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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Do Nations Have an Illustrative Style?

What does the fox truly say?  That it ain’t from around these here parts.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the art found in children’s picture books and those particular styles favored by artists in one nation or another.  All this began when I recently reviewed of Wild by Emily Hughes.  In the review I made the following statement: “A British/Hawaiian author/illustrator, Emily Hughes’ art is fascinating to look at, partly because it’s so incredibly European. It’s something about the eyes, I think. Or maybe just the way the landscape and the animals intertwine. The bears, for example, reminded me of nothing so much as the ones found in The Bear’s Song by Benjamin Chaud (a Frenchman).”

Naturally my European readers picked up on this and began debating whether there truly can be called a “European” style, as I so off-handedly put it.  Ah, sweet hyperbole.  Joel Stewart pointed out that what I categorize as “European” is, in fact, mighty similar to the work of such U.S. illustrators as Mary Blair.  He went on to speculate that perhaps the internet is shifting previously perceived borders for illustrators, making it harder to identify them from one country or another.

What it really comes down to for me is what styles fail to translate here in America.  Which brings us back to the fox.  Or, rather, the YouTube sensation turned picture book:

Let me say right now that I was pleased beyond measure when I discovered that this title, widely touted as being turned into a picture book, would be illustrated by a Norwegian illustrator.  I can count on one hand the number of living Norwegian children’s authors I see on American shelves (it sort of begins and ends with Jo Nesbo).  And artists?  Meet Svein Nyhus.  At his blog you can hear about the differences between the American and Norwegian versions of this book (though I cannot vouch for the translated summaries at the beginning of each post).  That said, I think it is fair to say that there is no way in the WORLD that an illustrator could get away with this kind of art if he or she originated in the United States and originally published here as well.

You see, over the years I’ve been able to identify books that my children’s librarians (not all, but definitely some) don’t like immediately upon seeing.  This year in 2013, some of my librarians had a hard time with the following books:





If these books have anything in common (and they almost don’t) it’s their unique art styles.  The kicker is that often the person objecting can’t put a finger on precisely why they don’t like the book.

Looking at these covers, if you took away the artists’ names you wouldn’t necessarily be able to ascribe nationalities to them.  The same cannot necessarily be said to be true of French board book artists.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed the significant influx of French board books to our shores over the last few years (oh, Herve Tullet what hast thou wrought?).  Those titles have a very distinctive simplicity to them that makes them easier to identify than some titles.

But aside from those, I think Joel was right when he said the internet was blurring the lines.  That said, it’s still incredibly clear when an illustrator hails from another country (at least to American eyes).  You might not be able to pinpoint the precise nation, but you’ll know it isn’t native to our shores.  This begs the obvious question: Is there a distinctly American style that is all our own?  I’m not sure.  Probably so, but if there is I doubt we’d be able to see it.


About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. I think it may be more about what American cultural norms may be (or at least those of the librarians having difficulty). That is, what is our particular living experience? What are we used to? I see the response you describe not just with illustrations, but with stories and text too. Different cultures, in my experience, have different ways of telling (and visualizing) stories. I’ve seen this a lot in my work with Cinderella — often American books representing a Cinderella story from another culture have tweaked the telling so as to be more familiar to an American audience, even go so far as to change the ending or leaving some of it out.

    I remember a conference sessions years ago about international book and being told by Marc Aronson who was then at Holt working to bring in international books (a favorite of mine was THE NUMBER DEVIL) that they were unable to convince publishers to bring and translate books because the sensibilities and storytelling styles just had differences that wouldn’t fly for a broad American audience. I remember him and some others showing us books as examples of these differences. It wasn’t just the art style, as I recall.

    It feels a vicious circle — that is, when Americans aren’t enculturated into a broader range of stories and images then they aren’t going to be comfortable with them. Does that make any sense? So your librarians are more steeped in a culture of American stories so those that feel a bit different and off in ways they can’t nail are going to feel uncomfortable.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      This is particularly telling when I consider how The Number Devil is now the #1 assigned book over the summer. It doesn’t circulate any other time of the year.

  2. Betsy! You just made my head explode. What a fantastic and informative post! And I agree there is an American look vs. a European look – which I’ve often described as more editorial, although I’m not sure that’s a fair distinction. They do seem to take more chances, whereas the American look is perhaps more literal and a tad Disney-esque (modern Disney, not Mary Blair Disney). I’m so inspired by the European creators though. Such vision and talent! Thank you for sharing! :) e

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      That brings to mind the current swath of animators entering the field. They’ve also been present in our books (Mary Blair just keeps on coming up in conversation, doesn’t she?) but there’s a danger of them looking alike. I admittedly can spot an animator a mile away 75% of the time. The other 25% you get someone like Jon Klassen.

      • I definitely saw some Mary Blair influences in Jon’s work. And how about the Book of Kells – did you ever see that? Beautifully animated movie with that mid-century modern design influence. :) e

      • This is all great. I’ll add here that the other way to spot an animator is their pacing. They understand beats so well, which translates perfectly to the page turn. That one page of Klassen’s in THIS IS NOT MY HAT where the big fish goes from asleep to awake, there’s no dialog (I don’t think?) and nothing in his body changes. Only his one eyeball jerks open. So good.

  3. American book art styles are starting to look-a-like. I cannot tell one illustrator from another. Comic book styles were alway homogenized to begin with. Now the ubiquitous comic book style is an expensive $20 kid book, basically a comic strip enlarged. The parents I meet (and not at book fairs) are not biting. There’s a huge number of folks wanting quality and not an expensive book they read once. Did I ever say how much those creepy Keane big doe-eyes used to line my walls in cheap plastic frames in the Bronx? Now that style is big (ugh). What is going on? Safe isn’t art.

  4. Cultural illustrative style can be seen particularly when you walk the halls of the Bologna Book Fair. It IS hard to pin down, but different nations/cultures use different palettes, have different senses of humor, have different values — and all of this comes out through the way their books are illustrated for children. It’s fascinating, actually!

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      That’s an excellent point. When I was at Bologna the honored country that year was Lithuania. They had a Lithuanian display of children’s book art, and you did see a lot of similarities in styles. Something you might not have noticed otherwise.

  5. marc aronson says:

    By coincidence I am teaching a course on K-12 books that are not from the US (or, mainly, the English-speaking world) this next semester. Junko Yokota has helped me plan it out, and our entire goal is to open future librarian’s eyes to styles and voices not in the US mainstream. This both to expand their vision of what materials for K-12 can be, and to serve communities where they live which may be seeking books in styles, languages, and on subjects linked to their homelands.

    Interesting to see that about the ND — even in the days of STEM it is that rare beast, a book on math theory that really speaks to middle school and even upper elementary readers.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Love that course. Wish I could have taken it myself when I was in library school.

      Yes, this may be a New York City thing but The Number Devil is assigned to upper elementary, middle school AND high school classes. It’s one of the rare books we have cataloged in both JUV and YA and we have never regretted the fact.

  6. Hope Crandall says:

    I bought books in Spanish for many years at the Guadalajara International Book Fair. They were for dual language immersion elementary school libraries. Often the teachers and students thought the books looked “weird”. Many of the books had first been published in Europe or Latin America, with lots of fantasy. My job was to broaden their picture book experiences.

  7. Maria Simon says:

    I appreciated a more honest and dangerous style in picture books for children while living in Austria – as well as considerable differences in approaches to play. It is fascinating to look at different play grounds and different manners of handling recess from county to country. I find it fascinating how different cultures handle conflict for and with children.