I’m sure the vast majority of illustrators will agree that we prefer to be presented with a full final text prior to starting the illustration process. That’s how we get a proper sense of the story and its characters.
I once worked with an art director who was confined to giving me a list of bullet points about each scene, instead of giving me the applicable text (let alone the full manuscript) to read. When I insisted on having the text, they gave me the actual scenes I’d be illustrating only, and I didn’t know if had missed depictions of character and setting earlier in the story that I needed to make my images true to the text. (Readers do note those discrepancies and are annoyed by them.) Indeed, I discovered that the “men fighting in hand-to-hand combat” was actually a boy with a knife who’s startled by an old friend and then greets him happily. Since I’d already spent many hours doing research into wrestling poses and drawing two boys engaged in combat, I had to scrap hours of work-on my dime. Frustrating to say the least and totally avoidable.
Thing #6: Give the illustrator access to the final text. Should go without saying, right? (The one caveat at to this is that character design can often begin before the text is finalized.)
You may find you need to revise your text when you work with an illustrator. An experienced illustrator may point out places your text is too long, descriptions that can be cut because the illustrations will do the work, or deeper problems such as a flaw in the narrative arc, or something else.
Thing #7: It’s never too late to work with a professional children’s book editor to help develop your text to the stage where it’s ready to be illustrated-but it’s even better to go through that process before you engage an illustrator. It helps prevent surprises and late changes that cost us time and you money.
Thing #8: Provided it’s respectfully and constructively given, listen to the illustrator’s feedback regarding both the words and your ideas for the illustrations. Don’t think of the illustrator as an employee hired to do your bidding but a professional collaborator with expertise in the field of creating illustrations that pair with other people’s words in a form that is appealing to kids and viable for the industry. On the other hand, you don’t need to work with any arrogant jerks, either, so make sure you’re working with an illustrator with whom you’re able to have a positive working relationship before either of you signs the contract.
The Illustration Process:
Stages of the illustration process are usually:
—Pagination of the text
—Thumbnail sketches of each double-page spread
—Character design and development
—Full sketches for each spread or illustration
As you can see, there are multiple stages at which the author can give feedback or request changes. Too many illustrators tell stories of being asked to change artwork or incorporate new ideas once the final artwork is already underway. (It’s like having your hairdresser give you a bright red pixie cut and then deciding you want it styled long, blonde, and flowing: it costs everyone time, money, and stress.)
Thing #9: Take advantage of opportunities to give feedback and request changes, but if you request late changes, be prepared to pay extra. (Illustrators, make sure you have a clause in your contract that covers this contingency.)
A good illustrator will take into account text placement and the overall design of each spread. Most modern picture books have creative text placement, often placing text over parts of the illustration.
As you’re writing and revising your text, try paginating your text along the way, thinking of suspenseful places for page turns. Try to think of each double-page spread as one unit, rather than thinking left page then right page, because kids visually experience a double-page spread as one unit as they’re read to. It’s very rare in modern picture books not to have a mix of both single page illustrations, full double-page illustrations, vignettes, and other variations. Think outside the rigid and boring.
There’s a lot more to successfully illustrating a kids’ book than just being able to draw. An illustrator has to: understand page design, overall book design, and narrative arc; consider Point of View, text placement, and pacing; and a lot more besides. They have to bring a story and its characters to life.
Weak illustrations can ruin an otherwise terrific project-I’ve seen it happen over and over. And in such a competitive industry, filled with high-quality traditionally published books and a growing number of self-publishing authors, it’s only good sense to strive for superlative work all round. Give your project the best chances in a very competitive marketplace.
Thing #10: You tend to get what you pay for. Be aware of the standard industry rates going into it and, as my mother has always said, “Don’t spoil the ship for a halfpenny’s worth of tar.” Good illustrations will cost a number of halfpennies, but if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, and a professional will provide expertise that may save you time and money in the long run.
Thing #11 (Bonus!): Writing and revising a children’s book, collaborating with an illustrator, and the publishing process itself have their ups and downs, their moments of triumph and their frustrations. But it’s a very wonderful experience. We illustrators love what we do, and we want you to come out of the process with an incredible book. So relax, be inspired, and enjoy the journey!
MARLO GARNER writes, illustrates, and edits children’s books and teaches writing and revision workshops.