For babies, toddlers, young children, the pre-literate and the newly-literate and for many others, the pictures really matter in a book. The illustrations don’t just accompany the story, they are part of the story experience. Children see the pictures for themselves – the words they hear from you. And the illustrations give you something to do. Spotting things, animals, people, vehicles. Even a book not designed for spotting will let you talk about colours and numbers and animals noises.
Some authors are talented with art as well and illustrate their own books. Others form a partnership that enhances the other. I have even sought books out because I liked the illustrator so much and was prepared to try an author that illustrator wanted to work with. (See Maybe Something Beautiful by F.Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell, illustrated by Rafael Lopez).
What surprises me is how many books for babies and children have soft pastel or indistinct, impressionistic illustrations. They may be beautiful but they’re difficult to look at and work out what’s going on. I’m sure some children appreciate the aesthetics, but I’ve steered away from books in which the illustration seems to be more beautiful impression for the adults rather than illustrating and enriching the story experience for the child. (And doubly so for alphabet books – more on which later.)
The illustrations are part of the book’s character and will form a vivid part of the child’s memory of the book, so I consider the pictures as carefully as the words. Just as the cover illustration, type-set etc of an adult book are telling you something, so are those things, and even more so the illustrations in a children’s book.
This was emphasised to me in a new way when my son took his first steps into drawing by tracing pictures from books. Artists so often learn first by copying, and tracing has taught him more about body proportion and limbs than any number of lessons. He’s now very good at drawing, but still enjoys tracing immensely, physically engaging with the book through its art.