On May 20th this year, PLR UK (Public Lending Right, the branch of the British Library that gives authors and illustrators payments when their books are checked out at libraries) published its annual list of the Top 200 Borrowed Authors at public libraries, for the period covering July 2018 - June 2019. They also had two more lists, of the Top 50 Children's Book Authors and Top 50 Adult Authors. Children's books are an essential part of libraries; when children are small, they can get through an incredible number of picture books, and a little older, keen readers will race through series of books, sometimes at more than one book a day. Almost no one can afford to buy - or have shelf space for - this many books. Libraries also provide warm, friendly places for the people looking after children to bring them, and that's where children begin to learn how to browse books, and select the ones they think will be most interesting. (I've met grownups who don't have the skill of browsing; bookshops intimidate them because they don't know how to select a book just by letting their eyes wander over them until one catches their attention.) Browsing's an important skill. And what is essential when children are trying to select a book? ... Pictures!
People are influenced by book covers and book design and illustrations for the rest of their lives, but when they're young, it's THE primary factor in getting a child to want to read a book. And when they're cuddled up in a grownup's lap, it's the pictures they'll read, to the sound of the grownup's reassuring voice. So the work of illustrators is absolutely essential, and as part of the Pictures Mean Business campaign, I very much wanted to see a PLR list of Top 50 Illustrators. And after some repeated requests by @Cecilmgo and me on Twitter, PLR obliged and on August 25th, published the list of illustrators, which you can read here on their website.
When the list was first published, I got the sense that most of the people who looked at it were illustrators, wanting to see if they were on the list, happy when they were and upset or annoyed when they weren't. (I think the authors may have been doing this, too, because the list is missing a No.41 and no one queried it.) But the list isn't just something to make us feel competitive, it's a chance for everyone to find out about these illustrators who are backbones of the industry, not necessarily only the ones who are fêted by the big book charities or put in shop window displays because they appeal to grownups with money to spend. These are the ones actually being checked out at libraries, very often on request of children themselves, or repeatedly checked out because children get very attached to them. It doesn't speak for the whole book industry, but it's an important thing to scrutinise.
I'm going to post it here so we can have a more in-depth look at it. I've made a few notes in red, which we'll get to later:
This list has some surprises!
For example, everyone knows that David Walliams books are storming the market, but his illustrator, Tony Ross is right at the top of the Illustrator list, while David Walliams is only at No.4 in the Authors. Why is this? Well, Tony Ross has lots of other books that aren't with David Walliams, he's been magic to whatever books he works on, be it Francesca Simon's Horrid Henry books (she's at No.3) or his solo picture books.
If you walk down the street and ask people to name one illustrator, almost all of them will be able to name Quentin Blake, and often that will be the only name they can pull up. And when I talk about the writer-illustrator relationship, people almost always chime in with 'Oh yes, Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake!' But Quentin Blake is ranked one above Dahl, and the reason for this may be that Blake has worked on lots of other successful books that haven't involved Dahl at all. (And Dahl is illustrated by artists other than Blake.)
Julia Donaldson is the Queen of picture books, with lifetime sales recorded by Nielsen of £91.2m in the UK, the only children's writer earning more being JK Rowling at £250.8m (with Jamie Oliver and James Patterson between them in the general book lists). But she's No.2 on this list, not No.1... Wait, who is this Daisy Meadows? Has anyone met her, or even seen a photograph of her?
The answer is NO, because Daisy Meadows isn't a person, but a team of people who write the stonkingly popular Rainbow Magic fairy books. And who is this Georgie Ripper, who's ahead of Quentin Blake? Georgie IS a real person, and the original illustrator for the Rainbow Magic series, the person who's tied them together with her covers and interior illustrations. She's a big deal, even if you don't know of her like you do Blake.
Georgie Ripper author photo from Hachette's website
Another surprise was that author Terry Deary is No.22 on the list, but his Horrible Histories illustrator Martin Brown isn't on this list at all! Deary does do books with other illustrators, but their Horrible Histories books are by far what they're both best known for, the books are a real empire. This was so surprising that Martin Brown and I queried PLR about it on Twitter; he wondered if perhaps they were only including children's fiction, not non-fiction. But they replied: Hello, The Top 50 Illustrators list includes all children’s books, including Horrible Histories. So we are none the wiser. There's a slight chance that the results are slightly skewed because he hasn't illustrated all the books, he's had some reinforcement from other illustrators just because there are SO MANY books and spin-off publications. But it still seems odd that Brown isn't on that list.
Edit: PLR got back to say that Martin is No.128 on the list... this still seems very odd! Surely Horrible Histories are the bulk of the Terry Deary books checked out. A mystery lies here.
Another item of note is the ratio of men to women illustrators. If you go to any children's book conference in the UK, especially those related to picture books and illustration, the participants there will be almost all women. But in the top ten, three of the ten are women, and in the top 50, only 19 are women. Why is this? There may be a lot of reasons and they're worth discussing.
Photo links: Tony Ross, The Bookseller; Nick Sharratt, Carriage Works Theatre; Axel Scheffler, DW - Picture Alliance DPA; Georgie Ripper, St Albans Review; Quentin Blake, Tim Anderson for The Mirror; Jeff Kinney, Filip Wolak for the author's website; Liz Pichon, Hay Festival; Lucy Cousins, Walker Books; Jim Field, author website; David McKee, LoveReading4Kids
Actually, the list includes 18 women, not 19, but checking up on them, Paul Linnet stressed that he and his co-author Sue Hendra both write and both illustrate the books, so really she ought to be with him on that list. From my experience (with David O'Connell and our Jampires and the Reeve & McIntyre books), book data often doesn't have an option for this way of working, it insists one person be writer and the other person be illustrator to fit its tables.
Author photo from Bradford Lit Fest
The other thing you'll notice is that the top ten are all white. And looking at the list, knowing many of them at least by face, I assumed ALL the illustrators were white. Which led me to possibly my biggest surprise in researching these illustrators. First, when I looked up Rachel Renée Russell, listed as both author and illustrator of the wildly successful Dork Diaries, I discovered she wasn't, in fact, the illustrator at all! It's a family business in the USA, and her daughter Nikki Russell illustrates the books, while her other daughter, Erin, helps out with the writing. Somewhere someone made the decision to have everything under Rachel's name as a brand, so while it's no secret Nikki's the illustrator - she goes on tour with her mom - Nikki's not listed on the cover and PLR won't have any data that Nikki is the illustrator. And the second surprise is that both Rachel and Nikki are Black!
Photo graphic tweeted by Rachel Renée Russell @DorkDiaries
Why is this such a big deal? Well, there aren't that many high-profile Black (or any minority) children's book illustrators in the UK, and recently there's been a much bigger push for diversity in publishing. Often when I can't do an event, I've tried to put forward non-white illustrators to take my place, and it's not easy to think of many who have books out AND are good at doing events; I pull names from a very small pool. So it utterly makes sense that publishers would want to shout from the rooftops about Nikki Russell, at last we have an illustrator who is not only Black but has SMASH HIT books! She's not based in the UK, but it could still be inspiring for children to know who she is. But there are at least two barriers to that: one is that illustrators generally get overlooked, and second, that even then, she's not listed as an illustrator so most people here probably don't even realise she was connected to the books. There aren't any obvious clues in the books that Nikki's Black - they're not Black 'issue books', but they really shouldn't have to be.
I don't know the background for their branding decision, but I hope this doesn't happen to other illustrators in the UK from minority backgrounds, that their names get lost like this. On the contrary, publishers should see them as inspirational and be putting them at the front of their publicity. And publishers should be including their names in their books' data, so they can be included in lists such as this one!
The final surprise is just that there were quite a few names on the list that I didn't know, or didn't know much about. When I looked up their work, it was a good reminder that it's not necessarily illustration that appeals to middle-age women like me that kids or their parents go for; they may just want books about trucks and diggers and dinosaurs, and they're not looking for a highbrow artschool aesthetics but for something warm, colourful and comforting and, for babies, simple enough for these very little ones to decode. And illustrators who can fill these niches have a great value in starting children on a lifetime of reading and discovering and learning.
On Twitter, I decided to go through all 50 names, find examples of their work and post links in case people want to find out more about them. The feedback's been great, and I hope lots of parents, teachers, librarians and more people can use this list, possibly to talk about illustrators with their children, or to inspire classroom or library displays.
You can find the full Twitter thread here.
Someone asked why they couldn't see (national treasure) Shirley Hughes on the list, and I used their comment to make a point that while this PLR list is wonderful, it’s by no means a comprehensive list of the amazing things happening in children’s book illustration today, much less in the wider world of illustration.
One last point: the list covers July 2018 - June 2019, the list results for the next two years are going to be skewed by Covid-related library closures. I hope that once this is sorted out, PLR continue to issues Top 50 Illustrator lists, understanding why it's so important. And libraries are important - visit yours as soon as you can and check out some books!
If you want to find out more about illustrators, historic and currently working, you can follow writer-illustrator James Mayhew's #BookIllustrationOfTheDay hashtag on Twitter. He's constantly turning up names I've never heard of and work I've never seen. And he helped found Pictures Mean Business, the campaign to show how everyone benefits when illustrators are credited for their work. Readers get another potential hero, writers reach wider art fan bases, and many more reasons, which you can find out about on the PicturesMeanBusiness.com website built by illustrator Soni Speight.
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What is PLR? It's an answer to this question:
If I check out books at the library instead of buying them, is it taking money away from writers and illustrators who made them?
NO! This is far from the truth. Here's why:
* Libraries are big customers for buying our books!
* Writers and illustrators sometimes make MORE money when you check out their library book than if you buy their book at a huge discount. This is because of PLR.
Download this and other free library posters here
Come on, tell me, what's PLR?
That stands for Public Lending Right: there's a pool of money and every time you borrow a book, it's noted. At the end of the year, the money is divided up proportionally among the authors according to how much their books were borrowed, with a cap at £6,600, and paid by the PLR branch of the British Library. Since most writers and illustrators will probably get between £1K-£10K advance money, and possibly never earn any more from that for their books, this kind of money can mean the difference between a writer or illustrator staying afloat or not. (If you're in the UK and have published books and aren't registered for PLR, get on the case right here!)