Tag Archive: Ted Hughes

Books That Should Have Been Illustrated: Part 1


This week, Scribbly Roo, our resident illustrator and design guru, and I have teamed up to bring you a curious list. We’ve been thinking about the lucky kinds of books that are bestowed with illustrations, and how vital those pictures often become, often so connected to the texts themselves in readers’ imaginations. Think of the famous illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland or the definitive scratchy sketches that first brought Ted Hughes’ Crow to life.


But there are many books that have always remained text-only, tantalizingly imageless. Now we think about it, there are so many possibilities that illustration could bring to our beloved classics, literary fiction that’s stuck to the page with the importance of its subject matter or gravity of its language, genres that have never traditionally been graced with pictures, like crime or history but could be so enlivened by an extra visual dimension.

Even as the future of print publishing changes and warps so that we can’t quite predict it, the market’s demand for beautifully bound books seems to be on the rise. Imprints are forming within well known publishers to publish special, extra aesthetically pleasing volumes, gift editions, limited editions, fancy papers and recycled covers, intricate bindings and illustrations – readers more than ever want to invest in a physical object to own, as the very idea of owning books is sort of slipping out of our hands.

So here are my picks, books I think deserve a good bit of illustration and why:

Donna Tartt by Beowulf Sheehan

Donna Tartt by Beowulf Sheehan

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I think The Goldfinch would make a fascinating illustrated book because its effect depends on its ability to surround the reader in a complex, realistic world, and the reader’s ability to attach and relate to the central characters – to illustrate this epic tale would be ambitious but would certainly offer us another level of engagement with the story and make its settings even richer.

The Goldfinch was a blockbuster hit last year, despite its door stopper size and intimidating scope. With its publication, the author, the enigmatic, one-book-every-ten-years author Donna Tartt, became even more of a household name, and introduced herself charismatically to another generation. The book itself also has a charismatic, enigmatic presence. With a hearty dose of traditional style in its epic, bildungsroman structure, plus a contemporary confidence in breaking the mold of what a modern novel “should” be, plus a nostalgic sensibility too, its settings and characters bringing a Victorian, antique air to contemporary New York, The Goldfinch’s illustrations could bring the whole novel together in a cool way.


As a glad literary descendent of Dickens, Donna Tartt’s work shares a decorative, flourishing quality in its long elegant sentences and, like many of Dickens’ stories, seems a perfect home for charicatures and adornments.

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

Miranda July’s first novel takes elements and inspiration from her work in other media, her visual art, her installations, videos, interviews, all of July’s aliases seem to combine in her written voice so that you can almost hear it aloud, almost view it on the page as a painting or a sculpture rather than just text in a paperback. I’d love to see how July would populate the world of The First Bad Man with pictures.


Illustrations of July’s characters could be so whimsical and beautiful. The obsessive rituals of protagonist Cheryl Glickman’s life could wallpaper their way through the novel in a sort of visual tirade, adding to the oppressive but deeply comic effect the prose already has on the reader.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel


Station Eleven made waves in the literary fiction world recently by bringing a new kind of dystopia into readers’ hands, pushing the genre out of the box of the YA label and into the open ground of “literary fiction,” and “contemporary fiction.” The world of the story, from recognisable New York to a new barren land where new-sprung civilisations haunt old relics and ruins of a destroyed environment, is so ripe for illustration.

The novel made me think a lot, but if there’s one thing that niggled me about it throughout it was a lack of visual clarity, which seemed to run contrary to the main character’s love of comic strips and sketching. The landscapes and textures of the book are often sweeping and vague. Kirsten’s secret world is made of these sketches, and they’re so vital to the surface of the prose that I kept wondering why there wasn’t more of a visual element to the volume itself, perhaps the whole thing could be presented in the form of a sketchbook or artifact.


The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein 

The Making of Americans was written by Gertrude Stein over a long period, between 1903 and 1911 reportedly, but wasn’t published in full until 1925, in a special limited edition batch. In fact the birth of this novel sounds much like an etching or a print; “the original” has such a mystique to it and even though the themes of the book are so big and universal, it also seems to resist mass production. Like many other works of modernism at the time, The Making of Americans was pushed and coaxed into being by a network of friends rather than a single publisher – it took a village to raise it, and so perhaps it has managed to retain that special handcraftedness that lends it to pictures.


The prose has Stein’s tell-tale repetition and abstraction but over the length of the novel there is a sense of development, of a collage of layers, generation laid over generation as detail begets detail, creating a dense texture that goes far beyond the abstract, into personal history. Stein’s strange mastery of the specific and the abstract together is wonderful food for illustration, I think. What would an artist make of these blank, full lines? What images could come to represent “The Americans,” these two quintessential families that are bound tenuously together by marriage?

Scribbly Roo will be carrying on the list shortly with her top books she’d love to see illustrated and why. Till then, tell us what books you’d love to see illustrated! Or if you’ve illustrated your own books, we’d love to hear about the process, too. Join the conversation on Twitter, below or on our Forums page.

Happy Chinese New Year! Year of the Literary Sheep!


The year of the sheep begins today and the year of horse comes to a close. So I’ve compiled my favourite sheep of literature past and present to celebrate. (There aren’t tons of literary sheep but an impressive amount of variety within the select group.)

The Sheep in Animal Farm by George Orwell

They may not be the heroes of Orwell’s political metaphor, but they are crucial to it. The Sheep represent the dumb masses in a totalitarian state, taking in and believing every piece of ridiculous propaganda they hear, and bleating out mindless echoes like “Four legs good, two legs bad.”

The lamb in February 17th by Ted Hughes

This is one of Ted Hughes’ most beautifully done poems in my opinion. With almost prosaic rhythm, Hughes keeps the reader in the real time of a tragic event, the difficult birth of an already-dead lamb, with almost every line overrunning the next. Hughes also introduces the poem wonderfully, showing how connected he feels to the animals he talks about in his work – “Of all the mistakes a lamb can make the worst is having got himself conceived inside a rather small mother, then to grow too big before being born.”

Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Marukami

An acquired literary taste, this novel by Marukami follows an unnamed man as he pursues a sheep fulfilling a ridiculous but very menacing ultimatum. With a magical realism style and that quintessential Murakami dark humor, Wild Sheep Chase is a great read to get to know a literary icon.

All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld 

Young novelist Evie Wyld starts her second book running with an intense description of narrator Jake discovering a mutilated sheep. Jake is rearing sheep on an island of the coast of Britain, but her life is not as idyllic as it seems, as the gutted sheep foreshadows. This is a beautifully lyrical and dark novel and I recommend it, for its sheep and otherwise.

Maa in The Sheep-Pig, or Babe, the Gallant Pig by Dick King-Smith

Babe, the adorable piglet raised by sheepdogs instead of pigs, stole readers’ hearts in Dick King-Smith’s children’s book. But the piglet’s sheep mentor Maa is an unsung hero of the book. Maa shows Babe that the segregation of the farmyard is silly and helps him to become a sheep-dog and triumph in the sheep herding trials.

Any amazing literary sheep I missed? Let me know, do.

Important Relationships in Literary History Part 3: The Romantics

pedro ribeiro simoes

The relationship between writer and work is an intimate one. It is a marriage of sorts, and usually immune to divorce. So I find I’m particularly curious when two writers set up home together and share their working lives with each other. Does the work necessarily bow and move to the romantic relationship? And what happens when the relationship ends? Here are three pairs of poetic, often autobiographical writers, who illuminate this area of great curiosity and show how tumultuous the meeting of minds can be…
John Dunne and Joan Didion

The Dunne-Didion partnership is one of the most prolific working relationships of the last century. They met in 1958 and married in 1964, then spent forty years, until John’s death, working, editing, traveling, exploring together, enjoying lives that were so set up as “writers’ lives” that it’s difficult imagining them doing anything else, even raising a child.

They were ”terrifically, terribly dependent on one another,” Joan described in an interview with The New York Times in 1987. The writer of this portrait of their partnership picks up on their characteristic way of finishing each others’ sentences and communicating through excitable, often completely personal snatches of memories and ideas.

The work that came out over the course of their marriage and afterwards was tied to what the writers learned about each other and about love, though both wrote in a style that never truly opened up to sentimentality or internal monologue; there was always something of reportage about their portrayals of life. And fittingly, after Dunne’s death, Didion spent the following year, in a sort of literary as well as a personal mourning, churning out a memoir about life immediately after Dunne left her for good called The Year of Magical Thinking.
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

From one particularly unified writing relationship, to a much more unbalanced one in Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Both mostly poets, but writing in very different ways, with audiences that didn’t always intersect, Plath and Hughes led their writing lives in periods of togetherness and separation. In the first five years of their marriage, Sylvia finished writing the poems that would become collected in The Colossus; after their separation in 1962, she wrote a flurry of poems that would turn into Ariel, her biggest critical success and the marker of her acceptance into the list of influential poets of the twentieth century.

“We kept writing poems to each other,” Plath describes the literary nature of their meeting and courtship in a 1961 BBC radio interview. This continued through their short marriage and separation until Plath’s suicide. Though not always directly addressing each other, the poems often referred to married life, especially in their most troubled times. Sylvia’s most famous poem “Daddy” refers to Hughes as a “model” of her father, with a “love of the rack and the screw.”

Later, Hughes composed Birthday Letters, a collection of poems written in the wake of Sylvia’s death. These poems are shockingly direct, picking out details of Sylvia’s life while questioning what it is for a person to die. “I had let it all grow. I had supposed/It was all OK. Your life/Was a liner I voyaged in,” the start of “Blue Flannel Suit” reads.


Tess Gallagher and Raymond Carver

Two poets and short story writers each focused on the drama, power and nostalgia of everyday occurrences; births, deaths, marriages fill the pages of their work, but also dinners, drinks, household chores, anything and everything that collects to make the paraphernalia of life.

The pair met in 1977 at a writers’ conference, and this set the tone for the rest of their ten year relationship; they were very much editorial with each other, giving advice and forgiving the baggage that they each brought with them (their marriage was Carver’s second and Gallagher’s third).

In an interview with The Guardian in 2009, Gallagher reported that she fell in love with Carver’s work first, knowing that Carver was a fragile man with a lot of trouble in his life and a rather unhealthy way of dealing with that trouble. She fell in love with the stories and then, “Oh! Look at this man attached: my goodness, he’s lovely, too!'” she described. Though Raymond was a private man and even though we have hundreds of published pieces of work with which to remember him, there is a certain closedness to the collection. But when I read the poem “For Tess” dedicated to his wife, and now executor of his literary estate, it is clear that his own heart is there. The poem describes a time when the writer lay on a bank and imagined that he had died. The next thought, after his own death, was of Tess, he says, which filled him with a sense of gratitude. He writes: “I’m grateful to you, you see. I wanted to tell you.”


It’s difficult to look back on these romances without the final note being sadness, but such bodies of work have come out of the storms and calms of these love affairs that one feels grateful that life aligned in such a way that Sylvia, Ted, Joan, John, Tess and Raymond happened to meet.

We’re getting personal here at Towerbabel. Send us your writer romance stories if you dare!

And if you enjoyed this post, take a look at our previous posts about romance novels based on true events as well as Important Relationships in Literary History Part 2: Sisterhood.

Photo credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simoes via Flickr.com

Happy Chinese New Year of the Horse!

This weekend, we saw in the Chinese New Year. The year of the water snake has come to an end and we welcome in the year of the horse.

Happily, the horse is a very literary animal so to honor the new year, I’m revisiting some of literature’s best horses.


Arthurian Legend secured the symbol of the horse as a faithful steed, a beast of strength and adventure. Works like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gave us noble horses that supported and stood beside their protagonists as sympathetic accomplices, bedecked in their masters’ colors.

Victorian England introduced another era of the horse, with Anna Sewell’s icon of the romance genre, Black Beauty. The horse now represented ideals of beauty and virtue in its own right. Black Beauty held his own as the protagonist of the novel and Sewell’s anthropomorphized character paved the way for many other animal-driven novels to follow.

This trend continued in North America well in to the twentieth century, with Mary O’Hara’s classic tale of man’s relationship to nature My Friend Flicka. Flicka and her owner Ken grow up together, forming a monumental bond second only to brothers-in-arms and first lovers.

American children’s literature appreciated the horse as a child’s friend, able to accompany the child through its changes and turmoils better than a human companion. The horse also somehow defined the American countryside, its challenges and freedoms.

Later, horses appeared in more avant garde works that challenged the traditional, sentimental view of the animal. Ted Hughes, famous for his graphic and dramatic animal poems, wrote often about the horses that populated his Yorkshire countryside, including in his short story The Rain Horse, in which a man is pursued by a strangely intelligent horse, who anticipates his every move.

War Horse is one of the latest iterations of the literary horse that looks set to continue the legacy. Based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse has strayed into many other media and now reigns over London’s West End brought to life by the mechanical puppetry of Handspring Puppet Company.

So, here’s to the horse, longtime faithful friend to writers. And in the absence of a Tuesday Writing Exercise, why not try your own anthropomorphic story? As these few examples show, the sympathetic creature-character can be a wonderful tool for shedding light on the human behavior that surrounds it.