Thinking how art boosts wellbeing, I recently heard an interview with Charlie Mackesy, whose first book The Boy, The Mole, The Fox And The Horse (2019) has become a bestseller, particularly during the pandemic. Charlie has worked as an artist and illustrator and his work features in other writers’ books but also in private collections and locations like churches, hospitals and safe houses for women. His own book spoke to readers of all ages worldwide, many as they struggled with lockdowns, and many have written to Charlie to share their reactions.
The loose, expressive illustrations partner the book’s ink writing, which itself becomes an artwork. Weaving a narrative (in words and pictures alike) around mainly animal characters also seems integral to the book’s impact. Investing animals with human experiences, emotions and feelings can be helpful to us, as an indirect way of exploring our own reactions. One example in the book comes when one of the animals says that the bravest word he has ever spoken is “Help”. That’s about openness, letting go, allowing others to see our need.
But many kinds of illustration help us work through our thoughts and feelings. Illustration enhances writing’s power and adds another layer to any book, making it more memorable. It enables the reader to visualize the narrative as it unfolds. It helps us think more about the words we read and makes us spend more time with them. In turn the writing enhances the artwork’s impact, as it creates background so that we get to know the characters or settings portrayed. This lets us respond on different levels.
Book illustration is a long tradition, and is still common in children’s books – but illustration can add to books for any age range. It would be great to see it featured more widely throughout books, when it is mainly now seen only on the cover. On the other hand, if illustration remains quite rare, it can be more striking and stand out from the crowd.
Recently I came across research into the many positive impacts of reading. One study from the University of Sussex found it can be more calming even than music. By transporting us to a different place or time, books can be liberating – although obviously it depends on the book, as some are very disturbing. Books may be restful and a way to ease anxiety and depression. When all this is combined with illustration, it can be even more helpful. Illustration can literally draw people into a book and encourage them to read.
Book adaptations on stage or screen are popular because readers want to see a familiar narrative take form before their eyes. Illustrating a book in the first place mirrors this. Some readers might like to draw or paint their own illustrations of a book they enjoy as a way to make characters come to life.
Art and narrative are two of the most important stimuli any of us encounter. When they work together, they can be a powerful boost to wellbeing, lifting spirits or striking a chord with many of us. Charlie Mackesy’s book is now being produced as an animation – another artform.
Do you find book illustrations enhance what you read or improve wellbeing? Maybe you’ve read The Boy, The Mole, The Fox And The Horse? It would be great if you have thoughts or experiences to share in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002? Thank you.