Do Nations Have an Illustrative Style?
What does the fox truly say? That it ain’t from around these here parts.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the art found in children’s picture books and those particular styles favored by artists in one nation or another. All this began when I recently reviewed of Wild by Emily Hughes. In the review I made the following statement: “A British/Hawaiian author/illustrator, Emily Hughes’ art is fascinating to look at, partly because it’s so incredibly European. It’s something about the eyes, I think. Or maybe just the way the landscape and the animals intertwine. The bears, for example, reminded me of nothing so much as the ones found in The Bear’s Song by Benjamin Chaud (a Frenchman).”
Naturally my European readers picked up on this and began debating whether there truly can be called a “European” style, as I so off-handedly put it. Ah, sweet hyperbole. Joel Stewart pointed out that what I categorize as “European” is, in fact, mighty similar to the work of such U.S. illustrators as Mary Blair. He went on to speculate that perhaps the internet is shifting previously perceived borders for illustrators, making it harder to identify them from one country or another.
What it really comes down to for me is what styles fail to translate here in America. Which brings us back to the fox. Or, rather, the YouTube sensation turned picture book:
Let me say right now that I was pleased beyond measure when I discovered that this title, widely touted as being turned into a picture book, would be illustrated by a Norwegian illustrator. I can count on one hand the number of living Norwegian children’s authors I see on American shelves (it sort of begins and ends with Jo Nesbo). And artists? Meet Svein Nyhus. At his blog you can hear about the differences between the American and Norwegian versions of this book (though I cannot vouch for the translated summaries at the beginning of each post). That said, I think it is fair to say that there is no way in the WORLD that an illustrator could get away with this kind of art if he or she originated in the United States and originally published here as well.
You see, over the years I’ve been able to identify books that my children’s librarians (not all, but definitely some) don’t like immediately upon seeing. This year in 2013, some of my librarians had a hard time with the following books:
If these books have anything in common (and they almost don’t) it’s their unique art styles. The kicker is that often the person objecting can’t put a finger on precisely why they don’t like the book.
Looking at these covers, if you took away the artists’ names you wouldn’t necessarily be able to ascribe nationalities to them. The same cannot necessarily be said to be true of French board book artists. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed the significant influx of French board books to our shores over the last few years (oh, Herve Tullet what hast thou wrought?). Those titles have a very distinctive simplicity to them that makes them easier to identify than some titles.
But aside from those, I think Joel was right when he said the internet was blurring the lines. That said, it’s still incredibly clear when an illustrator hails from another country (at least to American eyes). You might not be able to pinpoint the precise nation, but you’ll know it isn’t native to our shores. This begs the obvious question: Is there a distinctly American style that is all our own? I’m not sure. Probably so, but if there is I doubt we’d be able to see it.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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