But with all of them, illustrations are vitally important. The medium used, the color palette, the particular style of artwork (outline, realistic, cartoonish) can each go a long way to determining the tone of the story.
Think back to when you were young and someone was reading you a story, someone who was skilled at it, someone with a good voice and infinite patience as you asked all kinds of questions. Were you looking at their face while they read to you? Or were you listening to them and looking at the pictures, maybe making a little movie in your head?
Now I’m sure a few of you fell into the former category, but most of you were looking at the pictures. Maybe not even hearing all of the words, just the tone in which they were read. And that tone probably matched the pictures; if the image was spooky, full of dark colors and creepy trees that resembled angry faces, I bet your Favorite Reader spoke quietly, as if s/he didn’t want the monsters to hear. If the picture was bright and cheerful, with Disney-esque talking birds and flowers, s/he probably read with a smile in his or her voice and maybe even a musical lilt. And if there was a phrase that a character repeated regularly, with a matching picture that got bigger or more exaggerated with each appearance, you both said it in chorus, getting louder each time you came to it.
Before you were reading for yourself, you could probably pick up a favorite book and remember the story by looking at the pictures. New books likely appealed to you because of the illustrations; I remember the little logo that was on the cover of my ‘Illustrated Guide’ books when I was very young – books about insects and birds and reptiles, books about ancient civilizations and far away cultures, books about how castles and skyscrapers and log cabins were built. I knew if I saw that little line drawing of a book with a magnifying glass, I was going to like what was inside. Because of the pictures.
There are scads of excellent children’s books out there. Thousands are available free and in the Public Domain from sources like Project Gutenberg and The Internet Archive. Hundreds more are available to borrow for free from Open Library. There may even be free online books available from your local Public Library. Really, there’s loads of wonderful children’s books out there, available for free, right now, at your fingertips.
This is the Picture Books for Children section at Open Library.
And here is their Illustrated Children’s Books section (there is a distinction).
The Internet Archive also has a wealth of children’s books, featuring work by renowned illustrators like Walter Crane, Leonard Leslie Brooke, and Arthur Rackham. Check out the Archive’s collections of Fairy Tales and Nursery Rhymes.
In many of these older books, the illustrations are beautiful, and there are no authors listed since the stories were already well known when the book was published. The full page illustrations have little details in the background that catch your interest and make you want to explore the pictures more carefully. There is a trade-off; since the focus of the publishers was on the artwork, the stories aren’t necessarily all that good. Even if they’re familiar tales like The Three Little Pigs or Beauty and the Beast, there are often elements that make you shake your head and blink a few times in confusion. Plots wander, morals are shoehorned in without explanation; sometimes stories end without any kind of resolution.
A good example of this would be Beauty and the Beast Picture Book with illustrations by Walter Crane. The pictures are gorgeous, falling somewhere between Neoclassical and Art Nouveau in style. There is no author credited, as this publication was designed to show off Crane’s illustrations of well-known tales.
In this version of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty is one of several siblings, not an only child. She has a doting father, two jealous sisters, and some brothers (who show up partway through the tale after never being mentioned before). Crane drew the Beast as a warthog type creature, with cloven feet and tusks (who nevertheless wears stylish clothing and converses like a gentleman).
Beauty ends up with the Beast after her father picks her a rose from the creature’s garden. He is to forfeit his life for trespassing, unless he gives up one of his daughters. Beauty goes willingly, since she feels responsible for the predicament, and comes to enjoy the Beast’s company since he’s a nice guy under all his ugliness. Though when he asks for her hand in marriage, she gently turns him down. Repeatedly.
Being gone from home for such a long time, she misses her family, so the Beast gives her a ring which will transport her home and back again. He asks only that she return within two months or he’ll miss her too terribly. While she’s home, she has a dream that the Beast lay dying in his garden. She transports herself back to find her dream all too true, and cries as she begs the Beast not to die, telling him she will be his faithful wife.
Poof! Turns out he’s a prince who was cursed by a magician to be an ugly beast until a beautiful woman should love him despite his ugliness. So they get married the following day.
Nope, no “happily ever after” here. We just have to assume that the (presumably formerly vain) Prince has learned his lesson: that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, and you have to be beautiful on the inside to deserve a pretty girl and be outwardly beautiful yourself. Yeah?
There are two other stories in this book, The Frog Prince, and the less familiar The Hind in the Wood. The latter story has some elements in common with Sleeping Beauty: a royal couple is blessed with a child after years of trying, and at her birth celebration some Good Fairies show up to wish her Health and Wit and Talent and so forth; but the Fairy Who Gave The Queen The Needed Fecundity gets ticked that she wasn’t invited and so shows up to curse the kid.
This is where it gets different – the curse doesn’t involve a spindle, it involves the princess being unable to see daylight until she’s 15 (but no word on what will happen if she does). So the Good Fairies build her a castle with no windows and she never goes outside during the day. It gets a lot weirder from there – she’s not even 15 yet and her portrait is being circulated through the royal families to see if anyone wants to marry her. And the prince who does take a shine to her is obsessive, talking to her portrait like she’s really there and claiming he’ll die if he doesn’t get to be with her now Now NOW!
We are treated to this illustration of the Princess in contemplation:
Note the image in the tapestry on the wall.
Through a series of bizarre events, she is exposed to daylight before the time is right and she turns into a white hind (doe) and runs into the woods. She’s only a deer during the day; at night she gets to be a girl again, but she needs to hide herself so she and her maid shack up with a weird old lady in a cottage in the woods. As one does when one is cursed.
Now the Prince, trying to remove his sorrows at having lost his beautiful Princess, goes out hunting. And what does he see but a beautiful white hind? So we get this image:
After a few tries he finally nicks her foreleg and and she’s weak and sad and bleeding and he feels bad so he makes her a little bed of twigs and moss and leaves and pats her head and cuddles her. But he gets thirsty just about dusk, and as he goes off the get some water, she turns into a girl and runs back to the cottage.
By the way, all this time there’s no mention of the mechanics of her clothing: does she turn into a naked girl mid-leap in the thicket once the sun sets? Do her gown and bodice just turn into fur when dawn breaks and she becomes a deer once again? What about shoes? I mean, a deer would look a right ass with gloves on its forelegs. And imagine if the Princess were wearing buckskin boots! Wouldn’t that just be double ick? These little details always bother me in stories that feature transformations.
Wait, where was I?
Oh yeah! The weird old lady’s cottage. You’ll never guess! The Prince and his servant are staying at the very same cottage! Have been for a while. And somehow in the little hovel no one ever ran into each other. Turns out the weird old lady is none other than the head Good Fairy, and she fixed up this plot device so they could meet and live happily ever after.
Now while I was looking up these lovely illustrations, I stumbled over some very strange stories indeed. I encourage you to explore yourself, and maybe you’ll find something as exciting as this, from the story How three went out into the Wide World:
If the Olde Englishe writing is difficult to make out, it reads “The Grey Goose goes out into the wide world, where she and a discontented Sausage meet the Cock and the Fox.”
I’ll give you a minute to reflect on that.
For more excellent and bizarre illustrations, check out the rest of the collection from which I drew the above wackiness, The Wonder Clock, by Howard and Katharine Pyle.
There are also many lovely pictures in English Fairy Tales retold by Flora Annie Steel.
For a real classic, try the version of The Story of the Three Little Pigs by L. Leslie Brooke. (Note that this is the older version of the story, in which creatures get eaten.)
If you want a wonderful voice to read to you while you look at beautiful illustrations, look up your favorites on Librivox and match them to good illustrations. To give you a start, I suggest Chip reading The Owl and the Pussycat while you look at this very colorful version by Computer Mice.