Sunday 6 April 2014

Where is the Illustrator?

There are many reasons why picture book authors are not successful in getting their manuscripts accepted by publishers. Often the main problem is that they did not give sufficient thought to the role of illustrator as co-creator of the finished book; unsuccessful writers give too much pictorial description that can be shown through illustration.

A writer needs to read her text with the eye of an illustrator, looking at each and every paragraph to consider what pictorial images might complement them. If she cannot imagine illustrations for each paragraph, then she can be said to have failed the illustrator ‘test’, and so she must re-write. Laura Harris, Publishing Manager Penguin Books says, ‘One of the main reasons picture book texts get rejected is that the writer doesn’t give the illustrator enough to work with.’

Successful picture book authors show they have an understanding of the value of every word in the picture book text and the huge importance of the role of the illustrator as the book’s co-creator.

Here’s what other publishers and illustrators have to say with regard to the use of illustrations in picture books


Elaine Ousten, publisher, Morris Publishing Australia: I advise picture book authors to do a storyboard to help them decide which part of the story needs to be in words, and which part of the story will be told by the illustrations.  For instance; it is not necessary for the words to say, ‘John got a huge, red ball for his birthday. He loved it.’ The picture will show that the ball is huge and red. All the words need to say is, ‘John loved the ball he got for his birthday.’ The best picture books are the ones written and illustrated by the same person, because they understand how to let the illustration tell a part of the story.

Paul Collins, publisher Ford Street Publishing: Picture book authors need to leave room for their collaborator: the illustrator! Illustrators show colours and much more, so authors’ descriptions needn't be so detailed. The best picture books are those where the author and illustrator are perfectly in synch.

Ann James, illustrator: To write a picture book the writer knows less is more, but that each word is potent and a cue for interpretation by the artist.

Shaun Tan, illustrator: I accept manuscripts ... that give much room for me to play and to tell my own stories visually, (that have) a certain ambiguity . . . that resist being fully explained.”

Ron Brooks, illustrator: To make a picture book, the words have to turn my heart around, make me go hollow in the belly, weak at the knees.”

Lesley Vamos, illustrator: Picture book authors should understand that as illustrators we are there to capture the vision of the world you've created. It is our job to infuse the text with the knowledge and skills we have gleamed from years of practice so when push comes to shove there needs to be room for us to do our job. I like it when picture book authors are enthusiastic, collaborative and know when to give their illustrators space. The best picture books don't talk down; they tell a great story with illustrations that visualise a world and inspire and enthuse a child's imagination!

Jill Carter-Hansen, illustrator: I like it when picture book authors acknowledge the contribution of research, preparation and work hours that is the in-put of the illustrator. The most thoughtful illustrators usually create clues and side plots to enliven the text and give added meaning and visual interest for both the child and adult reader. This genre is not called a 'picture' book for nothing. However, often in reviews, illustrations are mentioned at the close of the article as a kind of afterthought, with what appears to be a lack of understanding as to the amount of time and consideration that most engaging illustration work requires.

Kerry Millard, illustrator: I like a text to move minimally so that I can visually create extra layers and stories.The best picture books take best advantage of the imagination and skills of author and illustrator (and editor and designer) resulting in a whole which is true to the story and intent in every aspect, and at the same time is delighting in the seamless harmony of the variety of approaches through which the creators have interpreted and represented the text.

The work is a pas de deux which is elevated when author and illustrator are both able to create to their fullest potential while respecting and interpreting the core. The less restrictive the choreography, the more room there is for the talent of the creators.


In summary, the best picture books are created by authors who  know the illustrator will work their magic; the successful author uses the few words which they have distilled to convey rich and essential story elements and to creatively set up space and timing for equally rich possibilities in the visual elements. 

© Dianne Bates


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