I recently celebrated my 20th anniversary as a children’s book editor. (Still loving it as much as ever!) One of the questions I am still asked most often is why an author and illustrator so rarely collaborate directly. Why WOULDN’T it be a great thing for the two creative parents to discuss and brainstorm? Why don’t I encourage lengthy Skype chats about their amazing book-to-be? What’s up with those control-freak publishers anyway?!
Most people assume the worst: surely author and illustrator are kept apart so the publishers can hold all the cards, hoard all the power. But I am here to tell you this couldn’t be further from the truth! The reason editors and art directors keep the wordsmith separate from the artist is to allow for maximum inspiration and creative freedom on BOTH sides. Authors needn’t weigh down their manuscripts with descriptions of scenery or characters, and illustrators are allowed unencumbered freedom to conjure with paintbrush or pixels the story’s characters and surroundings without trying to match an author’s vision of them.
I’d like to share three very recent examples of how well it can work out when an author trusts an illustrator and refuses to define how a character should look or how a plot should unfold visually:
- When Tara Lazar sent in her hilarious picture book manuscript for NORMAL NORMAN, in which a scientist attempts to pin down a definition for the word “normal,” I needled her to tell me more. Who exactly is this scientist? And who—or what—is Norman?? But Tara could not be persuaded—she had complete faith that illustrator Stephan Britt (AKA S.britt) would know exactly what to do with the scientist narrator and his or her mysterious test subject. It was fascinating to see Stephan experiment.
First Norman looked a bit like a lion.
Then he looked more like a friendly monster.
Finally Stephan found exactly the right Norman.
Who knew he would be a purple orangutan in square-frame glasses?!
And much to our surprise, the scientist turned out to be a young Latina girl in black Mary Janes and a stylish bob. This certainly would NOT have been the case had Tara (or art director Merideth Harte or I) attempted to sway Stephan in some definite direction.
- Tammi Sauer is another author who very rarely includes illustration notes in her manuscripts. When I acquired YOUR ALIEN, I asked Tammi what the lost extraterrestrial in her story might look like, and all she would say is that she hoped it would be so adorable that readers everywhere would wish for an alien to crash land in THEIR front yards.
By giving illustrator Goro Fujita complete carte blanche to imagine the cutest alien in the whole universe, Tammi got exactly what she’d hoped for. See for yourself!
- My final example of an author bravely allowing an illustrator’s inspiration to take the driver’s seat is Kim Norman and her charming THIS OLD VAN, sung to the tune of “This Old Man.”
.Not only did she boldly leave wide open what exactly the characters should look like . . . she also left the entire ending up for grabs! In this rollicking picture book road trip, a pair of hippie grandparents receive a very important invitation from their grandson. Soon they are zipping cross-country in their trusty old van, which must deliver them to their destination in time for The Big Event. But WHAT IS THAT EVENT?, I kept asking Kim. She assured me that illustrator Carolyn Conahan would come up with something PERFECT, but I was too anxious. Surely an illustrator would want some guidance from the author on something as crucial as the ending, wouldn’t she?? Reluctantly, at my insistence, Kim brainstormed a few ideas—perhaps the grandson was starring in the school play or had a big solo in a recital? Carolyn wisely ignored the illustration notes and surprised us with a grand finale so clever that any alternative is unthinkable now: of course the grandson is racing his own miniature version of the old van in the Downhill Derby!
For those of you writing picture books, I challenge you to leave 50% of the inspiration to an illustrator. You are not alone and by no means have to do all the heavy lifting. Write the story and then step away. And for those of you illustrating picture books, I challenge you to ignore any illustration notes that don’t inspire you! Trust one another from afar, inspire one another at a distance, and then get together AFTER the book is printed to celebrate what your wonderful, individual, untainted visions brought into the world.
Meredith Mundy, Executive Editor at Sterling Children’s Books, has always had a passion for character-centered picture books with heart, but she is also seeking everything from funny, original board books to unforgettable middle grade novels to gripping contemporary YA fiction. While she enjoys editing lively nonfiction, she wouldn’t be the right editor for poetry collections or projects geared primarily toward the school and library market.
Meredith is very proud to be blogging alongside such a wonderful group of people, including five stellar Sterling authors/illustrators whose picture books are among her very favorites: Josh Funk, Tara Lazar, Kim Norman, Tammi Sauer, and Liza Woodruff.
Want to give the slush pile the slip? Want to know what advice a seasoned picture book editor would give you? Now’s your chance! Meredith is giving away a free picture book critique.
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