A guest post by artists Sarah Blair and Bill Prosser
In her Radical Children’s Literature Kimberley Reynolds (2007) describes the vital seam connecting children’s book design and modernist creative experiment from the 1920s onwards. She quotes Esther Averill writing on French avant-garde illustration in 1930 (p.30):
The avant-garde harps on the theme of the child. It has created a kind of religion for his sensibilities and imaginative powers, in which it reads its own better moods. It believes that the dreamlike state of mind in which it specialises and which it interprets with primitive graphic signs, is part and parcel of the child’s daily routine. In creating for the child it has trusted in his being all prehistoric art plasma, and nothing of a bloodthirsty young savage.
By the 1960s, the smooth primeval lines in book-works by artists such as Calder and Miro had evolved into a profusion of forms, with mainstream picture books for the children’s market now encompassing roaming cut-outs, actual holes, lushly abstract-expressive brushwork and unregulated mobilised type. In terms of topic, Maurice Sendak in his 1963 Where the Wild Things Are made the point that small children are comfortable (up to a point) with the savagery of hairy wild things, and David McKee’s Mr Benn (first in book-form from 1965 and then in 1971 on television) persisted day after day in dressing up and walking away from the grown-up world of common sense and duty.
Dynamic connections between the counter culture of the late 60s and the way children’s books of the period were illustrated was certainly made likely by the flux between commercial design and activities in wider arts contexts. Notable European illustrators such as André François, Roland Topor, Nicole Claveloux and Tomi Ungerer criss-crossed between safe routine commissions and edgy upstart publications, while New York’s PushPin design agency was dazzlingly eclectic in output. In the UK, Ralph Steadman and John Burningham presented images that made a virtue of inky unruliness – whether negotiating adult content or children’s stories. More softly, Heinz Edelmann’s technicolor designs for the Beatle’s Yellow Submarine (1966) echoed his work aimed firmly at children, and Alan Aldridge’s hip flower-power blooms were picked for posters and paperbacks before being extravagantly arranged in books for a young audience such as Butterfly Ball (1973).
Beyond established media outlets, the 60s counter culture is famous for its fringe activities – the rawer arenas of self-publishing, spontaneous performance, actions and readings that offered platforms for determined self-expression. It is difficult to believe that there wasn’t seepage into children’s culture from this direction too, that artists didn’t divert something of this energy towards their own children’s experience, or that switched-on kids didn’t in turn mimic then or later what was so seductively on offer. In what survives there are certainly signs of residual influence here and there. The infamous schoolkids’ edition of Oz (1967), for example, features specific youngsters’ emulations of the era’s subversive graphics. And individual adolescents produced hand-drawn comics of their own: sixteen-year-old Elissa Jane Karg’s lightly satirical How to Be a Nonconformist is one such, a below-the-radar echo of the efflorescence in adult zines. It is worth analysing the visual influences at play in these rare blossoms for leads as to how deeply the wider tremors of the counter culture registered. Likewise, any casual tropes or lingering quirkiness affecting the look of ‘mainstream’ children’s comics into the 70s.
It appears that none of this is well covered in the existing literature on children’s book illustration and design – the emphasis is more on wider shifts in post-war educational theory (including systematic theorising of word/picture relations) and the gradual opening-up of publishing conventions through the fifties, sixties and seventies: the age before the digital revolution. Examining the extent of the specific impact of 1968 on books and publications for children might show traces of a more detailed evolution – idiosyncratic localised activity that has as yet not been fully seen or appreciated; conversely, it might make even clearer the robustly conservative quality that the world of children’s books is often credited with – in this case, sleeping on through the storm. In this connection by the way, Martin Salisbury’s view in his survey of recent publishing history is that European children’s illustration has persisted in being conspicuously more adventurous than that in the UK, and though admired by British publishers is not to the wider public’s taste. A harbinger of Brexit?
Graphis, vol. 31, no. 177, 1975 (special issue on children’s book illustration)
Kimberley Reynolds, Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007
Martin Salisbury, Play pen: new children’s book illustration. Laurence King Publishing, 2007
Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles, Children’s Picturebooks: the art of visual storytelling. Laurence King Publishing, 2012
Joseph H. Schwartz, Ways of the Illustrator: visual communication in children’s literature. American Library Association, 1982
Sarah Blair and Bill Prosser, Oct 2016.