The Emu and the Lion: A Reflection on Illustration for Children

Word and image are alchem­i­cal­ly bound in children’s lit­er­a­ture. Lewis Carroll’s Alice is John Tenniel’s Alice. Ken­neth Grahame’s Rat and Mole and Toad are E.H. Shepard’s too.

Of course, thou­sands of artists have illus­trat­ed these words in the gen­er­a­tions since – many of them bril­liant – but they all exist in con­ver­sa­tion with the defin­i­tive, nay unsur­passed, orig­i­nals. Not even Sal­vador Dali could out-Car­roll Ten­niel. How lucky we are, though, that he gave it his best:

Some­times, in the case of Edward Lear’s non­sense, which the Great Beard illus­trat­ed for him­self, pic­ture func­tions as a wit­ty coun­ter­point to text.

In Lear, some of the finest – and dark­est – humour emerges in the col­li­sion between word and image. Not all words are to be trust­ed, Lear seems to be warn­ing his young read­ers. Just because your nan­ny tells you all is well, doesn’t mean it is … in fact, there’s a mon­ster just behind you!

Like the ghosts of child­hood, these images haunt our mem­o­ries, and stalk us into adult­hood, even if we try to shake them off in ado­les­cence. I sus­pect there are few who won’t feel the emo­tion­al pull of Mau­rice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are well into senes­cence. Like­wise, Eric Carle’s The Very Hun­gry Cater­pil­lar still shocks me back in time when I return to its pages, as do Julie Vivas’s sub­lime illus­tra­tions for Pos­sum Mag­ic.

Sendak and Car­le and Vivas are acknowl­edged genius­es. But some­times even the unac­knowl­edged genius­es cast a long shad­ow over our lives. The Beren­stain Bears and The Spooky Old Tree had a stran­gle­hold over my dreams for much of my child­hood, and even now the cov­er makes me shud­der. Stan and Jan Beren­stain, you were bril­liant. Per­haps not con­sis­tent­ly bril­liant, like Sendak or Shaun Tan… but still bril­liant!

Empire of the Waves: Voy­age of the Moon Child is not an illus­trat­ed book – not for now any­way! – yet even for children’s books with­out illus­tra­tion, images mat­ter. Con­sid­er the leg­endary Bal­lan­tine edi­tion of The Hob­bit … which has an emu on the cov­er. In fact, two emus! And a lion! Per­haps the inti­ma­tion of an unfin­ished Nar­nia crossover with Tolkien’s old friend and lit­er­ary rival, C.S. Lewis.

As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote of his response to Rayn­er Unwin, in one of the all time great cor­re­spon­dences of Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry children’s lit­er­a­ture: “I think the cov­er ugly: but I recog­nise that a main objec­tive of a paper­back cov­er is to attract pur­chasers, and I sup­pose that you are bet­ter judges of what is attrac­tive in the USA than I am. I there­fore will not enter into a debate about taste – (mean­ing though I did not say so: hor­ri­ble colours and foul let­ter­ing) – but I must ask this about the vignette: what has it got to do with the sto­ry? Where is this place? Why a lion and emus? And what is the thing in the fore­ground with the pink bulbs?”

Peter Jack­son missed a rare chance when he failed to include bulbs and emus in his recent tril­o­gy. Which is strange, real­ly, since he added one of every­thing else. Icon­ic though Bar­bara Remington’s illus­tra­tions became in Amer­i­ca, many oth­er artists soon brought Mid­dle Earth to life, and our world is rich­er for the incred­i­ble, often indeli­ble, art that Tolkien’s work con­tin­ues to inspire.

So it felt rather like des­tiny when I heard Allen Dou­glas would be illus­trat­ing the cov­er of my nov­el for Pen­guin Aus­tralia. One of the great­est liv­ing fan­ta­sy artists, Dou­glas has illus­trat­ed many of the great sagas of our times, from The Lord of the Rings to Star Wars and Game of Thrones. At once, I knew I was in the best pos­si­ble hands, espe­cial­ly with Penguin’s design­er extra­or­di­naire Bruno Herf­st guid­ing the project. But still, I was anx­ious. How would my words trans­late?

Hap­pi­ly, from the moment I saw an ear­ly draft, I knew I was home. Even in its ear­li­est incar­na­tion, Douglas’s illus­tra­tion had per­fect­ly cap­tured the spir­it of the nov­el, the ter­ror of the crea­tures haunt­ing the world of Salila, and the indomitable pluck of the young heroes, Anni Tidechild and Duck Knife­tooth. So when I went into hos­pi­tal for a pro­ce­dure under seda­tion, the last thing I looked at before going into the­atre was a scan of the illus­tra­tion on my phone, think­ing that if this was the last thing I ever saw, then, well, I had lived a good life.

Mor­bid, eh?

Weeks lat­er, the final cov­er was unveiled…

It was, and I think still is, one of the most amaz­ing cov­ers I have ever seen. In a time when fan­ta­sy for young read­ers seems increas­ing­ly bleak and mono­chro­mat­ic, the colours of Salila are vibrant and alive. The image per­fect­ly cap­tures the sense of a world in per­il, yet promis­ing the hope – how­ev­er faint – of redemp­tion. And the fel­mane is ter­ri­fy­ing! I spent a whole week star­ing at the illus­tra­tion, struck dumb at the won­der of it. For one, because final­ly I was see­ing the cov­er to my own nov­el, after twelve years of writ­ing, but also because Allen Dou­glas and Bruno Herf­st had so per­fect­ly brought the world to life.

Above all, I could not take my eyes off Anni Tidechild, her char­ac­ter cap­tured in her face, her body and in her hair. As I showed the image to friends and fam­i­ly and col­leagues in the weeks ahead, I heard the same shriek of sur­prise and delight each time. Every­one agreed: here was some­thing spe­cial, even if there was nei­ther bulb nor emu to be seen. So thank you, Allen and Bruno, for bind­ing your ideas and images to my words, and cre­at­ing pre­cise­ly that alche­my of which I have always dreamed. Even bet­ter, the illus­tra­tion has poured back into my con­cep­tion of the world of the nov­el, and burned more fuel for new dreams and new words.

See more of Allen Douglas’s work here.

And Bruno Herf­st here.

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