4 Amazing Illustrated Novels for Adults

How do we learn to read? For many, picture books are the foundation of our reading skills. We look at the illustrations and follow the stories of Harry the Dirty Dog or the Very Hungry Caterpillar or Alexander and his Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The drawings and paintings enhance the tales told in the text running along the bottom of the pages.

As we grow older, our reading material comes with fewer pictures. Perhaps encouraging us to use our own imaginations to add illustrations, or perhaps, believing that adult readers no longer need pictures with their stories.

There are authors out there who believe otherwise. And yes, they even write for adults.

Any grown-up reader wondering where the pictures are should page through these books, fiction and nonfiction and recall a time when words and pictures were an essential reading combination.

Jack Finney uses historic photographs and illustrations from Old New York to embellish the deft blend of romance, science fiction, and mystery in the classic 1970 illustrated novel, Time and Again. The plot: Advertising sketch artist Si Morley is sent back to the New York of 1882. The U.S. government is funding a secret time travel project and if Si can travel easily between time periods, the project’s directors are planning to use him to alter major world events that could cause his own demise, as well as that of the “old-fashioned girl” he’s fallen in love with. Finney finds woodcuts, tintype photos, and newspaper illustrations to capture a world that no longer exists – or does it?

Readers who want a spookier adventure in illustrations should pick up Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. Vintage photographs of children in odd costumes, supposed ghostly apparitions, and unusual shadows and landscapes add to the quirky tale of a crumbling orphanage on a remote island off the coast of Wales. While exploring and researching the abandoned children’s home, Jacob begins to suspect the supposedly long dead inhabitants may still be alive. (Preview the first three chapters.)

An illustrated novel can also tell the story of a break-up. That’s what Leanne Shapton does in her highly original Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. Using photographs of ordinary, everyday objects, Shapton traces the course of a doomed relationship: how Harold and Lenore met, fell in love, and ultimately, parted ways. Readers in relationships will look at their own possessions in a different light.

It’s not uncommon to see illustrations in non-fiction, particularly memoirs, however, Amy Krouse Rosenthal structures her memoir like an encyclopedia. Her Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life has alphabetical entries that describe significant elements and situations in her life, such as deaths of loved ones and also mundane objects and places such as the car wash or sandwiches. Rosenthal also relies on reproductions of letters, notes, and official forms to supplement the idiosyncratic catalog of her life, observations, and conclusions.

What about you? What are your favorite illustrated books worth a thousand words -- and then some?


About the Author

Kaite Stover

Kaite Mediatore Stover is the Readers Services Manager at the Kansas City Public Library. She is a regular guest on KCUR's Book Doctors segment and moderator of The Kansas City Star’s FYI Book Club. She can tap dance, read tarot cards, and doesn’t bite.

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