By Maisie Jane Garvin, Giulia Caparrelli, Juliette Tulloch and Monique Rosa McClymont
For those of us who have grown up as readers, the illustrator Quentin Blake should be no stranger. Born in the suburbs of London in 1932, Blake has had a successful career, teaching at the Royal College of Art as head of illustration. Yet it is his work as an illustrator that has gained him his reputation. Entering the world of children’s books in 1960, Blake grew his name by collaborating with writers such as Russell Hoban, Michael Rosen and, most famously, Roald Dahl. His books and characters have won him many awards, including the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration – the highest international recognition given to creators of children’s books. Today, at the age of eighty-eight, he has a knighthood for services to illustration. To delve more into Blake’s career, visit his website here.
Blake collaborated with Roald Dahl and the eighteen illustrations resulting from this partnership are perhaps some of his most famous works. His drawings are made to look, as Blake stated, “as though it is done on the spur of the moment” but in fact it takes a lot of planning. This 2016 paperback edition of The Twits brings the magic of Dahl's infamous Mr and Mrs Twit back to life after its first publication in 1980. The cover includes Blake’s signature pen and ink drawings of the characters but they are now merged with the pop of green in the background and the vibrant orange of the title bubble, which sees the classic reimagined for a 21st century audience. The Twits is one of the least known of Dahl’s books, but the message that the narrative portrays, one of kindness and friendship, is a timeless reminder to children and adults who still read this book today.
Revolting Rhymes, published in 1982, is a collection of poems by Roald Dahl and the first of his collections of comic verse for children. Featuring a reinterpretation of six well-known fairy tales, each tale has a unique Dahl-esque twist in place of the traditional happily-ever-after ending. As stated on RoaldDahl.com, “no nursery rhyme is quite as it seems when Roald Dahl has re-written it.” Blake, Dahl’s favourite illustrator, designed a comical cover that meticulously reflects the stories within. The cover features the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood sitting on Red’s grandmother’s rocking chair with a grin spread across its face, as it embraces two young children for storytime. Bodies tense and eyes bursting with fear, the portrayal of the children is attention-grabbing; their trepidation leads one to assume that the book they are being read is none other than Revolting Rhymes. What is particularly engaging about this cover is that whoever picks up this book almost inevitably meets the eye of the young girl, like the breakage of a fourth wall – a cry for help, a warning to read only if you dare.
Blake may be most famous for his partnership with Roald Dahl, but he collaborated with other children’s authors. Illustrating the books of David Walliams, “the natural heir to Roald Dahl,” Blake brought to life characters such as Mr Stink and The Boy in The Dress. The book cover on Mr Stink conveys the messiness of the protagonist through convoluted pen strokes and patches of different colours. Using brighter tones on a glossier cover, Blake celebrated the ten-year anniversary edition of The Boy in The Dress by sketching the proud protagonist in the foreground in a pink dress with a football.
Blake also partnered with Joan Aiken to illustrate her quirky book series about the friendship between a little girl, Arabel, and her raven pet, Mortimer. This series features white background covers which make Blake’s watercolour illustrations stand out.
Another successful collaboration is the one between Blake and John Yeoman. This duo perfected the art of creating collections of stories for children. The drawings on the cover of Amazing Animal Stories are whimsical, full of colours and animal figures – the perfect entryway to a world of storytelling.
Blake has not only illustrated hundreds of children’s books but has painted for adult genres too. Michael Rosen’s On the Move: Poems about Migration was published in 2020 and Blake has depicted a dark but detailed scene on its front cover. The merging of the ink, water and watercolour creates a meaningful silhouette that grasps the hardships of migration and the vast age differences of those affected. Within the collection, Rosen uncovers several themes, including childhood, war, missing relatives and global experiences.
Blake is not only an illustrator but an author himself, having published multiple fiction and non-fiction books over the decades. These include the very recent The Weed (2020) and go as far back as Mister Magnolia (1980). It is clear Quentin Blake’s work and expansive career deserves much celebration!