A (Quickie) Random Illustrator Feature: Alison Lester

h1 July 6th, 2011 by jules


“Perhaps Zelda was too old for such a hard journey, thought Nina. She bit her lip and led Zelda to the stream, where the horse drank deeply and picked at the water grass. ‘Come on, girl,’ Nina whispered. ‘Please be strong.'”

Alison Lester. Evidently, she’s one of the most popular and well-read author-illustrators in Australia. Her work is new to me, though. Since you know I like to focus on international illustrators when I can, I thought I’d shine the spotlight on some illustrations from her newest title, at least here in the States. Released this February by NorthSouth but originally published in Australia in 2009 (seven cheers for these publishers who bring us these over-the-seas imports), Running with the Horses is a text-heavy picture book (Publishers Weekly writes it has “the sweep of a novel”), which tells the war-time drama of a young girl and her widower of a father fleeing from their home in Vienna. Actually, we only know that they “lived in a palace that stood in the heart of a graceful old city,” but the book’s closing author’s note tells us that the story was inspired by the rescue of the Lipizzaner stallions from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna during World War II.

Nina lives with Viktor, her father, and they flee with Karl, an old family friend, soon after the story begins. Everything has closed, including the Royal Academy of Dancing Horses where Nina and her father live, due to the “war raging across the world.” Nina’s favorite old carriage horse, Zelda, is left abandoned in the street. When they must suddenly leave for her grandparents’ home, she is determined to bring Zelda along. The story chronicles their dangerous journey through the city, pass borders, through forests, over a bridge with a “yawning hole {gaping} above the ravine,” through the snow, and more. Zelda almost doesn’t make it, but determined Nina makes sure the horse stays with them.

“Lester,” writes Publishers Weekly, “draws humans and horses as doll-like figures in {black-and-white}, then places them against luxuriously colored, theatrically scaled backdrops, giving the illustrations the curious feel of a puppet performance.” Indeed, with such drawings in front of these dramatic backdrops—often actual photographs—the illustrations inhabit a rather three-dimensional quality.

But, since the art speaks louder than my words (and I have a manuscript deadline giving me the skunk eye), here are some more spreads from the book. Enjoy.


“A long time ago, a young girl named Nina lived in a palace that stood in the heart of a graceful old city. The palace was home to the Royal Academy of Dancing Horses, where Nina’s father, Viktor, was the stable master…”


“After she packed her clothes in her satchel, she picked up the little blue horse her mother had embroidered for her, wrapped it in a woolen shawl, and pushed it deep among her clothes. There was no room for anything else in her bag.”


“Nina closed her eyes and imagined herself and Zelda in the Great Riding Hall. She saw the cheering audience, the glittering chandeliers, and the dazzling spotlights.
Nina was riding like her mother, as light as a summer butterfly.
She could hear the soaring violins, the cellos, the drums. . . .”


“Suddenly Zelda stumbled and fell in the snow. Nina scrambled off her back. ‘Get up, Zelda! Get up!’ … Nina looked hard at her father. ‘We can’t desert Zelda now,’
she pleaded. ‘She saved our lives.'”

* * * * * * *

RUNNING WITH THE HORSES. Images copyright © 2009 by Alison Lester. American adaptation copyright © 2011. Images reproduced by permission of the publisher, NorthSouth Books, New York.

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8 comments to “A (Quickie) Random Illustrator Feature: Alison Lester”

  1. wow this book looks amazing! i ordered it straightaway from amazon! thanks for sharing it!


  2. Hi, Julie! I love Alison Lester! I added a link to this post to a collection of resources for readers reading picture books set in countries around the world this summer: http://www.inlinkz.com/wpview.php?id=55708 If you have another favorite post about an international author, it would be great to have you add a link. Best, Amy


  3. SO MUCH emotion in that last piece especially, a really beautiful feature, Jules! So great to “meet” Alison Lester, I can’t wait to get my hands on this book.


  4. Holy Moly, that last image was a cliffhanger. I must find of what happens next. I must.


  5. Beeeeyooootiful! That cover would stop me in a bookstore. I bet a lot of little girls-who-love-horses will be thrilled with this wartime adventure. And I really like the idea of a picture book with the sweep of a novel. Thanks for sharing!


  6. Awesome to see an Australian illustrator featured! Such emotive images. Thanks for sharing, Jules!


  7. At home, we’ve read one of her book – ‘Are we there yet?’ – an wonderful travelogue-kindof book about Australia. We loved it.

    The illustrations shown here are wow!.


  8. I love the drawings in the actual book. I draw them and am going to paint a picture of it. Love the story as well very sad and dramatic. Georgeous story.


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