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The Beauty of Illustrated Books

31 August, 2016

Starting kindergarten opened a world of colours for me. New crayons, the playground’s garish orange and green merry-go-round, poster paint for art projects. And after learning to read, I discovered picture books. My home had few books and none for children. But what a treasure-trove of story and image at school and in the children’s section of the public library.  

At school, I was  immersed in the exploits of Dick and Jane, Tip and Mitten, my imagination spurred by each book’s illustrations. At the town’s library, I gorged  on ghost stories, even though the ghoulish illustrations gave me nightmares.

But by the time I was in years 5-6 at school, I had to adjust to the fact that few books for older kids included illustrations. 

Now, how great to see a return of visuals for readers. The graphic novels, but also more books  include a visual motif.

The nonfiction hit, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating—about a bedridden woman who finds pleasure watching her tiny snail guest—is more charming because of the miniature drawings of snails in the page margins.

Another non-fiction book, Annie Proulx’s Bird Cloud, starts each chapter with an illustration. Below is her sketch of the Wyoming land where she intended to build her dream house. (Spoiler—things don’t go as planned.)


My latest visuals-in-lit find—on the ‘freebie’ cart in my local library—is a classic. Samuel Butler wrote  The Way of All Flesh in the latter 1880s. It was based on his unhappy childhood, and he would not allow it to be published until after his death.

The 1903 novel is a bitter portrayal of small-minded, cruel adults, mainly his parents. For readers, the story’s emotional sense is deepened due to the unsettling illustrations.

Some are realistic, such as this one depicting the young protagonist, Earnest, being bullied by his father, a minister of religion.

Woodcut butler father & son.jpg

Some are symbolic, e.g., Earnest’s enmired life:


 The illustrations are so stunning that I had to find out more about the illustrator.

Donia Nachshen, illustrator

Donia Esther Nachshen (1903-1987) was two years old when her family fled a Jewish pogrom  in Russia and eventually settled in London. She attended the Slade School of Fine Arts and by the 1920s was working as book designer. Her illustrations graced the works of famous writers—Enid Blyton, Samuel Butler, Feodor Dostoyevsky, Anatole France, Nikolai Gogol, and Oscar Wilde. 

During World War II, the British government hired her to design posters to boost morale on the home front and participate in the war effort.
Telegraph Less      Go Through Your Wardrobe - Make-Do and Mend by Donia Nachshen

Another ‘booky’ visual

At the back of Butler’s novel, I discovered another visual artefact, now extinct due to technological advances—the library borrowing card! My copy had been in a school library, and a card at the back of the book identifies student borrowers, their form (class), and due date. 

Butler library card009 copy

 I love the convenience of having online access to my local library, reserving books via my computer. But I also feel a slight sense of loss. Remember the traditional library’s card index, which often revealed serendipitous finds? And does anyone browse non-electronic bookshelves anymore?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 September, 2016 6:33 pm

    I haven’t read too many graphic novels, so thanks for your suggestions!


  2. 4 September, 2016 12:19 pm

    I enjoyed your blog! I recall when I started reading biographies in 3rd grade and there was only one illustration. Whoa! More recently, I’ve discovered graphic novels, and hace been reminded how moving illustration can be (Perseopolis and Roz Chast’s book).

    Thanks for following WordSisters!


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