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Quick Guide to Children's Books 3: Illustrated fiction

July 24, 2018 by Nora Nagy

The world of children's literature is an enchanting place which often looks like a colourful maze with imaginary creatures in fantastic worlds. These creatures and worlds are mostly versions of our own realities, and through them we can learn more about our own worlds, and through the words and the images in the stories we can explore our own lives, reflecting on its beauties and dealing with its difficulties.

When you enter a book shop, these miniworlds which we call picture books are well-organized on shelves, usually labelled and categorized in a systematic way. There are picture books, silent books, illustrated books, comics, graphic novels, poetry books and many more formats. What is the difference between these books? What are their main characteristics?

In this new series we will explore the world of children's books together, providing definitions and examples for each main type of books. In this third part we enter the magical world of illustrated fiction.

Illustrated page in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Illustrated by Roberto Tomei. © Helbling Languages

What are illustrated books?

It would be hard to imagine Alice's Adventures in Wonderland without John Tenniel's drawings, Peter Rabbit without Beatix Potter's watercolour illustrations, or Roald Dahl's fantastic world without Quantin Blake's quirky drawings. The symbiosis of text and image in such works has created such a verbal-visual imprint in our memories that when we see an illustration, we immediately think of the scene, style and probably the whole story.

Illustrated fiction is mostly associated with children's books, but in the 18th and 19th centuries they were popular in serialized fiction. Although in the early 20th century, with the rise of other forms of media (photography, cinema and television) the popularity of having illustrations in novels declined, other graphic design features of these books (for example the cover design and the font) remained important.

One author who really supported the use of illustrations was Charles Dickens, and with his 1836 serialized edition of The Pickwick Papers, he created a new trend for Victorian fiction writers. We can easily compare these serialized publications to the popular television series of today.

Illustrations have the power to change our understanding of stories and our perception of the characters. This is why many authors might be concerned about including them in their books. However, if the illustrator is well-chosen and works closely with the author, the collaboration can have exciting results, just like in the case of Dickens. An interesting example of the power of illustrations can be found in the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon. Arthur Conan Doyle's stories were published in the Strand Magazine, and the most well-known attributes of Sherlock, the deerstalker hat and the cape were additions by Sidney Paget.

  • You can read more about these in this article from the Smithsonian Magazine.

Recently illustrations are back in demand in both adult and young adult fiction. In young adult fiction illustrations often gain special meaning-making significance, transforming the pages into stylish, fun and adventurous territories waiting to be explored.

Skills development

The features of truly memorable illustrated books not only make them aesthetically pleasing and entertaining, but also create excellent educational affordances both for first and second-language learners. They can help the reader with visualization (an important reading strategy of successful language learners), learning new vocabulary, creating an atmosphere, learning about the historical era and the setting, and then recalling the events in a story.

Here at Helbling Readers we dedicate a lot of effort and time to selecting the right illustrator for each graded reader, and we design visual elements so that they improve the reading experience, and support the readers with learning vocabulary and remembering the plot.

Illustration from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. Illustrated by Giuseppe Palumbo © Helbling Languages

Recommended books

Here are our favourite selection of illustrated books.

  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland written by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by John Tenniel
  • The Pippi Longstocking books, written by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Ingrid Vang Nyman
  • The Wind in the Willows, written by Kenneth Grahame. illustrated by Michael Foreman
  • The Clarice Bean stories, written and illustrated by Lauren Child
  • A Monster Calls, written by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Siobhan Dowd
  • The Little Prince, written and illustrated by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  • Mach a Šebestová, written by Miloš Macourek, illustrated by Adolf Born
  • The Bears' Famous Invasion of Sicily, written and illustrated by Dino Buzzati

You can also read interviews with some of the illustrators of our readers.

Check out our post about picture books here:

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