An illustrated book without which...

All illustrators can remember books that have impacted our imaginations and inspired our progress as artists. Bridget Marzo has picked from her bookshelf a title that takes us to a golden world from the mid 20th Century, in the classic compendium Story Land.  

Among my over-packed shelves of children's books, old and new, English, American and French, one book stands out like a kind of old teddy bear to me. It is battered, frayed at the edges and much travelled through time and space. I truly believe that without this book, I might have been a very different kind of illustrator-author - maybe not one at all. 

The endpapers are a patchwork of watercolour copies of key parts of illustrations from many different stories in the book.
 Story Land is a compendium of 48 stories - all from what are now classic US Golden Book titles.  The stunning variety of illustrations by the likes of Garth Williams, Rojanovsky and Mary Blair, were adapted from the smaller Golden Book format to fit in with the generous size of this grand book.

As a child I lived in its hugely diverse world of pictures. I read the pictures first, in fact, then taught myself to read the words that went with them.

Mary Blair's inventive illustrations to Ruth Kraus's wonderfully simple rhyming text A BIRD CAN FLY, SO CAN I
Then, when first learned joined-up writing I was inspired (ahem!) to write "for children" on the title page.

 So central and comforting were the pictures that even as an older child, I returned to look at the pictures in it, especially when I was sick in bed and couldn't face reading. 

Much later, when I started creating books of my own - and when I still want to rinse my eyes - I'll go back to it.  It's not just that it's a passport to my childhood.  I relish its variety  - a gorgeous smorgasbord of art by innovative and skilled Golden Books illustrators, several of whom were immigrants from war-torn Europe.   The children's book historian and author Leonard Marcus has written fascinatingly about how these popular kids' books transformed the US children's book industry and culture in his well-illustrated book, The Golden Legacy. 

To give you a taste of different styles and approaches - just look at these trains from 3 different stories in Story Land.

An inside/ outside view that fascinated me as a child - illustration by Tibor Gergely to  Seven Little Postmen by Margaret Wise Brown
A playful and non-perspectival use of space - JP Miller's illustration to THE MARVELLOUS MERRY-GO-ROUND by Jane Werner made me want to push that train along.

Feodor Rojanovsky's lively illustration to George Duplaix's story GASTON AND JOSEPHINE

When I started out, like many illustrators,  I used to worry about style.   Now I baulk at maintaining a branded style as if that is what really matters in creating for children.  What matters to me is getting the characters and their world right so that the book jumps out and its function is clear. And for that I need to find the most appropriate visual language and materials for the book in hand. I know, it is also a great excuse to go to the art shop and try out the latest gear!

Liberation from the ‘style trap’ came when my French art director told me that what matters is not style but having a strong voice - an underlying tone or feeling that comes out of us without our being aware of it - and is revealed by what we like and our choices.   What do you pick up first in a bookshop?  Dark or light stories - realistic,  or surreal, down to earth,  fantastical?  Liking one or several of these is just one small indication of that complex and unique voice of yours.

Back to Storyland  -  for all its variety of styles and approaches,  there is a love of the everyday in all its aspects, relationships between characters and their many feelings and expressions, plus an energy, playfulness, a genuine warmth.
I love how the title is illustrated here!
I brought it out to show at my monthly picture book crit group recently. And it turned out that Storyland was also a seminal book for my talented friend and fellow author and illustrator, Layn Marlow.  That makes two of us who might have done something quite different without it!

Eloise Wilkin

Do you have a book on your shelf that inspired you as an illustrator? We love to showcase members' inspirations, so do get in touch!!


Bridget Marzo is a former International Illustrator Coordinator for SCBWI and current illustration volunteer in the British Isles. Her long string of successful picture books includes the recent Tiz and Ott's Big Draw. She's also a regular contributor to the Association of Illustrators' Varoom magazine.


  1. Wonderful article, Bridget! Thank you, not only for reuniting me with this long lost gem, but also for your very wise comments on the subject of style. Dare I ask which is your favourite image? (I now realise that JP Miller illustration of the animals on the train was something I desperately tried to recreate from memory, when I got my first ever set of Caran d'Ache pencils at the age of about 12 - even though the Storyland book had long gone from my life by then.)

  2. Nicolette Jones22 July 2016 at 13:46

    OMG This was THE book for me too! It had gone astray but some years ago I was manning a secondhand book stall at a school fete and someone asked me how much it was. As I caught a glimpse, I'm afraid I said it wasn't for sale, and bought it myself. Every picture is so vivid in my memory.

    1. So interesting to hear Nicolette - how the pictures stayed with you too- such a rich visual terrain to play in and invent our own stories for!

  3. Ah - that first box of Caran d'Ache - another shared childhood joy! I had so many faves but the last pic I show of the house being built fascinated me - something to do with the unusual squirrel perspective? But then there's also the cut-away of the postal train and Mary Blair's girl under the table "My house is like a mouse's" and...and..

  4. An excellent reminder of mid twentieth century illustration. I love Kathleen Hale's Orlando illustrations, which have a similar 'lithograph-y' look.

  5. Thanks Catriona! Yes I liked Orlando too! A lot of the Golden Books artists would have worked with 4 colour separation - though the 1960s saw the beginning of the 4 colour printing liberation. Gergely's and Rojanovski's pictures above look like they were done direct with gouache / watercolour but I may be wrong!

  6. I still have my Storyland Book from 1961 when I was 7. I loved it so much my mother bought me a second the following year after I told her how much I loved it and it was falling apart from so much love. Harry Trenholm

  7. I still have my book.. a bit ratty but well loved. I would trace the pictures and then colour them in.. memories


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