Historian Leonard S. Marcus’s new work, Pictured Worlds, surveys 101 of the literary art form’s greatest practitioners. In this excerpt, Marcus delves into the rich global history of picture books and their evolution.

The ideal children’s book, John Locke observed, is “easy, pleasant... and suited to [the child’s] Capacity.” Published in London in 1693, Locke’s revolutionary advice book was called Some Thoughts Concerning Education and had something to say about all aspects of a child’s upbringing, starting with the body and ending with the mind. A child psychologist before his time, Locke speculated on the types of books best suited to young people’s capabilities and interests. In doing so, he laid the groundwork for modern-day children’s literature. Noting, for example, that a child who feels scolded or lectured to is less apt to pay attention than one for whom learning is cast as a game, he argued that a good children’s book is one in which “the Entertainment that [the child] finds might draw him on, and reward his Pains in Reading.” Locke listed brevity and the addition of illustrations as two other key elements of effective bookmaking for the young. Pictures, he said, were an essential ingredient because, from the child’s perspective, showing always works better than telling.

Widely popular in the West, Locke’s treatise inspired entrepreneurial book men like London’s John Newbery—affectionately dubbed “Jack Whirler” by literary lion Samuel Johnson—to specialize in publishing juveniles in the mold of his forward-looking ideas. In doing so, Newbery established the first commercial market for children’s books in the West. Newbery’s small, trim paperbacks sold briskly to the burgeoning ranks of upwardly striving middle-class English parents and were soon being imitated, or simply pirated, in North America. Half a world away, in the vibrant commercial city of Edo, Japan, a comparable retail trade in akahon, or “red-bound” picture books for young readers had sprung up independently of developments in Britain but for much the same reasons. A clear pattern thus emerged that would repeat itself elsewhere around the globe many times over: the recognition of a critical link between literacy and economic and social advancement, and of the illustrated children’s book as a gateway to literacy and a better life.

An occasional illustrated book for young readers had appeared in the West before Locke, most notably Johann Amos Comenius’ Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1658), a picture encyclopedia and language primer that remained in print in one form or another well into the 19th century. But it was Locke’s prestigious endorsement that crystalized educated opinion and established the modern children’s book’s norms. By the time Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland first readers were asked slyly to consider, “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?,” the answer was plain, Locke’s prescient “thoughts” having long since taken their place as literary guideposts for the new literature for young people.

Soaring literacy rates and middle-class expectations fed the demand for children’s books across the 19th-century industrial world, with London at the center. As advances in printing technology made color illustration an affordable option, the artistically refined English picture book gathered steam and flourished. Edmund Evans, a noted London printer and proto-book packager, presided over a popular line of “toy books” created by a stable of accomplished contract artists. The select group included Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway, and best of all Randolph Caldecott, the red-bearded self-taught illustrator whose jaunty wit and kinetic approach to drawing and composition propelled the picture book into exciting new graphic territory. From then onward narrative artists were keenly aware of the picture book as a viable art form for dabbling in if not building a solid career. Beatrix Potter for one, who grew up in London with framed Caldecott originals on the walls of her parents’ stately Kensington home, made a lifework of her “little books for little hands,” which starting with The Tale of Peter Rabbit spread rapidly in translation across Europe and to North America, where they became mainstays of public library collections everywhere.

For turn-of-the-last-century children, elegant gift editions of fairy tales and other classic stories came into fashion. As the literacy-minded middle class continued to expand, artists experimented with novelty formats that promised the added child-appeal of a favorite toy. The unrivaled innovator of the three-dimensional pop-up or movable book was Germany’s Lothar Meggendorfer, a satirical cartoonist by training, who, like Randolph Caldecott, approached the illustrated children’s book in a forward-leaning spirit that presaged the coming of the motion picture.

Developments with far-reaching consequences unfolded in the United States around 1900 as social reformers fought to safeguard the wellbeing of the nation’s children, especially those living in America’s rapidly growing cities. As significant victories were being won in the areas of medical care, public education, and child labor regulation, public librarians debated whether they too had a role to play in ensuring the welfare of minors. By the time that industrialist Andrew Carnegie announced his historic gift of a national network of public library buildings, the question had been decided, and the world’s first children’s reading rooms were introduced as a standard feature of the libraries, to be staffed by the world’s first full-time children’s library professionals. Publishers took note of these changes and hired specialists of their own to meet the needs of the potentially vast new institutional market. Immediately after the First World War, American publishing houses in New York and Boston seized the moment to become the first firms in the world to establish editorial departments dedicated solely to juvenile literature.

It was not by chance that the modest new departments—consisting typically a single editor and perhaps a secretary—were all staffed by women. The houses’ male top executives patronizingly regarded publishing for children as “women’s work.” As a result, the pioneering professionals who accepted the jobs were often forced to withstand the withering slights of their employers. These editors, however, found strong allies in their librarian counterparts, and together the two groups worked symbiotically to establish high standards for children’s books and to promote public appreciation of the books as a life-enhancing first experience of literature, art, and culture. By the mid-1920s, a heady boom time for American commercial and cultural enterprise alike, the librarians and editors had forged an impressive—and, as it turned out, durable—system for the achievement of their goals, an institutional structure that included Children’s Book Week as an annual national publicity campaign; the Horn Book magazine as the world’s first children’s-literature review journal; and the John Newbery Medal as the first literary prize awarded to a writer of books for young readers.

Building on the empirical observations of John Locke, Friedrich Fröbel, and others, early 20th-century psychologists systematically charted the stages of childhood development, and in the United States progressive educators searched for ways to translate the psychologists’ discoveries into more effective, child-centered approaches to teaching and learning. At New York’s Bureau of Educational Experiments (later the Bank Street College of Education), founder Lucy Sprague Mitchell studied the natural arc of language development and its implications for books for children as young as two. Soon Mitchell’s research findings had put her squarely at odds with the views of America’s leading librarians. For young children, the librarians favored aesthetically refined picture books printed on heavy stock and with elegant cloth bindings, strong narrative art, and “once-upon-a-time” texts meant to transport the child from the crassly commercial modern-day world to more fanciful realms where their imaginations might freely grow and flourish. Mitchell dismissed the librarians’ view as Romantic sentiment, arguing that children were in fact little empiricists and sensory learners who longed for books about the “here and now” urban world they knew from experience. Mitchell also believed that young children were too often treated at library story hours as passive observers, and that it was more natural and beneficial for them to be encouraged to speak up, make noise, and participate as full collaborators in the reading and performance of books. For this same reason, Mitchell favored picture book texts with a call-and-response or gamelike element and illustrations that depicted everyday subjects in a graphic, semiabstract manner that left more to the child’s imagination than did a literal-minded, realist approach. Not satisfied with theorizing, she groomed a corps of young writers, including Margaret Wise Brown and Ruth Krauss, and illustrators including Leonard Weisgard and Clement Hurd, to put her insights into practice, and even persuaded a Bank Street nursery school parent to launch a publishing company dedicated to bringing their work to the marketplace. The clash of values represented by Mitchell’s and the librarians’ opposing visions resulted in years of bitter feuding and acrimonious debate and, when cooler heads finally prevailed, in a significant expansion of the picture book’s expressive possibilities.

As the American picture book gathered momentum throughout the years of the Great Depression, librarians decided the time had come for a companion prize to the Newbery Medal for distinguished work by an illustrator. In 1938, the Randolph Caldecott Medal became the world’s first award honoring children’s book art. As a public statement about library standards, it arrived none too soon, just as the new 10-cent comic books were captivating young readers by the millions with their action-packed (or, as critics argued, crudely sub-literary and escapist) fare. Most children could afford to purchase comic books with their own pocket money and often did so when their adult caretakers were not looking—a clandestine arrangement that only added to the comics’ allure. The line that librarians drew between high-culture picture books and low-culture comics would prove to be a largely American phenomenon as in Europe Tintin, Astérix, Moomin cartoons, and Japanese manga all enjoyed broadly based cultural approval as well as commercial success on their home grounds.

Another major challenge to the librarians’ authority as literary gatekeepers came in 1942 with the launch of Little Golden Books, a line of colorful, trim, low-budget picture books that dispensed with some of the aesthetic frills favored by the library world in order to make picture books affordable by just about everyone. Little Golden Books were marketed directly to parents at drugstores, five-and-dimes, and supermarkets, a revolutionary approach that for the first time made it possible for families of modest means to create home libraries for their children even if they lived far from the nearest big-city bookstore.

After the Second World War, American juvenile publishing prospered in parallel with the rising birth rate, and idealistic editors in the United States and Europe searched for tangible ways to channel their efforts on behalf of children and their books into a force for world peace. In 1949, with support from the Western publishing community, a German Jewish journalist named Jella Lepman spearheaded the creation of the International Youth Library in Munich as a central repository for the world’s children’s literature, where visitors from afar might come together to discuss innovative ways to foster cross-cultural awareness through books. In 1953, Lepman made a second major contribution as founder of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), a nonprofit organization designed, in effect, to bring the International Youth Library’s work to the rest of the world through a program of conferences, publications, and awards.

Then in 1964, a third experiment in internationalist activism would prove to be perhaps the most effective one of all. In that year, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair convened for the first time as an annual international rights fair aimed at facilitating the commercial flow of children’s books across national and cultural borders. Publishers from England, France, and Italy formed the core of the first Bologna gathering. The United States soon joined in as an enthusiastic participant, as did Japan, whose publishers were eager to establish their place as cultural partners with their counterparts among the Western industrialized nations.

After the war, American picture books became popular in Japan, at first in makeshift translations created by participants in the informal system of bunko, or home libraries, organized by volunteer mothers for the benefit of their local communities. As the Japanese publishing industry rapidly reconstituted itself and resumed normal operations, Japanese-language editions of American picture books like Curious George and Make Way for Ducklings and of British imports such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit became mainstays of the publishers’ lists and cherished symbols of renewed friendship with the West. In the years that followed, American picture books not only influenced the direction taken by postwar Japanese writers and illustrators, but also set in motion a decades-long chain of influence that played an important role in the development of picture-book making in Taiwan, South Korea, and, by the turn of the new century, in China.

The post-war years also saw the rise to prominence of a new generation of graphic artists who believed that their work, too, had relevance for building a more harmonious and peaceful world. In Italy, Bruno Munari designed a set of 10 unconventional picture books with ingenious paper-engineered game-like three-dimensional novelty effects that blurred the boundary between book, toy, and sculpture, and challenged children to approach life with a more open mind. American designers Leo Lionni, Paul Rand, and Eric Carle transferred their facility for crafting poster, logo, and advertising images to picture books that made telling use of white space, boldly simplified forms, and brilliant color contrasts to communicate with children in a distilled pictorial language that was at once artful and accessible. Their pared-down, semi-abstract approach would inspire countless imitators in the decades to come and prove to be of particular value as demand rose on the part of ambitious, college-educated parents of the 1970s and after for books for children in the very first years of life.

The cultural ferment of the 1960s expressed itself in children’s books through a decisive turning-away from traditional narratives about idealized, morally innocent children in favor of more nuanced stories about real children in all their psychological and moral complexity. The quintessential expression of this altered perspective was Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963), which, by reassuring young children that their powerful urges and inchoate emotions were a natural part of living, belatedly ushered the picture book into the Freudian age.

As world markets grew more closely linked from the 1970s onward, picture books by the United States’s Maurice Sendak and Eric Carle, England’s John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury, Dick Bruna of the Netherlands, Kveˇta Pacovská of the Czech Republic, and others spread in translation around the globe. So too did the dazzlingly original work of Japanese artist known in the West as Mitsumasa Anno, whose wordless picture books represented an adroit fusion of Eastern and Western imagery and cultural values. At the same time, areas of the world not previously known for producing picture books of their own began generating their first such books in a reprise of the pattern previously played out in Europe, North America, and Japan. During the 1970s, this occurred in nations as culturally different for one another as Australia, Ghana, and Venezuela—all former colonies with a growing middle class for whom the production of homegrown books represented a momentous milestone in their national coming of age.

By the early 2000s, the most spectacular case of a newfound national commitment to the genre was that of China, a 5,000-year-old cultural megalith with a dour, no-nonsense educational tradition that in the past had left scant room for imaginative children’s literature in the Western sense of the term. For the Chinese people, the 20th century had largely been a time of convulsive social and political upheaval. The opening to Western cultural influences that followed in the wake of the Cultural Revolution found concrete expression in the determination of publishers, artists, and writers to provide the next generation of children with a more nurturing formative environment than had been possible during the radically disruptive final years of the Mao regime. As China’s middle class underwent dramatic expansion and the nation’s total population passed the 1.4 billion mark, access to Western-style picture books came to be viewed as one of the keys to achieving this objective. By 2015, Chinese publishers had acquired rights to more than 2,000 Western children’s books, including all of the major American award winners, and were looking ahead to a not-too-distant future in which their own picture-book artists and writers might assume a prominent role on the world stage.

The digital revolution of the early 2000s presented illustrators with a new set of tools with which to paint and draw and spawned a new art form—the app—which combined aspects of animation and the illustrated book. The internet also allowed illustrators to showcase their work to a global audience, a once-unimaginable opportunity that, in combination with the ease of electronically transmitting digital art to any locale, resulted in a sharp rise in the number of picture books created by collaborators working across national borders and at great distances from one another.

The new technologies, however, did not, as some had confidently predicted, render the traditionally printed picture book obsolete, but seemed rather to do just the opposite. For many in the children’s book world, the ubiquity of digital imagery in everyday life highlighted the unique experiential value of the well-designed picture book that one could hold in hand as the centerpiece of an intimate encounter shared by an engaged caregiver and child. By 2015, the never very robust demand for electronic picture books all but evaporated in the United States, and publishers found themselves redoubling their efforts to fashion picture books that were alluring material objects.

All this was happening as a generation of seasoned editorial illustrators, having seen demand for their work dwindle in the shrinking newspaper and magazine market, migrated to children’s book illustration as a viable alternative outlet for their creativity. Synchronously, the audience for picture books and illustrated narratives generally was becoming more fluid as experimental zine and web-based comics artists, long accustomed to operating on the noncommercial fringe, suddenly found themselves embraced by mainstream publishers eager to build the graphic novel into a cross-generational phenomenon. Some of these artists went on to discover the picture book as well, bringing formal comics elements and, often, a hipster maverick sensibility to the genre that further enriched its narrative vocabulary.

By the turn of the new millennium, the audience for picture books had expanded to include a growing number of adult collectors, afficionados, and fans. The Chihiro Art Museum, the world’s first museum of picture book art, had opened in Tokyo in 1977, initially as a local memorial to a beloved Japanese illustrator. Not only did that pioneering museum undergo a dramatic expansion in its size and mission in subsequent years, but it also set the model for an international trend. Children’s book art museums would later be established in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, and South Korea, among other countries, and university archives of children’s book art and manuscripts would likewise proliferate alongside the academic study of the field.

In the United States, the second decade of the new century also became the time for a long-overdue reckoning with regard to the publishing industry’s historic marginalization of children’s books by and about people of color, a bias also embedded in publishers’ traditional hiring patterns. It was not that no effort of this kind had been made in the past, but rather that from the 1920 launch of the short-lived, NAACP-sponsored Brownies’ Book magazine for the “children of the sun” onward, attempts at diversifying the literature and the community surrounding it had been sporadic at best, and had typically received only very modest support from the white mainstream of librarians, educators, and individual book purchasers. In the picture book realm, milestone events charted the course of a slow but ultimately meaningful industry-wide cultural transformation: the awarding of the 1963 Caldecott Medal to Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day; the rise to prominence during the mid-to-late 1900s of African American author-illustrators John Steptoe, Tom Feelings, Leo Dillon, Ashley Bryan, Donald Crews, Jerry Pinkney, and Pat Cummings; the subsequent arrival on the scene of an impressive and much larger group of authors, artists, librarians, and publishing staffers representing not only the African American community but also those of Latinx peoples, Asian Americans, the LGBTQ+ population, and American Indians.

As the audience for picture books steadily expands and their cultural status continues to rise, the genre appears likely to flourish well into the 21st century, even as other categories of printed books—reference works and disposable series fiction among others—vanish into the digital ether. To many parents and grandparents who grew up on classics like Goodnight Moon and The Tale of Peter Rabbit, it is still unimaginable to pass down a “classic” to the next generation in anything but tangible form. Yet in the end nostalgia will have had surprisingly little to do with the picture book’s long-term prospects, at least when weighed against the genre’s proven utility to engage young children in the kind of artful blend of instruction and delight that John Locke recommended long ago, and which continues to prove its worth to an ever larger portion of the world’s population.

This excerpt is adapted from the introduction of the forthcoming book Pictured Worlds: Masterpieces of Children’s Book Art by 101 Essential Illustrators from Around the World by Leonard S. Marcus, published by Abrams. ©️ 2023 Leonard S. Marcus

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