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A Drink of Water, illustrated by Quentin Blake
The nature of children's books and childhood memory means that we often associate our favourite illustrators with just one book or series. Quentin Blake's recognisable inky illustrations will forever be associated with Roald Dahl, and Shirley Hughes' soft style immediately stirs fondness for her well-known Alfie series. But illustrators usually create masses of work in the span of their careers, and some of the most accomplished work from our favourite illustrators lies in books you might not have heard of yet! Here are some of our favourite lesser-known books from the most iconic illustrators of the last century.
In 1968, Methuen commissioned the artist Shirley Hughes to illustrate the fourth collection of Dorothy Edwards’ My Naughty Little Sister stories, which began as a series of popular radio broadcasts. The series' author Dorothy Edwards loved Hughes’ illustrations so much that she was asked to re-illustrate the earlier collections for reissue, and the most well-known image of My Naughty Little Sister is now Shirley Hughes' depiction of her.
This work was a breakthrough success for Hughes, who went on to illustrate over fifty books, including her own massively popular Alfie series. Egmont recently released My Naughty Little Sister: A Treasury Collection, which has Shirley Hughes’ illustrations in full colour for the first time! You can buy it here.
In 1959, Tove Jansson, best known as the creator of the Moomins, was commissioned to illustrate a Swedish translation of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. Her illustration style suited Carroll’s strangeness perfectly, and this project is hailed as a meeting of two of the greatest children’s authors of the past 150 years.
Jansson was later asked to also illustrate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which presented her with an exciting opportunity to try out a new style. Upon receiving her work the book’s delighted editor immediately sent Jansson a telegram which read “Congratulations for Alice- you have produced a masterpiece”.
E.H. Shepard sometimes lamented that his beloved illustrations for Winnie-the-Pooh overshadowed his other work. He was a brilliantly versatile illustrator, adept at capturing the atmosphere of any writer’s work. Shepard was the original illustrator of the first edition of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. His drawings for the book show his skill at capturing characters and atmosphere, in a world that is very different from the Hundred Acre Wood. The Wind in the Willows has since been taken on by countless illustrators, Inga Moore’s version is one of our other favourites.
Long before he ever heard of Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake was already a popular illustrator. He first became well known for illustrating covers of Punch magazine, but always wanted to illustrate a full book. He asked his friend John Yeoman to write a collection of stories for him to illustrate, and in 1960 A Drink of Water was published. The book had been out of print for about fifty years, but Thames and Hudson recently released a new facsimile edition which is completely loyal to the original. (You can get it here). Blake’s illustrations, in his now iconic scratchy style, are immediately recognisable. Because of early sixties printing methods, the illustrations only use only two colours, which today gives them a lovely vintage feel. (You can see more of this 1960s print style in The Mellops go Spelunking and A Balloon for a Blunderbuss).
Quentin Blake’s amazing ability to illustrate a book’s most complex concepts is maybe best exemplified in Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. He said that this illustration, of the author “being sad but pretending [he’s] being happy”, was the most difficult he’s ever done, as he had to capture the sadness behind a smile. The image that follows it depicts how Rosen is really feeling. The comparison strikes to the heart of what the book is about.
William’s Nicholson was the original illustrator of Margery Williams’ Velveteen Rabbit, a story which has not declined in popularity since its original publication in 1922. Nicholson’s other books are now less famous, but are no less brilliant. He both wrote and illustrated Clever Bill, which Maurice Sendak described as “among the few perfect picture books for children”.
Sven Nordqvist is a household name all over Scandinavia and in Germany for his series of books about an old farmer and mischievous cat, Findus and Pettson. But arguably his best work as an illustrator is in his stand-alone book Where Is My Sister.
He conceived this book before Findus and Pettson ever existed, and came back to the project after becoming a successful illustrator. Where is My Sister is a surreal dreamscape of intricately detailed double spreads, published in large format which allows you to escape into its world for hours.
Jon Klassen is one of the most popular picture book makers working today. He’s best known for his explosively funny trilogy of books about animals and hats; I Want My Hat Back, This is Not My Hat and We Found a Hat. His collaborations with the writer Mac Barnett have also brought him acclaim. Their latest, The Wolf the Duck & the Mouse, was published only last month.
Klassen and Barnett’s books are marked by their sly humour and expressive, devious animals, but Klassen's collaborations with other writers show a versatile range. House Held Up By Trees is written by poet Ted Kooser, and Klassen’s illustrations for it are on a completely different register to his other work. They have a sombre stillness that works well with the book’s reflective and poetic text.
Jon Klassen has also collaborated with the writer of A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket. Their book, The Dark, is all about the balance of light and dark, both in its story and its artwork.
Our carefully curated selection of books includes lots of lesser known works by iconic illustrators, as well as books from amazing artists you may not have heard of. You can browse the entire range here.