Visual Culture

The Illustrators behind Your Favorite Children’s Books

Sarah Gottesman
Aug 21, 2017 7:51PM

As I child, I dreamed of running with the Wild Things. I wanted to explore the planets with the Little Prince, and stand out from the crowd like Madeline. Chances are you did, too.

Childhood characters like Winnie the Pooh and the Hungry Caterpillar have become household names. The artists who brought these characters to life in illustrations, however, are lesser-known. What follows are the under-told stories of eight children’s book illustrators, whose dramas, breakthroughs, and love affairs turned into your favorite bedtime adventures.

(Sorry, Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak, you’re sitting this one out.)


Though born in Syracuse, New York, Carle moved to his father’s native Stuttgart when he was 6 years old, and spent his formative years in Nazi Germany.

Under the Third Reich, the only acceptable art was realistic and didactic, removed from the so-called “degenerate” trends of abstraction and Modernism. But, in an act of resistance, Carle’s high school art teacher invited the young creative to his home to show him illegal reproductions of Cubist, Surrealist, and Impressionist art. (In an homage to this pivotal experience, Carle later wrote the picture book The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse (2011) about the German Expressionist Franz Marc and the progressive power of art.)

Eager to return to the United States, Carle began working as a graphic designer for the New York Times in 1952, before being drafted into the army during the Korean War. About a decade later, Carle’s career took a turn. He designed a poster of a red lobster, an advertisement for a pharmaceutical company, which caught the attention of children’s author Bill Martin Jr. The writer commissioned him to illustrate Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (1967), and the rest is history. From then on, Carle wrote and illustrated his own bedtime tales, including 1, 2, 3 to the Zoo (1968) and the fan-favorite The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969).

From Brown Bear to today, Carle has maintained an instantly recognizable style of collage. He begins by painting white tissue paper with acrylic paint, and stores these swatches in color-coded drawers in his studio. He then cuts them to shape and layers the pieces to create grouchy ladybugs, purple cats, and beautiful butterflies. Carle loves that his signature technique is accessible. “In fact, some children have said to me, ‘Oh, I can do that,’” Carle said. “I consider that the highest compliment.”

In 2002, Carle and his wife opened the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, which presents exhibitions on Beatrix Potter, E. H. Shepard, Ludwig Bemelmans, and Quentin Blake, among others.

Quentin Blake
The Creation, 2012
Chris Beetles Gallery

British illustrator Blake began at Punch Magazine, submitting cartoons to the publication in high school. He was published at age 16, becoming the youngest contributor to the magazine in its history. Over the years at Punch, Blake honed his signature sketchy style, as his editor preferred the look of his rough mock-ups over his polished drawings.

In 1979, Blake began collaborating with Roald Dahl, matching the author’s irresistibly quirky writing style and curious characters with his loose and irreverent approach to image-making. Together, they produced a new pantheon of literary classics, including James and the Giant Peach (1961), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1964), Fantastic Mister Fox (1970), The BFG (1982), The Witches (1983), and Matilda (1988), among others.

For Blake, it was important that his illustrations enlivened these stories, without competing with the text. “When I draw a character, I try to make it defined—but not to close it up completely,” he said. “It’s as if I’m a go-between between the writer and the reader.”

Now in his 80s, Blake is still producing new work. In the past few years, he’s been knighted by the crown prince, exhibited new works in top galleries, and illustrated posters for a new tourism campaign in London. He has also taken commissions from multiple hospitals, decorating the walls of mental health facilities, elderly care wings, and maternity wards with his charming, light-hearted artwork.

What makes the illustrator so prolific? “I don’t wait for inspiration," he has said.

Ludwig Bemelmans
Notre Dame at Night, ca. 1950
Debra Force Fine Art

“I sketch with facility and speed,” wrote Bemelmans, author and illustrator of Madeline (1939–99). “The drawing has to sit on the paper as if you smacked a spoon of whipped cream on a plate.”

Indeed, Bemelmans’s loose, impressionistic style perfectly fit his subject matter: the free-spirited, red-headed schoolgirl named Madeline. While her peers walked in two straight lines through the streets of Paris, Madeline—who was named after Bemelmans’s wife Madeleine—always stood apart. In one book, she went to the hospital to have her appendix removed. In another, she fell off a bridge only to be rescued by a stray dog. While charmingly rendered in bright yellows, reds, and blues, these classic tales hold darker meanings, reflecting the author’s troubled childhood.

The governess in the Madeline books, Miss Clavel, is actually named after Bemelmans’s governess, whom he called Gazelle because he could not pronounce “Mademoiselle.” When Bemelmans was around Madeline’s age, his father and the governess had an affair, and they ran off together when the governess became pregnant. When his father left the governess, she committed suicide, devastating the young Bemelmans. He and his mother moved to Germany to live with relatives, and he grew difficult and rebellious—so much so that he may even have shot a waiter at one of his uncle’s hotels. Avoiding jail, Bemelmans immigrated to New York, cleaned up his act, and began writing his iconic series of children’s books.

“For me, Madeline is therapy in the dark hours,” Bemelmans once wrote in a letter to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who had hoped to collaborate with him on a book set in Washington, D.C. In 2016, Bemelmans’s grandson, John Bemelmans Marciano, fulfilled this decades-old dream, publishing Madeline at the White House in his grandfather’s signature sketchy style.

Ernest Howard Shepard
'Nearly Eleven O'Clock', Said Pooh Happily , 1928
Chris Beetles Gallery

After serving as an officer in World War I, British artist and illustrator Shepard worked as a political cartoonist for Punch Magazine, where he met Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne. Though Milne originally considered Shepard to be “a perfectly hopeless artist,” he decided to give him a shot at illustrating his books.

To his surprise, their first collaboration, the poetry book When We Were Very Young (1924), completely sold out on its publishing day. So Milne sent Shepard to his hometown of Sussex to draw his literary inspirations, including his son Christopher Robin and his many stuffed animals. Shepard also studied the area’s rivers, bridges, and pine trees, setting the scene for the honey-filled adventures of Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, and the “Best Bear in All the World.”  

In 2015, nearly a century later, historians discovered a forgotten trunk belonging to Shepard. It was filled with hundreds of sketches from his time as a soldier. The drawings captured Shepard’s day-to-day life in the trenches and depicted some of the bloodiest battles on the Western Front, often portrayed with a biting sense of humor. The most poignant discovery was a drawing of the French town of Albert, in which Shepard marked the location of the gravesite of his brother who had died in the war.

Late in his life, Shepard regretted that his artistic reputation was dominated by stories of Winnie the Pooh. It may have brought him some comfort to know that, with the retrieval of this cache of wartime drawings, the illustrator’s legacy would take on another dimension.

Shel Silverstein

A poet, musician, author, and illustrator, Silverstein was a man of many talents (with both a Grammy award and an Oscar nomination to prove it).

His greatest hit, however, was The Giving Tree (1964), perhaps the most controversial children’s book of all time. Whether the story chronicles an evolving friendship between a little boy and a tree, or provides a troubling look into the innate selfishness of humankind, is still hotly debated. “It’s just a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes,” Silverstein would often say in defence of the classic. Tired of the controversy, he eventually avoided talking to the press about any of his writings.

Fans of Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) or A Light in the Attic (1981) might be surprised to learn that the author who wrote and illustrated poems about the characters of The Yipiyuk and Sour Face Ann actually spent much of his time at the Playboy Mansion. Part of Hugh Hefner’s inner circle, Silverstein would live at the mansion for weeks or months on end—and actually wrote many of his children’s books on the premises. From 1957 to the mid-’70s, every single issue of Playboy Magazine contained a cartoon by Silverstein.

Beatrix Potter, Illustration from "The Tale of Peter Rabbit", 1901. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Beatrix Potter, Illustration from "The Tale of Peter Rabbit", 1901. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Growing up in an upper-class Victorian family in Britain, Potter had a restricted childhood, and rarely spent time with her mother and father. Instead, she turned to her pets for companionship, sketching them often. Her two rabbits, Peter Piper and Benjamin Bouncer, were her favorite models—and, as it turns out, a lifelong source of inspiration.

As an adult, too, Potter was a keen observer of nature, and studied botanical illustration at the Royal Botanical Gardens, though her scientific accomplishments were often ignored due to her gender. Despite those obstacles, she was the first woman to have a scientific paper presented at the Linnean Society of London in 1897.

While studying, Potter began sending illustrated letters to her former governess’s children—and, in one of these notes, the character of Peter Rabbit was born. Potter asked that this letter be returned to her, and it became the origins for The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which she wrote in 1901. The children’s book was initially rejected by seven publishers, so Potter decided to print 250 copies of the book herself. The venture was an instant and lasting success.

She developed a whole universe of animal characters that radiated out from Peter Rabbit, and as early as 1903, she turned the series into an international brand, merchandising Peter with dolls, tea sets, and slippers. A true entrepreneur, Potter was the first to obtain a licensed patent for a literary character.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Little Prince Flying Away, 2009
Art Lithographies

Amusing children and baffling their parents, The Little Prince (1943) is a strange, philosophical tale about a pilot who crashes in the desert and meets—you guessed it—a little prince.

Surprisingly, the book’s fantastical plot doesn’t stray far from the author’s own experiences. Saint-Exupéry was a commercial pilot who crashed in the Libyan desert in 1935 after an attempt to break the speed record. Saint-Exupéry and his mechanic were lost in the sand dunes for several days, and almost died of dehydration before being found by local Bedouins.

Though Saint-Exupéry had written novels inspired by the crash, The Little Prince was his first and only children’s book. His simple watercolor sketches captured the story’s innocence, while leaving plenty of white space to be filled with the reader’s imagination. Eschewing anatomical accuracy, Saint-Exupéry modeled many of his characters after the dogs in his life: his friend’s poodle turned into the sheep, and his own pet boxer provided the basis for the tiger.

In 1943, Saint-Exupéry gave his manuscript for The Little Prince to his friend Silvia Hamilton in a brown paper bag, before departing for Algiers to serve as a military pilot. The book was published that year, but Saint-Exupéry tragically died shortly after, on a mission in 1944 at age 44. Eerily, in his book, the Little Prince watches the sun set exactly 44 times. The story would go on to capture the imaginations of children all around the world.

In the early 1930s, Hurd began his artistic career by studying with the Modernist painter Fernand Léger in Paris. An innovator in abstraction, Léger is known for his flattened shapes and bold primary colors, a style that had a lasting influence on his young student.

When Hurd illustrated Goodnight Moon (1947), the classic tale written by Margaret Wise Brown, he rendered the walls emerald green, the floor bright red, and the furniture lemon yellow. Following Léger’s style, he depicted the bunny, her bedroom, and “the cow jumping over the moon” without any sense of realistic depth. But Léger was not Hurd’s only artistic influence. When Brown commissioned Hurd for the project, she also sent him a copy of Francisco de Goya’s Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga (1784–92), which features a little boy in red, for inspiration.

For Hurd, though, the field of illustration required a different set of considerations than fine art. “[Illustration] is specialized in that the artist must keep the ultimate audience more firmly in mind than the ‘pure’ painter who primarily tries to satisfy himself,” he once explained. “An ever new and wide-eyed group, [the audience] responds freely to what interests it, and turns away from what does not.”

Following these principles, Hurd illustrated almost 100 picture books over the course of his career, many of which he produced in collaboration with his wife, the writer Edith Thacher Hurd.

Sarah Gottesman