10 things you probably didn’t know about the world of illustration

5 Batman

So, my fifth book, Beautiful Trees, came out a couple of weeks ago and, like all of mine, it’s illustrated (this time by the wonderful Miranda Sofroniou). Which I guess is a little unusual for an author of books for adults. And yes, I say that knowing that writing a picture book for adults might be a little unusual too. Especially when it’s about the trees that are significant to its characters.

So, to help me celebrate, and because I’m generally super-interested in things like this, here are ten surprising and interesting facts about the world of illustration and the brilliant and wondrous people who inhabit it.


1. The first illustrated printed books – following the invention of the printing press in 1440 – were made using woodcut templates. The same sort that are used – even now – for putting marks on clothes.

1 woodcut

2. Xylography, as it’s known (now that’s a beautiful word) is a simple enough process: cut out all the bits from a block of wood you don’t want, dip what’s left in ink, and print. Simple is beautiful. (A little like this…)

2 woodblock

3. The first illustrated stories go back much longer than Gutenberg’s press. There are printed scrolls, for instance, from the Heian and Kamakura eras in Japan, which date from 900AD. And look: the illustrations are every bit as cool as the ones we have today.

3 Japan

4. The world’s longest running comic book is Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories. First published in 1940, it’s still running. Who knew that Donald Duck was older than Donald Trump? He’s certainly better looking and… yeah, let’s stop there.

4 disney

5. But Batman is one year older. Kicking butt, since 1939.

5 Batman

6. J.R.R. Tolkien, Sylvia Plath, Clive Barker, John Lennon, Shel Silverstein, Maurice Sendak, T.S. Elliot, and Evelyn Waugh are all authors we’ve probably heard of. What you might not know is that they all, at some point, illustrated their own books.

6 Plath

7. As did Kurt Vonnegut, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, William Blake, and Rudyard Kipling.

7 Vonnegut

8. And Dr. Seuss!

8 Seuss

9. But back to Rudyard. It was his father, John Lockwood Kipling – a sculptor by trade — who illustrated the first edition of The Jungle Book. Rudyard himself would illustrate many of his own works, including his Just So series and some of his adult works too.

9 Jungle Book

10. It’s generally accepted that John Comenius, a Czech writing in German (bonus points for anyone who can tell me the other Very Famous One), published the first picture book for children. The World of Things Obvious to the Senses drawn in Pictures came out in 1658 and it is a beautiful thing.

10 World of Things

So, Mr. Comenius, thank you. You started something wonderful.

And thank you to every illustrator who’s ever illustrated, every printer who’s ever printed – and anyone at all who’s ever picked up a pencil or biro or just scribbled or jotted or made something – anything – even if it was only for you. Because you’re brilliant. Don’t stop.

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Nik PerringNik Perring is a short story writer and the author of 5 books, including the much celebrated Not So Perfect (RoastBooks, 2010). His latest, Beautiful Trees, is out now and available from all good book retailers as well as from his publisher. He lives in the UK and he still wants a cat. Be sure to check him out on Twitter for more information.

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