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Sorry about the length of time between posts – I’m going to do my best to post more often!
I’ve been rereading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children so that I can read the sequel Hollow City which has been sitting on my bookshelf, unread, for the past few months. In case you’re not familiar with this book, it’s a decent story with substantially acceptable writing and a fun, slightly scary premise. But the most interesting aspect is the art that goes along with it. Ransom Riggs, the writer, uses found photographs – that is, photographs that have been collected from various sources (like garage sales and antique shops) over the years and kept in personal collections (which he thanks in the postscript). These photographs are “unaltered” – presumably digitally – but they are a little odd, a little creepy, and a little unsettling. They make a great foil to the novel, which is probably best described as “middle grades” rather than young adult.
I’ve also been reading The Wildwood Chronicles by Colin Meloy, and those novels have excellent illustrations by Carson Ellis. These illustrations are fantastically done, and fit the tone of the novel. This is just another book in the spate of middle grade novels that have illustrations (including the aforementioned discussed The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making).
Of course this brings up the question of what purpose these illustrations may or may not serve. In Miss Peregrine’s Home they do the admirable task of furthering the plot, as they are mentioned by the characters and so exist in-world – rather than building the world, they allow the reader to become the viewer. In other middle grade novels, the act of illustrating has been a longstanding tradition – I recall my copy of The Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland were lavishly illustrated every few hundred pages, and it was always a joy to come across them. But what I’m interested in is the act of illustration as a bridge from “picture books” to “adult books”.
It’s common for the first books that we encounter to be picture books, with more illustration and art than words (and in the works of Shaun Tan, sometimes no words at all, but his intended audience is arguable). So it makes sense that as readers become more sophisticated, there are less pictures and more words – unless, of course, we’re discussing graphic novels, but that’s a topic in and of itself. However, the construction of worlds is often considered better left to the imagination, so the question remains: why use illustration to construct a world when the words should suffice?
I think that there are some books that may use illustration as a crutch to explain complex and hard to picture concepts, especially ones that use words that may be beyond the reading level of young readers, and I think some people may find that distasteful. But when the art is as well done, and the world building is as complex as what Colin Meloy proposes in Wildwood, I think that the art only serves to highlight critical moments, but more importantly, to draw the reader into the world more completely. Whether or not children need illustrations is beyond the point. The art and the lyrical style suggest more strongly that it is the author that needs the illustrations to make his world complete.
The attitude that children need the crutch of art is reductive and dismissive. Instead, the consideration should be that books can be a medium that is not purely words on paper, but can encompass art and still be valid and complex, and that art can improve a mediocre story if the medium fits the writing style.