Should books be illustrated?



All books, in a sense, exist in order to bring forth pictures in the mind. But should those pictures be specifically embodied in a visual medium? When are illustrations helpful, and when are they distracting or disturbing? Is it better for readers to make their own images? Or can a good collaboration between author and illustrator create a result that is more than the sum of its parts?

When I reread the Oz books as a picture-less electronic text, I was struck by how different this experience was from reading them as a child. The images by John R. Neill, who illustrated all but the first of the original series, had made a deep impression on me. Full of life and vivid character, they contribute a piquancy that Baum’s text sometimes lacks, in its pallid or generic descriptions. I’m quite sure that this visual element was as important to me as the words for making Oz seem a real and attractive place.

Illustration by John R. Neill from Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz

We expect children’s books to be illustrated, but what about books for adults? We’re being increasingly shaped by visual media, and every time I go to the bookstore I see a mind-boggling array of visually stunning volumes. But novels still are seldom illustrated, nor are works of philosophy or science or history usually given an artistic, interpretive treatment.

There are some specialist publishers that do this, The Folio Society being the main one that I know of. I always get a kick out of seeing Folio do illustrated versions of unexpected works like Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, or The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud — even if I wouldn’t buy them myself, I think it’s an interesting experiment to make.

The books I’m more drawn to are the narratives, and here I often have mixed feelings. I am usually not coming at them afresh, but looking at a text that I already know and judging whether the pictures give the same impression as the reading experience. Not whether they match pictures in my head — I don’t visualize characters or settings so specifically. But the words give me certain feelings; do the pictures evoke the same feelings? Or do they go in another direction, that jars against my vaguely but often strongly held impressions?

I may like some aspect of the artist’s vision, but not be completely satisfied. One case in point is the Folio edition of The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies (you are all reading Robertson Davies, aren’t you?) I love the idea of combining characters and incidents from the book, saints and figures from the Tarot. That was brilliant, and the artist did not shrink from portraying the chthonic emotion, the archetypal mythic currents that Davies seeks to expose beneath the prim moral exterior of Canadian provincial life. But I find his style too aggressively ugly overall, and thought there should have been some element of beauty and mystery as well. To me, that was an important element of the trilogy too. (I do love the cover, which is perfect.)

Cover of the Deptford Trilogy, design by Peter Suart

It’s rather like the problem of translation: a work translated into another language can never be the same as the original, but it can strive to give a similar experience, based on the particular conventions and associations in the second language. Is it archaic, formal, wild, deliberate, transgressive, prissy, melodious, laconic, flippant? These qualities can be conveyed using the tools available in another language — which may be quite different from those in the first, but still reach toward a similar effect.

So in the “language” of art one can try to strive after such similarity of effect. Opinions will differ about the success of such projects, because each reader has a somewhat different experience of a text. And there can be multiple treatments that are satisfying in different ways, too. I don’t think there’s any definitive or right answer to the question of how to represent a book’s contents, but it’s a rather fascinating question.

How do you feel about illustrated books? Are you attracted by them, or do you prefer your text unadorned? Are there some illustrations you find more successful than others?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

25 thoughts on “Should books be illustrated?

  1. The other day I read The Blue Hills, an Elizabeth Goudge novel I’d never read before (post forthcoming!), which was illustrated. But to me, the illustrations didn’t add anything; I didn’t care for them. It’s too bad, because it was an ideal story for illustrating and I can think of several favorite artists I would have loved to see on the pages. On the whole I’m favorable to illustrations and am inclined to put them on my walls too.

    I do agree about the Oz books; I remember the pictures better than I do the text in many cases! Fx I thought General Jinjur was awesome and loved her army and their uniforms. I had no idea Baum was poking fun at them…and although I can’t remember what Jack Pumpkinhead, the Woggle-bug, or Tik-tok got up to, I remember exactly what they looked like. And Ozma probably influenced my taste in Art Nouveau more than I know!

    Although I’m not a big graphic novel person, I’d be just fine with seeing occasional illustrations in my novels. Like those old illustrations of Jane Austen or Mrs. Gaskell.


    1. It’s an interesting topic. I am not sure of my opinion. Some children or adult books are conceived with illustrations, and the folio editions are clever, but as you say, to Illustrate an already existing nivel is like doing the movie version.
      Reading Moby Dick, I wish I had some illustrations support for some chapters, some Words -since i am not familiar with ships nor whales-. But I can always Google after. I Guess I would welcome Illustration artistic efforts, even if they differ with my mental pictures hahaha.


  2. I think your parallel with the problems of translation sums it up for me. Yes, the translator/artist can strive to convey the novel as they perceive it, and for us to read writers in from other cultures, a translation is necessary. But (graphic novels aside) a fully formed novel or short story should be enough. I want to discover the layers of meaning for myself, not be nudged to decide what is important, let alone what it all looks like. I find illustrations intrusive.


    1. That is a good point about being nudged to find something important. I guess for me it all boils down to whether the illustrator and I agree about such matters. If so, I take pleasure in seeing their visual interpretation; if not, they can be very intrusive indeed.


  3. To me it depends on the illustrator. I know some books illustrated by the author or by someone who long worked with the author where the illustrations are an important part of the experience to me. The Miss Read books. The Emily Kimbrough travel memoirs that I own, Forty Plus and Fancy Free as well as A Right Good Crew have lovely line drawings that add to my pleasure. Joyce Dennys illustrated her own newspaper columns of life on the home front in WWII that eventually were published as Henrietta’s War and Henrietta Sees it Through, and the books wouldn’t be as rich to me without the drawings. Of course, illustrations that don’t “fit”, can be a drawback.

    I also love almost any map included in a book, and wish more had them. From the layout of the house and/or grounds in a Golden Age mystery novel to the map showing the trip of a travel book to the map of imaginary worlds in a fantasy novel, I enjoy them all, an often flip back to them when reading.


    1. Yes, working together with the author (or actually being the author) helps an illustrator to become part of the fabric of the book in a more seamless way. When such books are published without the illustrations, they seem truncated to me.


  4. Great discussion idea. Generally, I don’t want illustrations in my books written for adults. For example, the edition The Women in Black by Susan Hill that I read had illustrations which were too “cute” in my opinion which completely undercut the scare-factor in the ghost story in my opinion.
    But with children’s books it is a different story. I adore the Garth Williams illustrations from the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Just seeing them brings back so many wonderful memories of reading those books as child.
    I’ve not seen the Deptford Trilogy Folio Society edition, but your description makes me think of the cover from the 1988s Penguin edition that I read which I found…ugly frankly. I much prefer the newer 2001 Penguin Classics edition cover with a cozy, snowy village but when you look closer you see all the houses have a human eye embedded in them. This suits the deceptive nature of the narrative of the Fifth Business in my opinion. But that’s cover art…not the same as illustrations.


    1. Cover art is a topic in itself! It’s a challenge to capture a whole book in a single image.

      Funny but I love the 1980s covers for the Davies novels (illustrated by Bascove — interestingly, he loved them too and even wrote a letter to tell her so). Maybe it is partly nostalgia since that’s how I first encountered them, also a factor with many children’s book illustrations.


  5. Your previous correspondents have made most of the points I would have made here (depends on the artist, yes to maps, graphic novels etc) so I will just add a comment about blog posts: I always stick an illustration or two (occasionally more) in mine because I’m a visual person, and because I mostly get to choose the illustration I can pretty much ensure they’re apposite!

    One can’t always say the same about novels, and occasionally authors are ill-served by artists, even if they do the illustrations themselves (I can’t say Tolkien’s own are much more than charming, but Pullman provided the chapter vignettes for His Dark Materials, and quite perfect they are too).


    1. I also try to put an image in most blog posts, even if it’s only a book cover. To me it helps to distinguish otherwise similar blocks of text, a “hook” to hang the content on in my head.

      No, authors are not always great illustrators. But sometimes one who has that dual talent can make an especially strong contribution.


  6. Oh, I suuuuuper love illustrations in books. I like them so much that I sometimes worry that I’m Gaston from Beauty and the Beast being all like “how can you read this? there’s no PICTURES in it!” I love what the Folio Society does, and I have been absolutely loving the illustrated Harry Potter books as they’ve been coming out.


  7. Do you listen to the Tea or Books podcast from Simon who blogs at Stuck in a Book and Rachel who blogs at Book Snob? Because they just had a discussion about this on their most recent episode. Total serendipity for me! 😀


  8. I love it when adult fiction is illustrated. Of course I have to like the illustrations at least a little bit for it to work, but I’m not too picky. To me one important feature with book illustrations is that I can open a book I have already read just to revisit the illustrations, even if I’m not ready for a reread yet, which helps me to remember the story novel better.


  9. I recently received an illustrated YA book for review and I mused about this very thing! Why don’t YA or adult books have illustrations? I suppose if you look at the artwork as a way to “help” the reader imagine the world, then it could be said that they’re not needed past childhood (hopefully). And I can understand how some people might feel that their own imaginings of a book’s contents might be ruined by illustrations (I know some people have that issue even with characters on covers). But for me, the addition of illustrations makes a book that much more appealing to me. One of your other commenters mentioned the Harry Potter books, and I think those are a perfect example. I absolutely love the artwork in those books, and I don’t mind paging through them again and again (even if I don’t reread the whole book).

    Of course, artwork is subjective, so it’s also a gamble because not everyone will love the same styles. This is some great food for thought!


    1. I don’t think artwork should be a crutch to help any reader imagine a book — if that is necessary, it exposes a weakness in the written work (as with the Oz books, much as I love them). But illustrations can provide a wonderful enhancement to good writing that brings out its strengths while providing delights of its own.

      I agree that the Harry Potter illustrated editions are extraordinarily appealing and fun just to look through! I wouldn’t mind seeing some adult books get such a loving, artistically solid and thorough treatment.


  10. An interesting question. I have an opinion that certain adult books should be illustrated – just a very tiny proportion and that includes narrative text which is dense and descriptions which are complicated – such as when an author describes some mechanical procedure or works that no longer exist.
    Two examples of this – the first one is Zola’s Germinal – reading this book recently I so wanted to see some illustration of the mines so I have a fuller idea what the author is talking about when he talks about slopes and ropes and how workers work miles beneath earth. Illustrations there were a must I think, they would not have hurt there, they would only have made the reading so much more pleasurable and the situation described better understood. I feel the same way about the printing press in Balzac’s Lost Illusions. No pictures there and it is a pity because it would have been nicer for us to have the visual representation of the old printing process.
    My favourite adult book with pictures is undoubtedly Dickens’s Bleak House (certain editions, of course).


    1. You are right, visual aids can be helpful in such cases. My ability to visualize spaces or mechanical objects or activities from verbal description is very poor, so if such things are essential to understanding the story, illustrations would be very welcome!

      What editions/illustrators of Bleak House do you recommend? I inherited a first edition with the illustrations by Phiz, but it is getting hard for me to deal with such small print, so I have not actually read it through. I do enjoy having this sample of the true period flavor though.


  11. Love this sort of thing, opinions differ so greatly! What I have noticed is the editor gives the illustrator the first and last pages of a novel and expects them to translate that into something tantalising without giving the game away. Invariably it doesn’t capture the right mood (unless it is a crime novel and has that shadow man walking away in the dark) and I reviewed a children’s book which had five different covers over a five year period, perhaps to attract a newer audience. Author Jasper Fforde has drawings in his Thursday Next series but they are usually at the back of the book. I prefer stylised cover art rather than photos or figures and don’t feel the need for illustrations inside so that I can make up my own mental images.


    1. I prefer more stylized illustrations in general. Very specific realism is boring to me; I want visual artists to be more creative with their medium.


  12. I have returned to this post because I’m currently reading an illustrated edition of The Hobbit. I’ve read The Hobbit many times but this is the first time I’m reading it with illustrations that aren’t by Tolkien. Frankly, I’m not much of a fan of the illustrations in the edition I’m reading. However I think there are moments (such as Bilbo’s first viewing of Smaug) that can be enhanced by a visual – it’s almost a short cut past ‘mere’ words to convey a sense of grandness. Theoretically, I like the idea of reading an unadorned text, forming my own images in my mind’s eye, and then reading the text with illustrations, to see how others might interpret scenes differently from myself.

    Thank-you for prodding me to consider the question of illustrated novels!


    1. Thank you for your comments! I think that in the best scenario, words and pictures can support each other. But it takes an incredible pair of artists (or a single author-illustrator) and a kind of alchemy for that to happen, and it’s not very common. Most of the time, illustrations are at best a pleasant decoration, enhancing the kinds of moments you mention, and at worst a distraction or annoyance.


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