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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