Storybook Fantasies: 10 Classic Children’s Fairy Tale Illustrators

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In a world where it’s not uncommon for children to own electronic devices that are far superior to the phones the rest of us have been holding together with duct tape until our next paycheck, International Children’s Book Day is a beacon of hope. The celebration honors the import role reading plays in healthy child development, aiming to instill a lifelong love of printed works for young bookworms across the world. The event coincides with Hans Christian Andersen‘s birthday — the Danish author whose fairy tale gems like The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina, and The Snow Queen have delighted the minds and hearts of readers big and small.

Children’s storybook illustrators have been bringing the tales of Andersen and other authors to life for eons, offering an imaginative entryway into each fable’s unique universe — many of the artworks now inseparable from the books. With this in mind, we wanted to share the incredible creations of several famed fairy tale illustrators. Click through for more, and tell us who captures your imagination most in the comments section.

Vilhelm Pedersen

The first person to illustrate the works of Hans Christian Andersen was Danish artist Vilhelm Pedersen — a naval officer who had a way with drawing. When the two met, Andersen’s writing was celebrated throughout Europe, and his popularity had soared thanks to help from several successful poems and rubbing elbows with the likes of Charles Dickens and other famous faces. Pedersen’s talents arrived on scene in 1849, and he was asked to illustrate a new, five volume collection that would include 125 drawings. They worked together for the next ten years, and today it’s hard to imagine an Andersen story without the delicate linework of Pedersen completing the picture.

Jessie Wilcox Smith

Although she became known for her magazine illustrations for early editions of Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping, Philadelphia artist Jessie Wilcox Smith’s most beloved works are the children’s fairy tales she composed. Smith was the second of only a handful of women to be inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Society of Illustrators. Her work is a gorgeous blend of painterly cherubic children and whimsical fantasy.

John Tenniel

British artist John Tenniel is best remembered for his illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. The part-time political cartoonist well known at the time for his work in Punch magazine was hired by the author for an 1865 edition of Alice. Tenniel’s works were engraved for woodcut printing, but the artist shelved the first run due to its poor quality. The second attempt became a smash hit, however, and secured his fame for life. The delicate, intricately hatched drawings became the basis for how future generations would see Alice — blue dress, white pinafore, blonde hair, and all.

Arthur Rackham

It’s impossible to discuss the beauty of storybook illustration without talking about the work of English artist Arthur Rackham. His haunting, dreamlike style enchants and embellishes the fantasies contained within children’s tales in magical and exciting ways. Rackham’s colored ink washes, finely lined drawings, and stormy color palette have helped animate the works of Shakespeare and John Milton — but his fairy tale artwork for stories like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are wondrous.

Gustave Doré

French engraver extraordinaire Gustave Doré was a tireless illustrator who contributed his talents to over 200 books, some containing hundreds of detailed, exquisite plates. His children’s storybook works were mainly created for Charles Perrault’s fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood and Puss in Boots — illustrations that rivaled his “adult” stories such as Paradise Lost and The Raven. Doré didn’t shy away from showing the darker side of life, and that extended to his children’s illustrations — honoring their grim roots. Doré’s Red Riding Hood doesn’t need to depict gory details to retain a sinister edge. His dark, inky works speak for themselves.

John Bauer

Swedish painter and illustrator John Bauer is best known for his artwork in fairy tale annual Bland tomtar och troll (Among Gnomes and Trolls), and has been an influence to other artists on our list such as Arthur Rackham. The yearly publication began in 1907, but Bauer became a noted talent in the 1912-1915 editions. Contemporaries like Brian Froud — who worked on Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s Dark Crystal and Labyrinth — undoubtedly appreciated Bauer’s ability to capture the humorously grotesque, yet oddly elegant portrayal of trolls and other monsters.

Image scan credit: George P. Landow

Henry J. Ford

Best known for his work on Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books — a 12-volume collection of children’s tales that brought international, oral folklore to print (in many cases for the first time ever) — illustrator Henry J. Ford depicted gazing, dreaming figures and creative borders and backgrounds.

Kay Nielsen

You may recognize the works of Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen who contributed artworks to the “Ave Maria” and “Night on Bald Mountain” sequences of Fantasia, as well as concept paintings for the Mickey Mouse studio. The artist’s fairy tale commissions appear closer to fine art paintings with European folkloric touches than straightforward illustration.

Ivan Bilibin

Drawing inspiration from Slavic folklore, traditional Japanese art, and Russian fairy tales, artist Ivan Bilibin focused his talents on stories where his imagination could run wild. After seeing an exhibit of Viktor Vasnetsov’s mythological and historical paintings, Bilibin was drawn to Russia’s past and earliest legends. Old Russian landscapes, and traditional designs and costuming uniquely combined real-life qualities and fabled lore.

Virginia Frances Sterrett

Still a teenager — and suffering from tuberculosis — a 19-year-old Virginia Frances Sterrett set out to illustrate a collection of five timeless French fairy tales written by Sophie Rostopchine, Comtesse De Segur. It was Sterrett’s first book, and the dramatic artworks proved that despite her failing health, she was full of imagination and purpose — finding beauty in the world she couldn’t fully embrace. “Oriental-inspired” designs were popular during the 1920s, and Sterrett incorporated the aesthetic into her delicately beautiful creations.