It’s often said that great writing can paint a picture in the reader’s head. That doesn’t mean, however, that images are redundant in great books. For some novels, the opposite is true: through judicious use of illustrations, great authors are able to create a more complete work of fiction.
Illustrated novels are less common these days than they once were, but there are still great ones being published. We’ve chosen great classics and modern illustrated novels alike to fill this list of top-notch illustrated novels. Check them out below, and chime in with your own suggestions in the comments!
It used to be totally normal to include illustrations in literary novels, and a few of the novels on this list hail from illustrating’s 1800s and 1900s heyday. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with its wonderful depictions of fantastic events, is one of these classics. Carroll’s descriptions are compelling on their own, but the pictures add to the novel’s fanciful tone.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s bold second novel used color and illustrations to create a highly visual experience. Foer builds a multimedia experience by allowing readers to see the images and documents that his child protagonist collects. The result is one of the most important works ever written about 9/11.
The partnership of Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman is one of the greatest to ever exist between writer and illustrator. Steadman’s wild illustrations are the perfect partner to Thompson’s frenetic prose. Their work is forever connected in the minds of readers everywhere thanks to Thompson’s magnum opus, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
André Breton’s surrealist romance is highly experimental, including in its use of images. The included photographs of places and things can seem random at first, but each helps Breton convey the feeling of his nonlinear story. The novel was written in French, but the images are universal to readers of all languages.
Charles Dickens’ Victorian novels were always accompanied by illustrations. In fact, the original cover of Oliver Twist was covered in a dozen small illustrated panels. Dickens is a master storyteller, and his clever descriptions pair well with the often comic images.
We mentioned earlier in this list that illustrated novels were once the norm in literature. Italian author Umberto Eco played with that in his excellent novel The Prague Cemetery. Set in the mid-1800s and featuring a cast that includes real-life French author Alexandre Dumas, the book uses illustrations as a way to set the tone and recall the style of 1800s novels.
Mark Twain is one of the authors on this list that worked at a time when illustrating novels was common practice. Few novels benefited from the technique as much as Twain’s Roughing It, a fantastic travel novel and comedy about Twain’s experiences in the American West. The illustrations tend to highlight the more absurd moments in Twains semi-true story.
The images in Slaughterhouse-Five are an extension of the story. They were hand-drawn by Vonnegut himself to supplement his story, and their simple style and careful selection complete the tone and substance of the novel. Vonnegut even ends his book with one of his images.
Jack Finney’s novel is about an advertising artist, so it only makes sense that images are included. Finney’s protagonist travels back in time to 1882, and the reader’s imagination is aided with historical photographs of the era. Time and Again would have been a unique work in any era, but its extensive use of illustrations stands out particularly among modern novels.
Treasure Island is one of those classic adventure stories that just wouldn’t feel right without images. Robert Louis Stevenson’s iconic pirate adventure was written within the era of common illustrations, and the novel makes great use of them. Reading a copy with the original images, you’ll wish that novels were still expected to be be illustrated.
Main image: From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Stephen Lovely, writer