The History of Illustrated Books – Part 2

Once more we turn the page to see the continuing story of the history of illustrated books. In part one of this blog we saw the decline of illustrated books in the 20th Century. Both fashion and trends had led to its decline, only really children’s novels and specialist books continue to use imagery. However, there is still some very talented illustrators around and we begin by looking at some of the best.

The Great Illustrators

There is often confusion about the differences between an illustrator and an artist, basically they are one in the same but prefer different ways to use their skills. Some people have said there was no lack of skilled illustrators during the 20th Century, but there was a lack of demand for illustrated books.

However, in children’s literature it was still common to use imagery in the novels. Some of the best illustrators at the time were, Alenka Sottler, Chris van Allsburg, and David Weisner. Because of the nature of the themes in children’s literature it was obvious that illustrations would enhance the young reader’s experience.Good children’s books highlight how skillful the illustrator’s art actually is, and this innovative and creative work has influenced many contemporary artists.

The Effect of Comics

It seems bizarre to cite comic books as the reason of the decline of illustrated books but it an under-riding factor. The highly popular comic book was considered as a low-brow form of literature, and since the comic is 90% imagery then illustration began to be associated as tat itself.

Serious authors and publishers could not be associated in any way with low-brow literature and so they shied away from using imagery. This all changed in 2014 when Art Spiegelman celebrated the comic book as a form of art, he collaborated with the musician Philip Johnson to produce Wordless. Wordless was an art tour all about graphic storytelling and the influence of the comic book.


A great proportion of illustrated work today is in the medium of cartoons. Many people instantly dismiss the humble cartoon as a frivolous diversion of true illustration. However, good cartoons can have serious artistic value, they can relay political and social comment.

However, as in comic books, the cartoon has devalued the tradition of illustration. And a graphic novel could be dismissed as a glorified cartoon or comic book. There are exceptions to this, but they support the theory as they are exceptions. The works of Anders Nilsen or Joe Sacco are great examples of the exception as their draftsmanship is of such high quality.

The Story Today

Today illustrated books are being produced, but nowhere near the main stream book publishing arena. Visual art is appearing in experimental forms of book publishing, and the inclusion of illustrations in serious literary texts is minimal.

Exceptions to this are of course children’s literature and republications of classic books such as As I lay Dying, and The Arabian Nights. These texts are all accompanied by exceptional new illustrations from contemporary artists.

It is doubtful that illustration will ever get into main stream publishing again, but the good news is that illustrated books are still being produced and they are of the highest quality with images supplied by new and upcoming artists.