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Pictures Worth 1,084,170 Words: The 'Harry Potter' Series, Illustrated

Hagrid, the trusty half-giant himself.
Hagrid, the trusty half-giant himself.

"Usually when you illustrate a book, you're working on something that nobody's read before," notes Jim Kay.

But when you get tapped to add the illustrations to new editions of the entire Harry Potter series, as Kay did, the situation is more than a little bit different.

"It took a long time to get over the sort of terrible panic which grabs you," Kay says, "because you don't want to ruin the most successful children's book franchise in history."

Harry Potter, crowded into the cupboard under the Dursleys' stairs.
Jim Kay / Courtesy of Bloomsbury
Harry Potter, crowded into the cupboard under the Dursleys' stairs.

It's a tall task indeed: Kay, an English artist, will be complementing the seven volumes of the boy wizard's adventures with illustrations of his own creation — hundreds of them, if the first book is any indication. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which was released earlier this year, features more than 100 of Kay's illustrations.

And Kay says it wasn't easy.

"This was straight out of my comfort zone. It was like wearing prickly pants for about two years," he says. "And it was just a case of throwing all ideas [at the wall], using any materials, everything from paints that you'd normally decorate the walls with to wax crayons, oil paintings, charcoal."

It wasn't just a matter of art materials. Much like the film adaptations, it was also a matter of casting.

"To cast it, I had to find real children, because these children age, you see, over seven years," he says. "And it's far easier for an illustrator to work from a real child, to watch how they grow old, to watch how they change in proportion."

In fact, Kay counted this aspect of his work as a boon — a means of reaching beyond his little studio in Kettering, England, where he works most days entirely in solitude.

"It's a very lonely profession, illustration," Kay says, "you're on your own all day every day. Harry Potter's been great, because I've met so many children, in just the past few months while attending book signings and things like that. And I keep thinking who I could use in the book, you know — 'Who could this be?' "

Getting out of the studio also helped lead him back to an important lesson, he says.

"If everybody thought of people as illustrators do, I think you'd appreciate the variety of shapes and sizes. You know, there's no such thing as beautiful or ugly; it's all interesting. It's usable, it's all valuable."

Listen to Jim Kay's full story at the audio link above.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Flourish & Blotts, the Diagon Alley spot where Harry buys his books.
Jim Kay / Courtesy of Bloomsbury
Flourish & Blotts, the Diagon Alley spot where Harry buys his books.