Leaving Space for the Illustrator

Every time someone tells me they wrote or want to write a children’s book but can’t move forward because they don’t have an illustrator, I can’t help wondering how many would-be authors are stymied by the same misconception. There seems to be a mine field of false notions just waiting to blast inexperienced picture book writers out of the competition and many of them relate to the author-illustrator relationship. By understanding how traditional publishing works, writers can quickly become more effective at their craft and more likely to sell their work to an editor.

Picture books, perhaps more than any other form of children’s literature, are brought to life by a team of talented people. The expertise of each member of the team is called upon to raise the book to its highest potential. The author (master of words) writes a compelling story. The illustrator (master of art) then applies skill and creativity to draw their visual interpretation. But who puts the two together? The publishing house has a squad of trusted illustrators, each with their own brand of charm, and it is the editor (master of book creation) who decides which illustrator will have the greatest impact.

The fact that an author generally has no say in which artist is chosen often comes as a disturbing shock to novices who worry about losing control of their vision. Which brings me to another misconception: the illustrator is hired to depict the author’s words. Not true. In reality illustrators contribute equally to the creative process, a point that significantly shapes the writing process.

A picture book is unlike a novel in one very particular way—the writer only tells half of the story. Yes, half. The illustrator tells the other half. Therefore, a picture book writer must foster the craft of telling a good story and yet cleverly leaving space for the illustrator. Space for visual surprises! This usually means avoiding descriptions, focusing on plot-driven verbs and strong character development. And making every word count.

By thinking of a picture book manuscript like a poem—the bare essentials of the story told through brief but captivating prose—a writer’s first draft will naturally have a lower word count, saving them from desperately trying to trim down later. With editors currently seeking word counts under 500, a tight first draft gives a savvy writer a head start.

Here’s a helpful exercise: Pick up a contemporary picture book and transcribe the text into a word document. Format it like a poem with the lines for each page shown as a stanza so it can be read aloud with the appropriate breaks. Stripping away the illustrations offers a clear look at exactly what the author wrote—and what he or she didn’t write. Now cover the text in the book with sticky notes so only the illustrations can be seen. Look for distinct elements of the story “told” by the illustrator through their art. Not sure which picture books to examine? Check out the New York Public Library list of Kid’s Books.

While picture book writers are off the hook when it comes to finding illustrators, they may be left with an even more challenging task. To carefully craft their half of the story and then release their proprietary hold on the manuscript and trust the editor’s choice of illustrator. If the stars align, the result is pure magic!