Not just for children: 100 great picture books

Spanning a century years and featuring foreign gems as well as British cult classics, Martin Salisbury’s stunning collection of the greatest picture books is a revelation for all ages
100 Great Picture Books – in pictures

It is almost impossible to leaf through Martin Salisbury’s 100 Great Children’s Picture Books without becoming acquisitive. It is a book to make the eye greedy, to make collectors of us all. Indeed, Salisbury, professor of illustration at Cambridge School of Art, says more and more people today are collecting children’s picture books. “I sense it is a growing interest, a way of connecting – or reconnecting – with your childhood.” And he confesses: “I have more than spent my advance on this book, buying examples of the books that are in it.” He has tended to go for unusual classics or less familiar books by great names (such as Maurice Sendak’s early and barely known The Moon Jumpers (1959), written by Janice May Udry, rather than the expected Where the Wild Things Are). The selection is a revelation. It connects us to childhoods we never had in Russia, Italy, Spain, France and Belgium, spanning the period 1910-2014. Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea (1968) makes the cut but you may look for other old friends in vain: Dr Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat is nowhere to be seen.

Salisbury admits his choices are “subjective” and is “braced” for grumbles from those whose favourites have been snubbed. His selection, as you’d expect from a man leading the UK’s first master’s programme in children’s books illustration, is about picture book as artefact, as “introduction to the visual arts”. We agree books we knew as children have a special place in our memory and he admits that, growing up in a non-bookish household, he still thinks fondly of his Rupert annuals (though he has not welcomed Alfred Bestall’s Rupert aboard either).

His choices are singular, bracing and unsentimental. Salisbury champions British work but regards sentimentality as our national fault: “I’m off to Bologna children’s book fair, where I usually find the British halls awash with pink and fairies.” The most startling and educative inclusions in his book are Russian: About Two Squares by El Lissitzky (1922) and Kem byt? (Whom Shall I Become?) by Vladimir Mayakovsky, illustrated by Nisson Abramovich Shifrin (1931). “The Soviet books of that period were gorgeous, although it is difficult to imagine that children found them full of warmth… they were for the betterment of young revolutionaries… but graphically, they are so inventive.”

Ella's Birthday, Betty Swanwick, London, 1946.
Ella’s Birthday, Betty Swanwick, London, 1946. Photograph: Laurence King Publishing

The most costly of collector’s pieces in his selection is Eric Ravilious’s High Street (written by JM Richards). Many copies were torn up because as original lithographs by an artist of repute, they could be mounted and sold separately as prints. A first-edition copy will set you back about £2,500.

France and Belgium, Salisbury believes, are now home to the most aesthetically pleasing books. Until recently, the British have tended to be insular about illustration from elsewhere. The exquisitely covetable Gisèle de verre (2002), with its seductive use of vellum to suggest Gisèle’s glassy transparency, is by Beatrice Alemagna. “She is a good example of the gulf that is narrowing between us and the Europeans – she is almost a household name in France, Italy, Spain and Korea.”

How does he see the future for picture books? A few years ago, he recalls, it was “all doom and gloom”. But more recently, he says, hardbacks have been rallying. “A picture book is more than what is on its pages – it is a thing you own and treasure.”

100 Great Children’s Picture Books is published by Laurence King (£24.95). Click here to buy it for £19.96

Contributor

Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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