The Question That Took Me By Surprise by Jamie Littler
It’s a question I’m regularly asked about my debut middle-grade book Voyage of the Frostheart, and its upcoming sequel, Escape From Aurora. Middle-grade books aren’t typically as heavily illustrated as chapter books for younger readers. For those who don’t know, the Frostheart series is a rip-roaring, epic fantasy adventure set in a dangerous frozen world full of ancient ruins and dangerous monsters. Oh, and it also has loads of illustrations in it.
The question took me by surprise. It’s never asked in a nasty, or even critical, way, it’s just asked as though it was something I had to consider whilst making the book. I’m sure my publishers had to, but truth be told, it never even crossed my mind. I’ve been a children’s book illustrator for nearly ten years now, of course the books were going to be heavily illustrated!
But the question did get me thinking. Aside from the obvious, though no less important, reason why I wanted my book to include so many illustrations (they make books beautiful, right?), why did I want my book to have so many illustrations? What were they adding?
At first, I found myself a little stumped, which sent me into somewhat of an existential crisis. It’s OK, though, I got better, and I think I found an answer!
The notion that the inclusion of illustrations somehow makes a book unworthy or lesser than a book without is laughable.
Humans are visual creatures. Since the dawn of time, art is how we’ve expressed ourselves and the world around us. We naturally respond to pictures and images. It’s who we are. And never is that truer than with children.
Children are even more receptive to visuals than adults. But illustrations do more than just make a book look attractive. Pictures help children learn. They help make the text clearer and give kids the confidence to read without an adult’s help; to be a part of the story rather than being intimidated by an impenetrable wall of text. In a medium that will be new to them, the illustrations that accompany the text can help stir children’s imaginations and allow them to lose themselves in new worlds, or perhaps even find comfort in images of the familiar, of the friendly and cosy.
A picture is quicker to understand and provokes immediate reactions and emotions that may otherwise require a lengthy amount of prose to describe. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all. And this, in turn, can lead to a life-long love of reading.
I have a clear memory from the first publicity tour I did to promote Voyage of the Frostheart. After one of the school events, I was signing books and getting to meet many of the children who’d taken part. A group had bought the book, and, to my huge relief, they all seemed excited to get reading. All, that is, except for one, who handled the book cautiously, his eyes full of alarm at its size.
“He’s more of a comic fan at the moment,” the teacher explained. I felt terrible – I didn’t want him to feel left out, or that book was something he had to read just because I was there – there’s no faster way to destroy a child’s love of reading than forcing them into a story they won’t enjoy. I asked him about the comics he enjoyed, being a huge comic fan myself. As he answered me, he opened Frostheart and flicked through the pages, his eyes lighting up in the process.
“There’s so many drawings!” He said, his insecurities suddenly nowhere to be seen. Apparently, the illustrations sealed the deal for him, and he rushed off with the book in his hands.
Since then, I’ve received many messages from happy parents and teachers saying how the reluctant readers in their lives have enjoyed the series, one of the first ‘big’ books they’d managed to read, and it was the pictures that reeled them in. I used to work on the Phoenix Comic, a weekly children’s comic that collected the stories of many creators together, and the editors there used to get similar messages; reluctant readers who had been turned into avid bookworms thanks to how accessible the comic was. I think this really speaks to the power of illustration.
When I was young, I wasn’t the best when it came to words. I still have horrible memories of missing out on lunch breaks in school because I had to practice my spelling. Even so, I still loved books, but it was the illustrations within that kept me reading. Like so many of these kids, it was comics and graphic novels that I used to spend whole afternoons reading. The art drew me in and allowed me to get lost in the stories behind them and gave me the confidence to move on to bigger books. It’s funny how, even now, I think about my favourite children’s books and it’s always the illustrations I remember first. Even the Hobbit, the first ‘big book’ I read by myself as a child, it’s the big, glorious map of Middle Earth or the illustration of Bilbo in his hobbit hole that comes to my mind first before anything that happens in the text.
I’ve heard, at least in the UK where I live, that there’s been a tragic decrease in the time parents spend reading with their children. Aside from the many studies that have shown the detriments this can have on a child’s development and familial bonding – if children aren’t exposed to books by their parents, why would they pick them up in the first place? Teachers and librarians, the heroes that they are, play a massive role, but it can be an uphill struggle to nurture an interest in something that isn’t encouraged at home.
I believe stories are important more now than ever to help children understand a world as complex and strange as the one we’re living in now, or to provide much needed escapism and comfort. And if illustrations can help to encourage a child to pick up a book and get reading?
I’ll happily continue to fill my books with as many pretty pictures as I can!
Jamie Littler is an author-illustrator whose illustration work includes the bestselling Hamish and the Worldstoppers and Wilf the Mighty Worrier, which was shortlisted for the Laugh Out Loud Book Awards. His interests are pretty varied, though he does have a soft spot for wild animals and things that go bump in the night. Voyage of the Frostheart was Jamie‘s first foray into writing fiction and Escape from Aurora is its sequel.