Through a Painted Door: An Ode to Children’s Science Fiction/Fantasy Art

Reader, do you remember the book you loved most as a child? The one with illustrations that fascinated and haunted you in the best of ways. The one with words you spoke under your breath so your parents would not know you didn’t need to be read to anymore. The one you stole from the bookshelf late at night, when you should be asleep, and reverently flipped through the pages by flashlight.

Such was my relationship with a collection of old European nursery rhymes and fairy tales that belonged to my mother. I know now that it is a volume from The Bookshelf for Boys and Girls, published in 1948. As a child, though, I perceived the book as nameless, conjured into being by some unknown hand. Like the moonlight streaming through my bedroom window, it had simply always been. Everything about my mother’s book—its heft, its stories, its agelessness—filled me with wonder, but nothing so much as the illustrations!

It is strange to look at the history of science fiction and fantasy and not discuss the impact of children’s book illustrations on the development of the genre. In broader conversations, sometimes children’s books get lost. Art does as well. Speculative fiction is a space where grownups and their grownup words dominate. And yet, I am sure that many current fans found their way to the fantastic through the magic of pictures. Some were carried on the leathery painted hides of James Gurney. Others, perhaps, found their way into Narnia by the sprawling maps of Pauline Baynes. More still crept alongside the fur-and-feather etchings of Garth Williams or raced with the thudding paws and lolling tongues of Wendy Pini.

Children are very lucky in that almost all books made for them include pictures. My volume of fairy tales was full of them. Some illustrations were minimal, expert scribbles in black and white, inset among the text. Others were full-page paintings in rich, velvety color. Each provided only a snapshot of the greater story, but for a young mind, new to the art of storytelling, they provided a frame for the imagination. I learned the rosy redness of Snow White’s lips, the size of The Wolf’s teeth, the starry sky that bore Wynken, Blynken, and Nod on their nighttime journey. These images became the foundation of my understanding of the fantastic. They were the blocks upon which I built castles, dragons, and flying ships. I took their colors into my dreams, and many years later when I became an artist myself, I would conjure the memory of their soft brush strokes to my fingertips.

For many of us, fairy tales provided a doorway into the world of SF/F. Perhaps, reader, you hold memories similar to mine of daring knights and animals in peril illustrated by Phoebe Erickson, Kurt Wiese, and Howard Pyle. There is a very good chance that a Golden Book illustrated by Sheilah Beckett has crossed your path. She published more than 70 in her lifetime, rendering The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Cinderella, and many more with delicate line and bold color. A truly prolific illustrator, she was active all the way up until her 100th birthday.

But perhaps you came to the genre by other books. Most children have a morbid fascination with the dark, mysterious, and frightening. In middle school, my classmates whispered the knowledge of a new series, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. We were all a little afraid of those books, and yet there was a perpetual waitlist to check them from the library. I remember the beautiful prose, sometimes straightforward, sometimes like poetry, but it was the bloated image of Harold the murderous scarecrow, hung up with twig and twine, that kept me awake at night.

That was the effect of the graphite work of Stephen Gammell. His drawings were a precarious balance between delicate and terrible: like wisps of cobweb, light enough to blow away in the breeze, but substantial enough to make your skin crawl should they smack you in the face.

I also remember receiving the Scholastic Book Fair catalog at school and stopping on the image of a little mouse in a tunic, holding a sword aloft. I was not able to buy any books from the fair that time around, but I carried the image of Martin, rendered in soft, loving detail by Gary Chalk, right into high school, when a classmate shared his dog-eared tales from Redwall with me.

These days, the history of fantastical illustration runs deep. I have a healthy appreciation for the greats: John Jude Palencar, Jody Lee, Jean Giraud, Miranda Meeks. I will admit that I judge every book by its cover. Even before I became a fan, I would find myself perusing the SF/F shelves in the bookstore. Their neatly arranged rows were vibrant and enticing like candy. I am drawn to images I have never seen before, of worlds half-imagined, of starry galaxies, glowing eyes, and beating wings, of pen lines, brush strokes, and digital effects in surprising combinations. But the legacy of whimsical illustration was leading me toward great speculative literature long before I was consciously aware of it. 

Perhaps, reader, you look back on certain images with fondness. Perhaps you remember that exciting feeling of mystery, of discovering a forbidden world, when some artist’s renderings, in pen or pastel or paint, compelled you to pick up your first SF/F book.

I was eighteen when I discovered Harry Potter—on the cusp of adulthood, longing for a greater understanding of the world, but young enough to be captivated by the vibrant pastels of Mary GrandPré. Those images met the challenge of shaping a brand new world; a world that would go on to transform our society’s modern mythology. We have seen this world redrawn and reformed countless times—in the wispy, digital paintings of Kazu Kibuishi, in haunting black and white by Brian Selznick, and in many other hands, each iteration providing a new opportunity for illustrators to express their love of the series, each iteration providing a new journey into Hogwarts for young readers.

I held Harry Potter close to mind when I was approached by Scholastic to illustrate the cover of Dactyl Hill Squad, written by Daniel José Older. It was Older’s first foray into middle-grade novels, and mine as well. I was tasked with envisioning an alternate history where dinosaurs roam Civil War-era New York City. It was like walking in the footsteps of James Gurney! I browsed his paintings for ideas of how to design dinosaur saddles. I referenced Jason Chan, my long-time artistic inspiration, and a closer technical match to my digital process. And I kept GrandPré’s illustrations close, attempting to evoke their rich color, their texture, their spirit. “Well, I am no Mary GrandPré,” I reminded myself, but I would endeavor to do as much credit to these dino-riding freedom-fighters as she did to witches and wizards.

It was a strange, wonderful, and frightening assignment. I felt a certain responsibility and pride, not simply because it was my first middle-grade novel, or because I was joining the ranks of my favorite illustrators, but also because my childhood of beloved fantasy tales was full of golden locks, blue eyes, and fair pink skin. Dear reader, as much as I loved those European fairy tales, there was a distance I perceived, a quiet understanding that these stories were not really for me. That feeling of trespass, of course, was part of what made them so irresistible. Perhaps I had come to SF/F by accident, through a door left ajar for someone else.

Human beings have a tendency to long for the familiar. Surely it is this inclination that led Leo and Diane Dillon to color over the picture books they bought for their son Lee, recasting the characters in a variety of skin tones. This private endeavor led the Dillons to illustrate African folktales for children and win the Caldecott two years in a row; to this day, they are the only illustrators to do so. Like the Dillons, nowadays I delight in drawing adventurers with brown skin and dark, curly hair, placing them in the whimsical landscapes my dreams long cultivated. With my pen, I am able to make another door, and another, and countless more, guiding a new generation of readers with images they recognize.

Cartoonist Jesse Hamm once said: “People who disdain writing ‘just for children’ fail to realize that those children will remember what they read, maybe for the rest of their lives. You’re not writing for permanent children; you’re getting an early start on adults.” Children’s books of today are raising the next generation of SF/F readers. Their illustrations are painting the landscape writers will build their worlds upon in the future. Can you imagine, dear reader, what strokes made by today’s artists will guide the SF/F fans of tomorrow? There are children waiting to be enchanted by Olivia Chin Mueller, or to escape the Kingdom of Death with Abigail L. Dela Cruz. They wait to run the gauntlet with Mehrdad Isvandi, or enroll in a far-off space academy with Mike Maihack. They long to befriend robots with Ru Xu and Ben Hatke.

Dear reader, never forget that feeling of wonder that drew you to your first SF/F book, whether you craved the stories of friendly wizards, crafty mammals, or marauding space travelers. Never forget the images that drew you into a new and mysterious world. And never forget that you can relive that magic. There is a world of illustrators painting doors to lead new generations into your favorite old worlds, and into new ones.

Nilah Magruder

Nilah Magruder is a writer and artist based in Los Angeles. From her beginnings in the woods of the eastern United States she developed an eternal love for three things: nature, books, and animation.

She has written and storyboarded for television studios like DreamWorks and Disney. She also illustrates children’s books, including the Dactyl Hill Squad series by Daniel José Older from Scholastic. Nilah is the author of M.F.K., a middle-grade graphic novel from Insight Editions and the winner of the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity, and How to Find a Fox, a picture book. She has published short fiction in the anthology All Out (edited by Saundra Mitchell), in Fireside Magazine, and for Marvel Comics.

When she is not working, Nilah is watching movies, growing herbs, roller-skating, and fighting her cats for control of her desk chair.

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