Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"A Picture Speaks Volumes": Favorite Book Illustrators

There is nothing as satisfying as coming across a superb illustration, especially in a book that is composed mostly of pages devoted to just words.

What exactly makes a good book illustration? To me, its not really how aesthetically pleasing it is, but rather how well it brings the story to life. A book's cover image, for instance, can set the tone of the entire story, and even if there are no other images in the book, the reader has that single image to hold on to all throughout. Sometimes even the most simple images are effective at conveying the story's message.

This blog entry is dedicated to my favorite book illustrators! Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Edward Gorey (1925-2000)
Edward Gorey was a writer as well as an illustrator. He is best known for books like The Curious Sofa, The Haunted Tea-Cosy: A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas, and The Gilded Bat (Click on the links to see the book covers). Many of his stories have been republished as compilations (i.e. Amphigorey, Amphigorey Too, etc.).
Amphigorey Too book cover
His artwork is very detailed, and if you notice, borders on the eery and macabre. His use of color is spare, if any at all, but that's what makes his work so striking, and his attention to detail is amazing.

He partnered with one of my favorite authors, John Bellairs (Alas! Also gone from this world) to create a series of gothic tales for children. My favorite of these is a book called The House with a Clock in its Walls. Gorey's style went well with the creepy story of a clock hidden within a house in the town of New Zebedee, by the extremely evil Isaac Izaardits chimes were meant to herald the end of the world. An ordinary boya roly-poly scaredy cat by the name of Lewis Barnavelt is tasked to thwart the doomsday clock and the beyond-the-grave meddling of Isaac Izaard's equally evil wife.    

The House with a Clock in its Walls

Looking at his drawings for this book always leaves me feeling cold—literally. Its a delicious feeling that adds to the suspense and picks up on the atmosphere of New Zebedee, which is located in Michigan (known for its freezing winters).
An illustration by Edward Gorey of Lewis, Mrs. Zimmerman, and Uncle Jonathan escaping from a vehicle in hot pursuit
Illustration of Lewis Barnavelt by Edward Gorey

2. Arthur Rackham (1867-1939)
An English bloke who is considered one of the finest and most prolific book illustrators in history, Rackham was known for his intricate renditions of supernatural folk and fairytale characters. His work—a combination of pencil, india ink, and watercolor—has become the stuff of legend, and has inspired many contemporary works of art in all media. For example, Wikipedia states that Guilermo del Toro, director of the Academy-award-winning Spanish fantasy, Pan's Labyrinth, was heavily influenced by Rackham in the conceptualization and design of one of the film's main characters, The Faun.
The Faun from Pan's Labyrinth
As a kid, I remember seeing Rackham's illustrations gracing the pages of my book of favorite fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. My mom passed this book down to me (I can't seem to find it. I suspect it's buried beneath tons of cartons). I can't find an exact photo of that particular edition (Sorry). Here are some of my favorite illustrations done by Arthur Rackham from that collection of tales:
Illustration done by Arthur Rackham for the story "The Old Woman in the Wood."

Illustration done by Arthur Rackham for "Snow White."
3. Quentin Blake (1932-Present)
One of my all-time favorite authors is Roald Dahl. I love all his books whether for adults or children. I have to say that the illustrations played a big part in my being such a big fan. Quentin Blake, another Englishman, is the genius behind nearly all of the illustrations for Roald Dahl's books. In fact, the Roald Dahl website features his artwork. This guy is so good he was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for his work as a book illustrator.

The BFG, short for Big friendly Giant, is one of my favorite Roald Dahl books. Its about a giant whose sole pleasure in life is giving children good dreams. A little girl named Sophie espies him in the act of doing this and so he picks her up and takes her to his homeland. Unbeknownst to Sophie there are other giants who live in Giant Country, and these want nothing else but to gobble up humans, who they refer to as "Human Beans." What follows is an extraordinary adventure that involves helicopters and the Queen of England!   

Sophie and the BFG by Quentin Blake
Another book I love is The Twits, the story of a gruesome, smelly twosome who have a penchant for bird pie, scaring kids, and tormenting each other with cruel practical jokes even if they are husband and wife! In the illustration below, in order to payback her husband for the nasty trick he played on her, Mrs. Twit serves up a dish of WORM spaghetti!
Mr. and Mrs. Twit by Quentin Blake
4. Georgina Hargreaves (1939-Present)
Georgina Hargreaves was one of the illustrators for several of Enid Blyton's books. Born in Lancashire, Georgina studied art in the Bolton Art School. Her style is quite distinct and is very appealing to children. Her drawings exude a warmth and innocence so vital to the characters that populate Blyton's enchanting tales.
"Cover of The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton," illustrated by Georgina Hargreaves
Her illustrations for the Magic Faraway Tree edition first published in 1939 are really wonderful, and will delight anybody who is familiar with Enid Blyton's tale of three children who discover a magical tree that takes them to fantastical lands. I will never forget her illustration of "boiled sweets" growing from bushes in clusters, the Land of Goodies!
Sir Stamp-a-Lot from The Magic Faraway Tree, as illustrated by Georgina Hargreaves
5. Daniel Egneus
Daniel Egneus is one of the more contemporary artists I favor.  He's done campaigns for big names like H&M and Haagen Dasz, among others, and was elected Best Illustrator by the Association of Illustrators in the UK in 2005.
By Daniel Egneus for the Haagen Dasz campaign
I really enjoyed the illustrations he did for Little Red Riding Hood, published by Harper Collins. They are really beautiful.
Little Red Riding Hood cover image by Daniel Egneus
 His style is very distinct and romantic. Check out this video: 
This wraps up this blog entry. Really, a picture can make an enormous difference, especially if the written work it portrays is equally a masterpiece.

Monday, July 11, 2011


(*Recommended reading age: For mature readers only)

This post is about the recipient for the non-fiction category of the 2010 National Book Awards: Just Kids by Patti Smith, one of the most moving books I've ever had the pleasure of reading.

The deckle-edged edition is soon to be available at Fully Booked. Even if I own the hardcover already, I will definitely buy the deckle-edged version (the cover has a great photo of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe; the back has a photo of them locking lips) as I really love the feel of the uneven pages.

For those who aren't familiar with Patti Smith, here's a brief background: Smith is an American musician who is also known for her poetry, activism, and work as a visual artist. Furthermore, she is also known as one of punk rock's pioneers and is considered a style icon of the 70s. Aside from her recent win at the National Book Awards, Smith is recognized as Commander of the Order des Artes et des Letteres, a title bestowed on her by the French Minister of Culture in 2005. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, and is also a recipient of the 2011 Polar Music Prize. 

Patti Smith performing at Tivolis Koncertsal, Copenhagen, Denmark.--Wikipedia
Just Kids is a memoir of life with her dearest friend and soulmate Robert Mapplethorpe, one of the most influential photographers of his generation.
Self Portrait, 1980-Wikipedia
In all honesty, I'm no lover of poetry though I do admire the work of certain poets like Ted Hughes and E.E. Cummings. I was a little hesitant to read this book—I wasn't sure if it was one of those books that told a story purely through poetry, but my desire to learn more about the enigmatic Patti Smith (being a fan of her music and art) overcame my fear of not being able to relate. I am so glad I made that choice.

The book does not consist solely of poems though there are a few, but it felt like a string of beautiful verses, seamlessly overlapping. Patti Smith writes with a fluidity and grace that is close to lyrical. She speaks of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe with such profundity and reverence. They seemed destined for each other; I believe it was much more than coincidence the first time they laid eyes on each other, and how he would later on save her from an unpleasant experience.

I am awestruck that two people could have such a strong connection, and how their love transcended the physical, evolving into something so pure. (I am deliberately being vague as I don't want to deprive anyone of reading this wonderful story)

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe by Norman Seeff
The book corrected many misconceptions I had of Patti Smith. I initially thought that she was a harsh woman whose life was marked by vice—it doesn't help that she's reed thin and looked haggard even at a young age, or that she was part of a generation that lost many to AIDS or addiction. A large part of her life was spent surviving poverty and starvation, and through all this she maintained such a great outlook and a constant determination to improve her artistry and her relationships with the people around her. It baffles me how someone could have gone through so much suffering and emerged victorious. She is a Renaissance woman in every aspect. I also love the fact that she worked in a bookstore (Scribner's Bookstore).

Just Kids also recalls an era so steeped in creativity, originality, and raw talent—New York in the 60s and 70s. In its pages are Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, members of the 27 Club (group of musicians who all died at age 27): Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and the famed Hotel Chelsea, where many staggering works of genius were created, not to mention the death of many famous personalities, including the tragic death of longtime girlfriend of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, supposedly by his hand.

Patti Smith's writing is admirable. Smith manages to speak of how they (she and Robert) emerged as these larger-than-life creatures—respected and revered as two of the most gifted creative trailblazers of their generation—without an ounce of conceit or self-consciousness.

The book had many painful moments, but I couldn't put it down. I finished it in one evening, and when I finally closed it and set it down, it felt like I was saying goodbye to a person and not merely finishing  a book.

Patti Smith promised Robert Mapplethorpe she would write their story. She has done so much more than that, and has revived his spirit and the spirit of a lost generation with the gift of her words.