book


In the early 1900s the dramatic improvement in the technology of colour and offset printing, using the four-colour process, led to a new focus on literature for young chil- dren.The first full-colour ‘true’ picture books of the century were those by Beatrix Potter, for example The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), reflecting an ironic view of the cautionary approach to childhood. With the work of Leslie Brooke (not full colour), notably Johnny Crow’s Garden (1903) and Johnny Crow’s Party (1907), they were almost the only true picture books to be produced until the 1920s. Illustration flourished in the ‘gift book’, elaborately produced and illustrated books with full colour plates meant for the whole family to enjoy, and these continued to be popular up to the First World War. Examples in the UK were Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) illustrated by Arthur Rackham and Stories from the Arabian Nights (1907) illustrated by Edmund Dulac.

Up to 1917 there were few books illustrated by Australian illustrators and produced in Australia for Australian children, a cause of concern in Australia’s literary and publishing community. For example, Atha Westbury’s Australian Fairy Tales and The Youngsters of Murray Home were published in London at the turn of the century and illustrated by English artist A. J. Johnson. Muir (1982: 39) reports that the Bulletin magazine consequently ran a competition and later William Brookes published a selection of rhymes from it using all Australian illustrators to illustrate them. Out of this grew the publication of the Australian icons of May Gibbs’ Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918) and Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding (1918), the equivalent of the British and American gift books.

The period 1900 to 1939 saw the rise in importance of the picture book. It became an important object of study and the role of illustration was recognised and changed as the interdependence of illustrative and written text was established. Other important characteristics were the inculcation of attitudes and morals and the passing on of central cultural, political and sociological themes.

After 1918, migration patterns in the USA in particular produced periods of significant cultural change that served to enrich the field of children’s literature, especially in the picture-book market. These developments were reinforced by the first Children’s Book Week in the United States in 1918 and the creation of juvenile departments in publishing houses, booklists for children’s books, the establishment of the Horn Book magazine on children’s literature in 1924 and the beginning of serious study and analysis of the field.

In the late 1920s the first ‘true’ picture books were published in the USA, such as Sir William Nicholson’s Clever Bill (UK 1926, USA 1927). This was closely followed by Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats in 1928, The Pirate Twins by Nicholson and Runaway Sardine by Emma Brock in 1929. The offset printing used in these books meant that they were largely completed in black and white with just two or three additional colours. Clever Bill, for example, was in black and white with blue, yellow and red, which suited the depiction of the main character, a toy soldier, and Millions of Cats a cumulative story, was printed in black and white only. The Wall Street crash of 1929 led publishers to produce more inexpensive editions, and in Australia a lack of paper led many printers to publish comics, painting books, colouring books and out-of-copyright stories, re-illustrated. Some of these printers were to become the first picture-book publishers in Australia during the 1940s and 1950s.

Animal and adventure stories, sometimes with the traditional cautionary and moral content, dominated the picture-book scene in the 1930s. In the UK, Edward Ardizzone and Kathleen Hale began their careers. Ardizzone’s books were illustrated in line and watercolour with handwritten text. Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain was published in both London and New York in 1936. As Gag and Nicholson had done, Ardizzone used the turn of the page to enhance the story rather than interrupt it and employed this technique to create suspense in the adventures of Tim, and in subsequent books, Lucy Brown and Mr Grimes (1937) and Tim and Lucy Go to Sea (1938). Working in crayon, Kathleen Hale produced extravagantly detailed illustrations in Orlando the Marmalade Cat: A Camping Holiday that tended to carry the narrative with little reliance on the written text. Joan Kiddell-Munroe’s monochrome In His Little Black Waistcoat (1939) featured characteristics of traditional oriental art. A feature of this picture book was the use of perspective to emphasise the feeling of distance between foreground and background. In the USA, animal stories also dominated, as with Gag’s illustrations for Snippy and Snappy (1931) and Kurt Weise’s illustrations for Marjorie Flack’s The Story about Ping (a disobedient Chinese duck) (1933). This was followed by Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton in 1938. It was during this time that the work of Dr Seuss (Theodore Geisel) began, with the publication of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). This book, with The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938), stretched the parameters with fantastic artwork and an ironic treatment of traditional folk tales. An American book which challenged the ‘young reader’ concept of audience and the role of picture books was Munro Leaf’s pacifist The Story of Ferdinand, illustrated by Robert Lawson (1936).