Words and Pictures

There are some illustrations that are so integral to my memory of books I read as a kid that to say the name of a book calls them immediately to mind.  Say “A Little Princess” and I think of Sara Crewe, pale little face framed by a cloud of dark hair, sitting disconsolate in her wretched attic, or a little more optimistically, of Sara, cracked bowl in hand, looking dreamily out over the London rooftops.  Both illustrations are from an edition of A Little Princess I did not own–we had it in my classroom in 4th grade.  I had the more prosaic Tasha Tudor edition at home (if the Tudor illustrations define your Sara Crewe, pardon my partiality) but for some reason these are the illustrations that hooked into my heart.  They are by Ethel Franklin Bett, and one of the things I love is that they capture Sara’s oddness–from the beginning of the book Frances Hodgson Burnett describes Sara as odd, “queer”, a serious little girl unlike the pink-and-white Victorian girls who populate her boarding school.

I didn’t own the edition of Eight Cousins that captured my imagination, either–the one with pictures by Clara Burd, a “Golden Age” illustrator who was known for her round-faced cherubic children. I read Eight Cousins at school, then that edition was lost to me, and on subsequent readings I had to make do with the Little, Brown edition with illustrations by Hattie Longstreet Price, and I came to be fond of those illustrations too.  Just so you don’t think I am too inflexible.

And Jessie Wilcox Smith’s illustrations for Little Women define those characters for me:



I love the focus of the girls on their father’s letter, and how…motherly Marmee looks (I have issues with Marmee, but I love this painting nonetheless).

Not all the pictures I love from books I read and re-read as a kid are full color, or painted by Edwardian ladies with three names.  When I was small, one of the books I adored was Lion, by William Pené duBois.  In it, one of the Great Designer’s sub-designer angels comes up with a great name for a new animal: Lion.  He has some problems in the design phase, however, and goes from angel to angel getting feedback.  It’s only when he edits his idea that Lion becomes more recognizable as the animal we know today.  

Here’s our angel in an early design phase, getting feedback from another designer who can barely contain his amusement.

And I love eccentric black and white sketches, and you really don’t get more eccentric than Jules Feiffer’s art for The Phantom Tollbooth. It’s a book that relies heavily on words and wordplay, yet I give Feiffer fully half the credit for the world and the characters that I love in that book.  I mean really, isn’t this a Humbug?

And I have to confess that the Terrible Trivium gave me nightmares–that combination of urbanity and blankness just got to me. 

Milo and Tock and Rhyme and Reason and the Mathemagician and Short Shrift, each captured gorgeously in living black and white.




Finally, I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t love Tasha Tudor.  Her Mary Lennox is my Mary Lennox–accept no substitutes!–and her Colin and Ben and Dickon and Martha look, in my head, exactly as Tudor shows them.

I am a creature of words.  I can doodle, but I can’t draw, and I tend to want words to draw and define my characters.  But when a picture creeps in and gets identified with a work, I can’t fight it.

How about you? What illustrations are the books or characters you love?


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Words and Pictures — 12 Comments

  1. I have never seen those pictures of Sara Crewe before. I agree, she looks very Sara-ish. The black and white sketches in the version we had were good–odd in their way–but the covers were too glossy. That is my Little Women, too, and I adored the Phantom Tollbooth illustrations. My intense dislike of drawings of people with no mouths or eyes comes from that book, I think.

    There was a great treasury of poetry with wonderful illustrations for “The Owl and the Pussycat.” I also remember a book called Copper’s Chance. Paul Brown illustrations. Oh, the horses–and the people were so period and sharp and a different world! So very fifties in its outlook on women, but our smart young heroine was going to always find her way even though she was climbing class and against sexist conventions, because she was magical in understanding horses. 1951–the author doesn’t quite say women can do anything men do–but both period and reaching far for its time.

    I wish I remembered more of them, but Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry with Wesley Dennis art, and the art for other horse books are vivid. And certain children’s books–“Everyone Knows what a Dragon Looks Like” and “Where the Wild Things Are” stand out.

  2. There were so many, I can’t even choose.

    Perhaps most inconic of my childhood would be Keith Ward’s original illustrations of the Black in the Walter Farley series.

    BTW, though I have no idea where and when they disappeared, in my early adulthood, I had endless small books — a particular imprint did these — of Tasha Tudor illustrations. Some of them were address books and so on, but there were others that were just those. I still have on my shelves though The Secret Garden with her illustrations. My Little Princess isn’t hers, however, but I’m not sure whose it is — it’s kinda buried behind other books. I recognize the ones you put up here, but that doesn’t mean I have that The Little Princess.

    Howard Pyle illustrated so many of the books I loved when young. I’m unsure whether my imaginative dreaming was more provoked by the text than the illos!

    Love, C.

  3. I’d never seen those illos of Sarah Crewe, but before I read your text, I knew who she was.

  4. Dennis’s Chincoteague illustrations, as Cat mentions. Louis Darling’s art for the Beverly Clearly books. Hilary Knight’s Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. I’m sure there are many others!

    One particular illustration popped to mind, from a Light Princess edition illustrated by Maurice Sendak. I remembered nothing about the story, and none of the other pictures from that book that I looked at online was familiar, but the one with the princess feeding the young man in the lake has remained vivid through all the (many) intervening years. I had a cousin who drowned when I was a young child, which surely made an image like this, feeding into a specific horror, stick when it might not otherwise have.

  5. I have that exact edition of A LITTLE PRINCESS. Yes, the illustrations are delightful!
    Unquestionably the best illustrator for me is Pauline Baynes, who did the original illustrations for the Narnia books. Also Garth Williams’ work for the Laura Ingalls Wilder novels is iconic. If you ever get a look at the previous editions, with a lesser artist, you can see what a huge difference Williams made.

  6. Kay Nielson drawing for East of the Sun, West of the Moon was iconic for me. I also loved anything from Edward Gorey.

  7. King of the Wind, by Marguerite Henry: the original hardcover with color illos and endpapers by Wesley Dennis.

    I gave my copy to a friend for her niece and I blush to admit I later regretted the impulse. I have a later edition but it isn’t quite the same.