Whenever I speak about writing picture books to aspiring authors, I leave time for questions at the end.
Almost always, the first question I get is: “Do you get to choose who your illustrator is?”
And, when I answer that, no, I do not, there’s an immediate follow-up: “But … what if … YOU DON’T LIKE THE ART?”
Often, the person asking the question looks shocked. Certainly concerned. So I try my best to explain.
I usually say something like: “Well, writing a picture book is a collaboration. I write the words, but that’s only half the story. The art provides the other half. And, when I was creating my half, the illustrator wasn’t hanging over my shoulder offering suggestions about my plot or telling me where I should add a comma, so I return the favor by staying out of their space while they’re illustrating.”
There are usually more follow-up questions along the lines of: “OK, but you at least put illustration notes in the text so they’ll know what to draw, right?”
Well, no. Most of my manuscripts have no illustration notes at all. It’s not my job to tell the illustrator what to draw any more than it’s their job to tell me what to write.
Sometimes, people want to argue with me about this as I try to move on to other topics. If I had unlimited time and a soapbox to stand on, this is what I’d say:
- Traditional publishers have access to the most talented illustrators around the world. I’ve had people from the United States, Switzerland, England and South Korea illustrate books I’ve written. I never could have connected with these folks myself.
- Publishers have the means to choose the right illustrator for your story. Art directors are masters at matching the right style of art to the story you wrote. That means, with each book, I get to connect with a new talented person. Sometimes, we interact a lot. Sometimes, it’s just a little, but it’s always fun.
- Publishers also have the means to fairly pay these awesomely talented people to take a story and elevate it to an entirely new level. Illustrators don’t just draw images to match what you wrote. They tell a supporting story that’s only shown in the art. They add depth and meaning to the words.
- I cannot even draw well enough to win a game of Pictionary, much less envision and create the art for a fully realized picture book.
- So WHY would I possibly assume that I should be telling this professional what to do?
Another follow-up question I get is: “Have you ever not liked the art for one of your picture books?”
This one makes me want to sigh. All the artists I’ve partnered with have been superbly talented people who do this for a living. My favorite part of the book-creation process is seeing how they perceive my words and choose to bring them to life.
The only time I have suggested changes to the sketches were once when there was a small factual error in one part of the art, and once when I was confused by a page and how it fit logically with something that came before.
In every case, the illustrators have added so much to my books. Here are just a few examples:
Eliza Wheeler created a brand-new, moving-related storyline in WHEN YOU ARE BRAVE that is never mentioned in the text. And, her endpaper art is gorgeous. She also drew the most engaging rabbit I’ve every see in WHEREVER YOU GO along with some seriously cool landscapes that are at once classic and futuristic.
Anne Wilsdorf made a butternut squash something kids wanted to love and added a pet cat to SOPHIE’S SQUASH that is never mentioned in my story. How important is that cat? I still have kids asking me what its name is. (I tell them they get to name it!)
Jen Hill drew the neighborhood I wish I lived in for BE KIND and created a main character that some people perceive as a girl and others as a boy. This was intentional. She wanted to show anyone could be kind. (I wrote the story in first person, so the character’s gender is not reflected in my words.)
Daniel Wiseman figured out how to make a baby look like a duck and a human in MY BROTHER THE DUCK. He also amped up the book’s humor with puns and jokes in the art.
Patrice Barton drew a delightfully diverse cast of kids for REMARKABLY YOU and added unexpected backgrounds and layers to her art. I still notice new things when I look at it.
And, I just saw the initial sketches for SOMEDAY SOON, a book coming in 2022 from Roaring Brook Press. Suzy Lee is the illustrator, and when I finished looking at her not-even-final art, I was choked up. And, I mean, I already knew how the book ended. It’s not like it was a surprise.
My husband, who loves me, saw Suzy’s art and said: “Your story’s really good and everything, but this art is just …. WOW.” And I wasn’t even offended, because it is. And when I saw it, my first thought was:
Any success this book has is going to be because of this art.
Even if I’d used all the illustration notes in the world, I never could have come up with the creative approach Suzy did. (And, there are die-cuts. Die-cuts!)
So, my advice in a nutshell to aspiring picture book writers is this:
Write the absolute best story you can.
Then, get out of the way and trust your illustrator to create something more awesome than you ever could have envisioned.
That’s their job, and they do it well.