I've been thinking a lot about illustration recently, wondering if I can combine my love of drawing with my love of writing. But can I only do that if I write for a younger audience? I love writing stories for teens and young adults and those books don't have illustration - or do they? Lately, things seem to be changing. A handful of books aimed at YA readers have been published with illustration showing publishers are prepared to print them.
But why? Why is it necessary to have illustration in books aimed at young adults? For me, the answer lies in my own experience of reading as a child and then as a young adult, which I suspect echoes many other people's experience.
I was a really late 'independent' reader despite loving stories. When I was very young, my favourites stories to have read to me were the two Mogs: Mog the Forgetful Cat written and illustrated by Judith Kerr, and Meg, Mog and Owl written by Helen Nicoll and illustrated by Jan Pienkowski. Unable to read the text, independent 'reading' for me, like many young children, was spending a long time reading the illustration. This is all very normal. It's accepted that for young people, illustration is vital to engage their minds and help decipher the text.
So what happens as children start to read more independently? At MG (middle grade) level, the amount of text increases while the illustration remains, albeit on a smaller scale. At middle grade, I was still bewitched by story. I loved Ramona and The Worst Witch, skipping difficult words and making up any confusion with reference to the pictures. I wrote and drew story after story (appallingly spelled!) The illustrations were part of the story, not an addition. They helped me make sense of what I was writing and they gave me ideas for where the story could go as I went along. I vividly recall hating it when the teacher 'made' us write the story first and then, if there was enough time (which there often wasn't) we were allowed to draw a picture. It's an incredibly backward way of thinking about the link between illustration and text and one that persists unfortunately, once past the picture book age.
And it gets worse, the older you get. My desire to properly read only happened when I was 11 (yep, 11!) I was in my final year at primary school and until that point, I was a hugely unconfident reader. My love of story was undiminished so this lack of enthusiasm I believe came from needing to wear glasses (which I was horribly self-conscious about) and a fear of not being able to read as well as my older siblings. But then I was 'forced' by my teacher to read and review five books by Joan Aitkin. The first few I skim read but then I found her book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and my future love of reading was sealed. Would I have been able to get so absorbed by the story without the brilliantly sinister and dark illustrations by Pat Marriott? I believe not. I reread the book as an adult and the text isn't easy. I know at the time I struggled over many of the words and their meaning but the atmosphere of both Aitkin's words and Marriott's pictures, transfixed me. It didn't matter that I couldn't read every word. And that's how illustration can help the older, less confident reader. I'd suggest they help any reader.
Oh, and then secondary school started and I was thrown into 'text only' stories, many I fell for in a passionate way. But no illustrations? Why was illustration suddenly an absolute no-no? Why was it perceived as a babyish 'addition'? I didn't know and I still don't know why this perception is only just changing. Illustration is like the rising agent in the cake. It is not the superfluous, decorative cherry on the top! For readers like myself, who find text overwhelming, off-putting, or down-right alienating, illustration is a window to the story.
My youngest son is dyslexic. He uses illustration, as I did, to decipher the story, to give clues as to the action, the character, the theme. I believe he'll always have a preference for illustrated stories. Fortunately, as he gets older, there are increasing numbers of older, illustrated fiction. A Monster Calls tackles the weighty subject of cancer. The dark, angry illustrations by Jim Kay are a profound necessity - even if the original print run didn't have them. And Tinder, by Sally Gardner (who, incidentally, is dyslexic) has wonderful illustrations by David Roberts that not only add mood and setting but also break up the text and - best of all - weave their own character until you don't know what's telling the story: the words or the pictures. Of course, it's both.
There is a place for illustration in YA fiction. For many readers, it is an absolute must to engage them, help them and make the story accessible. It is not a regression, or an embellishment. Illustration is a part of reading.