Beautiful illustrations are perhaps one of the most important aspects of a children’s story. In a single instant, they can help young readers develop crucial visualizing and decoding skills needed to understand the story and to foster a love of reading all throughout life. Not only are illustrations important from a learning aspect, but those beautifully illustrated pages often make a children’s book even more memorable.
Roald Dahl is perhaps one of the most well-read and well-recognized children’s book authors, with over 250 million copies sold worldwide. However, despite the millions of copies sold and the instantly recognizable (not to mention nostalgic) illustrations dotting the pages, you might not know much about the man behind the artwork. In fact, you may not even know his name.
An iconic career
Sir Quentin Saxby Blake (yes, he’s an official “Sir” as far as titles are concerned!) was born in 1932 in Succop, Kent. For most of his adult life, he made a living through art. Blake headed the illustration department at The Royal College Of Art for many years before illustrating his first book, A Drink of Water by John Yeomanin 1960. In 1968, Blake published his first self-written and illustrated children’s book, Patrick.
Since Blake’s first publication, he has published over 300 different children’s books, 35 of which he has written himself. While Blake illustrated for a variety of authors including Sylvia Plath, William Stieg, and Dr. Suess, he has illustrated as many as 18 different books for Roald Dahl alone.
Blake began his tenure with the author in 1978 by illustrating The Enormous Crocodile, Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, The Twits, The BFG, and Matilda. Though Blake ended up illustrating all of Dahl’s books, with the exception of The Minipins, the pair didn’t officially become friends until they met to hash out the creative details of one of Dahl’s most iconic books, The BFG.
Though the pair had gone back and forth about the appearance of what would be one of Dahl’s most iconic characters for quite some time, Blake was inspired to turn the character into a more gentle looking giant after seeing the ways in which Dahl interacted with his granddaughter.
“I got a sense of a greater dimension to the character than I had previously. The human side of him,” said Blake while discussing this meeting with Dahl to BBC in a 2016 interview. The positive experience creating the character led to a lasting creative partnership between the two that extended until Dahl’s death in 1990. Blake later won two iconic awards, the “Silver Paintbrush” and the “Silver Slate Pencil,” in 1983 for his portrayal of the character.
While Blake is perhaps best known as a children’s book illustrator, his skills extend far beyond the genre as he has illustrated collectors-edition adult novels and poetry such as Animal Farm by George Orwell, and The Bed Book by Sylvia Plath, among others.
In 1997, just after his 65th birthday, Blake attempted to retire but found it difficult to do so due to his love of artwork and the constant demand for his creations. He was awarded the position of UK Children’s Laureate in 1999, and won several other awards while creating throughout the remainder of his life. In 2019, he illustrated John Ruskin's classic book 'The King of the Golden River' and hinted at another author partnership to come. Blake, now 88, continues to illustrate, recently donating one of his illustrations to be auctioned in support of a community arts organization that's struggled due to COVID-19.
Blake has, perhaps, one of the most expansive libraries of children’s books, so why not pick up one of Blake’s creations in celebration of Children’s Illustrators Week—the first week in February— this year? Read one of the classics from Roald Dahl, or something he’s written himself. Regardless of what you choose, don’t forget to sit for a minute to enjoy Blake’s creations and remember what it was like to pick up your first children’s book when you were younger.