Thursday, January 13, 2011

Illustrations--The Other Half of the Story

JUST THE FACTS PLEASE: The Basics of Picture Books
Thursday, January 13—Illustrations—The Other Half of the Story

When I first told some of my work colleagues I had a picture book deal they said, “I didn’t know you drew pictures.” These friends (all teachers) didn’t even think about the story in the book—they just thought of the beauty of the illustrations. No one can underestimate the importance of the illustrations in picture books. Face it, they’re called picture books!

Even the highest award for picture books, the Caldecott Medal, goes to the illustrator of the most distinguished American picture book for children. If you never checked out the Caldecott section at a book store or library, you should. You will gain a new appreciation for the high quality of art—the masterpieces—featured in picture books. See a complete list of Caldecott award-winning books and honor books at:

I spend a lot of time teaching children how to add details to their writing, or as we say: “Draw a picture in your reader’s mind.” If I wrote novels, I would still be in the business of using words to create pictures in the minds of my readers. Not so with picture books. While we often talk about “show-not-tell” , picture book writers don’t show (or tell) anything that an illustrator can depict.

To "illustrate" what I mean, think of a familiar nursery rhyme:

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children she didn’t know what to do.

These two sentences—which are quite descriptive—leave tons of room for the illustrator who can choose the shoe to be a rain boot, tennis shoe, or a stiletto. As far as those troublesome kids, the illustrator can depict an endless number of desperate scenes depicting the problems of an overcrowded shoe. This is the kind of balance a writer and an illustrator try to achieve.

What advice would illustrators give to picture book writers? Well, two of my illustrator friends were itching to share their wisdom!

Illustrator and author, Janeen Mason offers these suggestions to picture book writers:
1)  We all intuitively speak that long forgotten language of childhood. Remember your powerful feelings: extreme happiness, sadness, embarrassment, etc.? Write a picture book manuscript with great heart and you'll rekindle those emotions down the line. The lucky illustrator who receives your manuscript will instantly experience that language made live again. If she/he can fall in love with your story the work of illustrating it becomes a labor of love, and ultimately your book will be enjoyed over and over by your readers—where the language of childhood enjoys itself eternally.  
2)  When your manuscript is finished, map it out in frames—visually. You're never going to show these sketches to anyone, so it doesn't matter if you can't draw. This exercise is to determine whether your 32 pages (or 16 spreads) provide change of scenery. It is very difficult for an illustrator to take on a project with only dialogue—the art will feature talking heads in the same room. Not much visual stimulation there. By completing this exercise you'll be able to tell at a glance if you need to make corrections.
3)  Remember that we illustrate verbs—not nouns.
4)  Word count is so important in picture books. You'll want to edit out adjectives like blue sky, and red roses—unless, of course, you're writing a book about color. Remember this is a collaboration where the author gets thoughts, feelings, taste, touch, smell, and the illustrator gets color and setting. (Visit Janeen’s web site at

Illustrator, Lisa Michaels, provides the following tips:
1)   Be mindful of page breaks.  When you think you are finished polishing your manuscript, try breaking it into pages.
2)  Tighten your manuscript. Tightening to the bare minimum will not only increase your chances for publication, it will also make your illustrator’s job easier.
3)  Illustrator notes are a must when you wish to convey imperative information to your illustrator. For example, let’s say your story is about a child in a wheelchair. You might not mention that in the text but it would be absolutely necessary to mention in illustrator notes.
4)  Carefully chosen words can really pack a punch for your illustrator! For example, your text could read, “The chair was warm and inviting.” But look what happens to the vision and emotion when you switch it up. “The chair reminded her of Grandma hugging her close.”
(Lisa will be sharing more info in future posts. In the meantime, check out her web site at

1.     Pull out your favorite picture books (or go visit them in your local book store or library). Today, don’t read the words. Just soak in the images. See how much of the story you can understand just by looking at the work of an illustrator.
2.     Take the tips from our guest illustrators to heart. Examine the manuscript on which you are working and see how you can make it tighter and write so an illustrator can do his/her magic!


Heather at My Coupon Coop said...

Informative post, Rob! Every time you or Lisa open your mouths (in an internet kind of way) I learn something. And Janeen is wonderful, too. "Remember that we illustrate verbs—not nouns." I didn't know that! :)

Rob Sanders said...

Thanks, Heather! Great to hear from you! Janeen and Lisa are both so talented . . . and to top it all off, their wonderful people, too! Great combination, don't you think?!

laura brown said...

Rob thanks for the great information!

Christie Wright Wild said...

Sometimes I read so fast that my eyes simply skip over the pictures. What a terrible waste. I find that when I slow down and pause between pages, the experience is so much more enjoyable. There's more humor, more understanding, more suspense, and more emotion. Definitely take time to soak in the illustrations!