A Quick History of Illustrated Children's Books

Pairing illustrations with written works is an extremely old practice. The oldest surviving example is from around 1,980 BC and is an Egyptian papyrus roll with a ceremonial play celebrating the accession to the throne of Senusret I of the Twelve Dynasty. The illustrations run along the bottom of the scroll and separate scenes are divided by lines. The drawings are simplified forms and the effect is similar to modern day comic strips.

Another ancient example is a Greek manuscript of the Iliad from the late 5th century. It has color pictures of the story's scenes flowing across the top of the manuscript with the words filling the bottom two-thirds of the paper.

The beginning of the modern illustrated book started in the 14th century with the printing of playing cards and cards of the religious saints. These cards were illustrated by carving wood blocks, inking the blocks and then pressing paper against the inked blocks. Some of these would later be colored by hand. Centers of production of these cards later became centers of production for illustrated books. Wood blocks were retained and used in many books and sometimes used more than once in the same book. They may or may not have pertained to the written material and were used to create interest and variation more than illustrate points of the text. Wood block carvings are necessarily crude and not fine enough to give the detail required in something like a map. New technology was needed. In 1477 the Bolognese edition of Ptolemy's Cosmographia was both the first book to contain printed maps and the first to be illustrated by engraving.

For a time a process called metalcut was used to produce luxury religious works. A metalcut substituted a sheet of metal for wood. The image was a result of either carving away the metal or hammering the metal down with a small punch. These works were only produced from 1450 to 1540 and came from the printing centers along the Rhine including Paris.

Engraving was expensive so it took time for it to be adopted, but by 1560 to 1590, intaglio printing methods of engraving and etching overtook wood block and metalcut printing at the major printing hubs of Antwerp, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. Since the engraving and etching processes required a separate printing from the text block, whole page illustrations became the standard. These methods of printing were used to produce scientific reference books, maps, and children's books.

Meanwhile, tools for educating children were fairly static. For example, from the mid-16th century to the late 19th century, horn books were used for early childhood education. A horn book consisted of a backing of wood, leather, or horn; a sheet of vellum or paper; and a final covering of thin horn or mica to protect the middle layer. The book often had a handle and was tethered to the child's girdle. Horn books were primers and normally had the letters of the alphabet in both upper and lower case, the numbers, and, perhaps a short religious quote or prayer or, alternatively, a poem. The frame was usually decorated with flora and fauna.

A revolution began in 1658 with the first printing of John Comenius' "Orbis Sensualium Pictus" (or The World of Things Obvious to the Senses drawn in Pictures) which is credited with being the first illustrated educational book for children. The "Orbis" was extremely popular and at one point was the most used text for early childhood education in Europe.

More steps toward the modern illustrated children's book followed. "A Little Pretty Pocket-Book" from 1744 by John Newbery (the source of name of the John Newbery Medal in Writing which was first awarded in 1922) was the earliest illustrated storybook marketed as pleasure reading in English. The German children's book "Struwwelpeter" (literally "Shaggy-Peter") from 1845 by Heinrich Hoffmann was one of the earliest examples of modern picture book design and included colored pictures produced through chromolithography. The first runs of collections of fairy tales from the early nineteenth century, like those by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, were sparsely illustrated. However, beginning in the middle of the century, collections were published with images by illustrators like Gustave Doré, Fedor Flinzer, George Cruikshank, Vilhelm Pedersen, Ivan Bilibin and John Bauer. Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", illustrated by John Tenniel in 1866 was one of the first highly successful entertainment books for children. The combination of advances in printing technology and the beginnings of a larger middle class, which provided a market for illustrated children's books, led to an acceleration of book production in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Additionally, cheap, heavily illustrated magazines for children came on the market during this same period. Women's magazines like Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, and Woman's Home Companion included illustrated tales for children so mothers could read the stories to their offspring.

In 1902 Beatrix Potter's "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" was snapped up when it hit the bookstores. It touched off a publishing trend that swelled over the next 100+ years. Publishers developed series of illustrated books in which they sometimes used the same author or illustrator, or more often, the series explored a theme. An early publisher who developed a series around a theme was Cupples & Leon who in 1913 released the first of the "All About…" books. Another example started in 1942, when Simon & Schuster began publishing the Little Golden Books, a series of well-illustrated, inexpensive, high quality children's books. In 2001 the series was purchased by Random House for $85 million. It continues to be a popular series.

An example of the series created around an author/illustrator is the highly imaginative work of Theodor Seuss Geisel known as Dr. Seuss. His first book for children, "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" was published in 1937. The book was so successful; it spawned a long running series of books by Dr. Seuss. Up through the mid-1950s, illustrated educational books and illustrated picture books were approached differently. As a response to an article in Life magazine lamenting school primers, Dr. Seuss challenged himself to write a story using two words from a small set of words on an elementary school vocabulary list, namely cat and hat. "The Cat in the Hat" hit book stands in 1957 and was so successful it led to the development of an independent publishing company called Beginner Books.

Illustrated children's books have been used as the basis for many other products including coloring books, toys, puzzles, cartoons, and movies. Since 1998, the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison estimates some 5,000 children's books have been published each year. Combining pictures with words is without doubt a wonderful way to tell a story. While the delivery method may have shifted somewhat from paper bound in a protective covering to a handheld electronic device, the magnetic draw of a picture teamed with a compelling tale remains.

Other Articles of Interest

Visit our Reference Desk page for a complete listing of articles and worksheets.