Poetry and Illustration
The first poetry book I can remember reading is You Can’t Catch Me by Michael Rosen. Bits of those poems are buried deep in my memory – lines like ‘Shuttup, Stinks! YOU CAN’T RULE MY LIFE,’ or ‘I’ve got you, I’ve got you, and I’ll never let you go,’ or the fact that you might meet a dog down behind the dustbin. I must have read them (or had them read to me) over and over again.
But there’s another thing about You Can’t Catch Me which is memorable and that’s what I want to focus on in this blog. Because that book isn’t just by Michael Rosen, it’s by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake. Blake’s illustrations are classics – from the scruffy dog Ranzo (Who rolled in the mud behind the garage door? Who left footprints across the kitchen floor?) to the strange and brilliant pastiche of Goya’s nightmarish ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’ which illustrates the poem ‘Jojo’. Those artworks are just as much part of the book as the poems are.
That’s a challenge to a poetry editor like me. Not all books can be illustrated by a great like Quentin Blake, but at Bloomsbury the vast majority of our children’s poetry books do have illustrations. Finding an illustrator whose style and tone suits a collection or anthology, whose work the poet likes and who our sales team are excited about can be difficult (especially when you factor in the tight schedules and budgets we’re often working with). Part of my job as an editor is to work with our design team to try and find just the right person and to write a brief for them.
It is something I find endlessly fascinating – part of the reason I became an editor is because I’ve always been interested in books as objects, not just as texts. I also can’t draw for toffee and so the magic of seeing what illustrators come up with based on a poem I’ve suggested they illustrate, or a few sentences I’ve written as part of a brief remains an utter delight. I find it completely magical.
A couple of books I’ve worked on here at Bloomsbury this year show this magic at work. Back in July we published Spaced Out, an anthology of poems about space edited by Brian Moses and James Carter and illustrated by Del Thorpe. As is often the case with anthologies the poems in this book have a variety of moods and so we needed an illustrator who could handle serious and beautiful poems as well as humour. As the examples below show, I think Del handled that challenge with ease.
Another book I’ve worked on recently is Midnight Feasts, an anthology edited by A.F. Harrold and illustrated by Katy Riddell. Katy is a young illustrator who hadn’t worked on many projects before this one but her distinctive style and quirky sense of humour are a perfect fit for A.F. Harrold’s brilliant selection of poems on the theme of food which includes poems by everyone from Ian McMillan and William Carlos Williams to Joseph Coelho, Sabrina Mahfouz and Imtiaz Dharker, as well as A.F. Harrold himself.
Of course it is much too soon to say whether either of these books will become classics in the way in the way You Can’t Catch Me did (still available as part of Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy, thirty eight years after it was first published).
But I hope the combination of poems and pictures in them will delight today’s children and worm their way into memories in the same way as Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake’s work did all those years ago.
Hannah Rolls is Editorial Director for educational fiction and children’s poetry at Bloomsbury which is both 2019 IPG PLS Education Publisher of the Year and 2019 IPG Blackwell’s Children’s Publisher of the Year. Her list includes everything from early readers to high low fiction for teenagers, and children’s poetry of all kinds.