How to Trust and Allow Space for the Picture Book Illustrator • by Natascha Biebow

Trust

As a
picture book writer, I often wish I had the talent of those author/ illustrators
who can write and illustrate. They
have a superpower in that they can mix and match the words and pictures, adding
layers and making choices to balance out the story so it is just right.



 



But, if
you’re ‘just’ a writer, you have to allow space for the illustrator and then
sit back and wait for the layouts to unfold into a fully-formed picture book
that is just right. It’s an exercise in trust and letting go. The results are
often hugely gratifying, but it can be a scary process.



 



Will the
illustrator capture the author’s vision?



What if
they miss a key element or get it ‘wrong’?



 



The
temptation can be to want to take control and to over-write or art-direct with
illustration notes.



 



In
traditional publishing, authors work with a skilled team – a designer and an
editor, and sometimes also the publisher and art director – who are incredibly
experienced and knowledgeable in the art of making picture books. They help to
pull together all the elements to create a seamless picture book that will captivate
young readers. A lot of time, careful thought and revision goes into this
process, including choosing the right illustrator for each story.



 



What’s
interesting is that often illustrators add whole new storylines in the pictures
– Pippa Goodhart recently
blogged about this in her ‘The Joy of Visual
Sub-Plots’ post. These sub-plots are filled with lots of fabulous details to
spot and mini-storylines to follow, making the book one to which young readers
will return to again and again.



 



Something
else spectacular often happens, though, when authors let go of their words and
create space for illustrators:



 



Layers and Depth

Layers
and depth!



 



The
layers are created when illustrators springboard off the text to imagine the story
on the page – the key plot turning points, the setting and the characters, complete
with individual personalities. Illustrators deepen the themes by attributing to
them a visual representation, making them accessible and relevant to young
readers, who are often astute visual thinkers.



 



Interpreting
Themes:



 

When You Are Brave by Pat Zietlow Miller and Eliza Wheeler



WHEN YOU
ARE BRAVE: Pat Zietlow Miller and Eliza Wheeler is the story of being brave
when you have to do things in life that you’re much rather not do. The author’s
words for the opening:



 



“Some days, when everything around you seems
scary,



you have to be brave.



 



“Brave as a bird that steps from its nest .
. .



hoping to soar through the sky.



 



“Brave as a dog that wanders for miles . . .



searching for a well-known light.



 



“Brave as a caterpillar that builds a bed .
. .



wondering where it will wake.



 



Because some days are full of things you’d
rather not do.”

 



These phrases could have been illustrated in so many different ways. Eliza
Wheeler depicts the situation as a girl’s family moving home

 

From When You Are Brave by Pat Zietlow Miller and Eliza Wheeler

From When You Are Brave by Pat Zietlow Miller and Eliza Wheeler

 

and creates a
neat segue between the metaphorical, lyrical words by illustrating a physical
bird, dog, and caterpillar as the girl’s precious stuffed toys. Thus, Eliza helps
to make the abstract more concrete and relatable for young readers.

 

From When You Are Brave by Pat Zietlow Miller and Eliza Wheeler


 



In THE
TRUTH ACCORDING TO ARTHUR by Tim Hopgood,
David Tazzyman must depict what a completely
abstract character (The Truth) looks like and give it a personality. 

 

The Truth According to Arthur by Tim Hopgood and David Tazzyman.

He deftly imagines
the situations in which the boy bends, stretches, ignores and covers up The Truth.

 


The Truth According to Arthur by Tim Hopgood and David Tazzyman.

The Truth According to Arthur by Tim Hopgood and David Tazzyman.



 



In I AM
NEFERTITI by Annemarie Anang, Natelle Quek also artfully captures an abstract
element – music.

 

I Am Nefertiti by Annemarie Anang and Natelle Quek

 

Natelle shows how the band feels and sounds when it makes music
that is discordant and harmonious, even adding different colours for each
instrument.

 

 From I Am Nefertiti by Annemarie Anang and Natelle Quek



The main character, Nefertiti,
is the drummer, who keeps the all-important beat in the band. But when her teacher shortens her name to ‘Nef’ because it’s easier to
pronounce, something shrinks inside her – both literally and figuratively.
In order
to make this idea accessible to young readers, Natelle needed to show
Nefertiti’s physical transformation as well as how it felt. To convey this, she
positioned the main character tiny amongst the looming drums:

 

 From I Am Nefertiti by Annemarie Anang and Natelle Quek





Characters
& Their Worlds :



 



I AM NEFERTITI is a story about identity and belonging; the multicultural,
diverse cast of band members is intrinsic to the narrative. Working from the
starting point of the author’s text (just the characters' names and their instruments),
the illustrator and editorial and design team worked closely together to
envision what each child should look like:



 

 From I Am Nefertiti by Annemarie Anang and Natelle Quek



In James
Catchpole’s WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU?, Karen George also creates an authentic group
of children, and sets them in the playground, cleverly juxtaposing the real
with the imaginary using blocks of solid colour.

 

What Happened to You? by James Catchpole and Karen George

 





The main
character, Joe, says, “And there are sharks down here, too.



They
especially like to eat pirates.”



 



If you
look closely at this scene, Karen George adds all the drama of different
children’s reactions to the pretend play in their well-observed expressions
and body language. This is intuited in the dialogue between Joe and the curious
children, but not written explicitly into the text. It is more powerful this
way.

 

From What Happened to You? by James Catchpole and Karen George
 





In LAST
STOP ON MARKET STREET by Matt de la
Peña
and Christian Robinson
, a boy sets out on a bus journey with
his grandma.

 

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña
and Christian Robinson

Readers are introduced to the people they meet, among them, a blind man and
guide dog, a musician, and a woman with butterflies in a jar. The illustrator
has to decide: what kind of dog? What ages, ethnicities and backgrounds will the
people be? What should they wear? How will young readers engage with the
pictures. Will they see themselves and their backgrounds represented? And so
much more!



 



Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña
and Christian Robinson

 



Similarly,
in MY DADDIES! by Gareth Peter, the illustrator, Garry Parsons, imagines what
this family looks like and how they act and react in each scene. 

 

My Daddies! by Gareth Peter and Garry Parsons



 



The
illustrator must imagine situations to best convey the layers and flesh out the
accompanying words. For instance:



 



“They’re
not the best at everything . . .



 



(one dad is not a particularly good artist)



 



but I
don’t really care.”



 



(one dad is not a particularly good cook)


 

From My Daddies! by Gareth Peter and Garry Parsons




 



It’s
almost as if the words are ‘coming true’.

 

Especially
poignant, is the double-paged spread, where the child’s adoption story is
lovingly imagined and portrayed from babyhood to new, two-dad family home.



 

From My Daddies! by Gareth Peter and Garry Parsons




The
illustrator is essentially adding a 3-D version of the author’s words,
envisioning the child’s adoption journey and the family’s home life, and making
it feel real and relatable to every young reader.   



 

The Bad Seed by Jory John and Pete Oswald



In THE
BAD SEED by Jory John, Pete Oswald envisions what a ‘bad’ seed might look like:

 



From The Bad Seed by Jory John and Pete Oswald



And what the seed might do when lying:

 

From The Bad Seed by Jory John and Pete Oswald



 



Or in
which situation the seed might cut in line:



 

From The Bad Seed by Jory John and Pete Oswald
 



And what
other bad things the seed might do:

 

From The Bad Seed by Jory John and Pete Oswald
 



And what the seed might do when turned nice:

 

From The Bad Seed by Jory John and Pete Oswald



 



In
essence, Pete Oswald has envisioned the ‘bad’ seed’s entire world and background, and made
important choices about how to convey the emotional journey of the main
character as readers turn the pages. This isn’t written into the author’s words
per se, but as a finished picture book, it is so much richer with the illustrator’s
contributions.



 



Finally,
sometimes, the layers and depth of the message emerge in the form of a visual
punchline, such as in SUSAN LAUGHS by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross. 

 

Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross

In this
book, the space evoked by the words is filled with the pictures of Susan
enjoying life just as any able-bodied child might. The detail in the pictures adds context about Susan's family, friends, and the activities she enjoys - for example "Susan flies" could have been interpreted in many different ways!

 

From Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross

The final page shows Susan
is in her wheelchair, and together with the preceding images, a picture of the
whole suddenly emerges – Susan as a child just like every other.



 



From Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross

 



 

Next
time, you’re tempted to be wordy, to add too much description, or even to
over-art-direct a book, have faith. Think: could the illustrator add those
layers? Time to trust! 


Trust

 

It’s totally worth it, and you’ll end up with a richer
book as a result.

 


_________________________________________________________________



Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor, Coach and Mentor





Natascha is the author of the award-winning The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons,
illustrated by Steven Salerno, winner of the Irma Black Award for
Excellence in Children's Books, and selected as a best STEM Book 2020.
Editor of numerous prize-winning books, she runs

Blue Elephant Storyshaping,
an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering
writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission, and is
the Editorial Director for Five Quills. Find out about her new picture book webinar courses!
She is Co-Regional
Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles.
Find her at www.nataschabiebow.com









 







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