Emily’s Surprising Voyage is a chapter book for young readers, written by me (www.suepurkiss.com). It tells the story of two children, Emily and Tom, and some of their adventures on board the ss Great Britain, Mr Brunel’s beautiful ship. It’s set in the 1850s, and the two children are travelling with their families out to Australia.
As a writer, one of the most exciting moments of the publishing process for me is when I see the first rough of the cover. That’s when it all starts to become real – my words are actually going to be printed and bound into a real live book!
When I saw the first version of James de la Rue’s cover for Emily, I was absolutely thrilled. This may sound ridiculously gushing, but it’s true nevertheless. It had been some time since I’d had an illustrated book, and I was a little apprehensive as to what the pictures would be like: they could add so much, but if they weren’t right… well, I would be very sad. Also, with this story, the ship itself was almost another character – and it exists; you can go and see it in Bristol Harbour. So the ship had to be right too; that was very important.
But of course, there was no need to worry. I could see straight away from the cover that James’s style was exactly right for the book. When I eventually saw all the illustrations, going through the proofs was like going round a house where each new room is delightful. There were Emily and Tom, exactly as they should be; there were Emily’s pompous parents; there was kindly Captain Gray: and above all, there was the ship, sailing across two pages through the Bay of Biscay, or tranquil in a moonlit sea, with stars glittering overhead. More importantly. children love the illustrations too: often when I talk to them about the book, I show them a picture of one of the characters, and they can always guess what that person is like. The pictures work, and they add enormously to the text.
I’ve always liked books with pictures in them, and have often thought it’s rather sad that adult books are scarcely ever illustrated these days. Think how much Victorian illustration is tied up with how we think of Dickens, for instance. When I was a child, we didn’t have lots of books in the house; most of my reading matter came from the library. But there were some favourites. One was Heidi, by Johanna Spyri.
The illustrations were by Pelagie Doane. There was a luscious full colour frontispiece, and pen and ink drawings at the beginning of each chapter. Before I began to write this, I did a search for illustrations of Heidi. There were masses – it’s obviously been a very popular book. It took a while to find the ones I remember, and none of the others would do. For me, the book and the pictures were inseparable: the pictures took me into the world where the story took place.
We had quite a few books that had been passed on from aged relatives. One of these was an edition of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, reprinted in 1932. This is pretty heavy going. I’m not sure I could read it now. But way back then, I did: and it was the coloured plates that pulled me through it – they were so dramatic that I had to read on to find out how things had come to such a pass!
There’s been a lot of uncertainty surrounding e-book readers and the impact they’re going to have on us all. I have a theory. (Doesn’t everyone?) I think that they will be very useful for reading on the move – no more taking half a suitcase full of books on holiday. I also think I’d be happy to use one for reading the latest instalment from an author I’m already committed to – so, the latest Terry Pratchett or the latest Ian Rankin.
But what an e-reader can’t do is to give you beautiful books – books which are a pleasure to hold, to touch, to look at. I was recently in an extraordinary bookshop in a converted church in Maastricht. In the children’s section, there were two books that caught my eye. They were both in Dutch, so I didn’t buy them – and have regretted it ever since, because they were spectacularly gorgeous. One was really big – at least 18 inches by 12, possibly more. The pages were split, so you could turn over one bit at a time, and it was about animals – very little text, almost entirely really wonderful pictures. The other was for much older children, and was I think a diary written by a refugee; it looked as if it was partly about her old life, partly about her new one. It was very heavily illustrated, with notes and snapshots and drawings, sometimes used as a backdrop to the text, sometimes as an adjunct. Even though I couldn’t understand the language, I wanted to buy it. Another example: I recently reviewed a book for teenagers (The Sky Is Everywhere, by Jandy Nelson, published by Walker Books). It’s beautifully produced, with lots of illustrations, blue print (sky-coloured, presumably), and an interestingly textured cover. It’s something you’d want to keep and treasure. I can’t imagine feeling like that about the same book in an electronic version
Perhaps this is the way printed books should go: they need to be things of beauty, which will draw the eye of the bookshop browser, which will feel good in the hand, which will look good when you open the cover. And for this, illustration is key – not just in picture books, but in books for older children, even in books for adults. Then, perhaps more people will take to reading, as they did when they were small: lured in by intriguing pictures, hooked by extraordinary stories.
Read more posts from Sue at 'An Awfully Big Blog Adventure'
Many thanks Sue for your wonderful post!