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Half the Story: Text and Illustration in Picture Books

The two oldest forms of storytelling — words and images — meet and merge in picture books. A well-placed word can leave you elated or it can break your heart. Pictures can evoke peals of laughter or cries of outrage. A fundamental, some would argue inherent, understanding of both of these methods of telling stories is hardwired into our humanity. And when the two forms come together, as they do in picture books, the whole is so very much greater than the sum of the parts. At its best and most successful, the skillful joining of words and pictures is nothing short of magical.

Most picture books begin with the writer’s words, but if you take the text of a picture book out of the equation, there is still a lot to discuss. As an editor of picture books, I stand in the balance between the inspiration of the author and the inspiration of the artist. I am privileged. If these books are indeed magic, I am in the position to watch the spell being created, to see the pieces come together, and to witness the merging of two visions into one book.

Artistic style is like fingerprints, individual and revealing. No two people bring exactly the same skills or exactly the same baggage to their creative work. No text can be illustrated the same way twice, not even by the same artist.

Mother Goose rhymes are a case in point. These familiar texts are popular subjects for illustrators, in part because they are in the public domain and in effect are free for the taking.

Consider:

Hickory dickory dock

The mouse ran up the clock

The clock struck one

and down he run

Hickory dickory dock

These five lines, two of which consist of nonsense words, describe one action and open a world of possible interpretations. Think about how to represent these lines pictorially, and a flood of questions pours forth. We are told that a mouse ran up a clock. What kind of clock? A wall clock? A cuckoo clock? Is it digital? This is the twenty-first century, after all.

And then, what kind of mouse? A white one? Black one? Spotted? Anthropomorphized? One that has had its tail cut off with a carving knife?

The clock struck one. Well, one what? One mouse? The hour of one? If so, is that one o’clock in the morning? Or one o’clock in the afternoon?

And this is barely the beginning. There are also questions of technique. Do these lines call out for watercolor? Scratchboard? Melted wax? Is one panel sufficient to encapsulate the action, or do you need separate panels to show the mouse running up the clock, the clock striking one, and the mouse running down again? How do you illustrate the meaningless words hickory dickory dock?

What about the questions of the artist’s intent — or mood? Should this verse be illustrated in a conventional and pleasingly predictable manner to soothe readers by meeting their expectations? Should the clock face be melting, Dalí-esque, to give young children their first taste of surrealism? Or perhaps the mouse is a stand-in for the downtrodden proletariat forced to scurry up and down by running-dog clock makers.

WellsMany artists have interpreted these lines, with a wide variety of results. In the hands of Rosemary Wells, this rhyme describes the bright, cozy living room of a snoozing cat wrapped in a dressing gown. He is seated in an overstuffed chair next to a grandfather clock. In this single frame, the mouse has already run onto the floor and is eating cheese while another mouse, wearing a cheery yellow frock, watches from the top of the clock.

Meanwhile, in the hands of Charles Addams, the setting is a gloomy night, out of doors. The first panel shows a dark clock tower, a pillar roughly the same shape and imposing size as the Washington Monument, located miles away from the distant town. A page turn brings us to the second panel, where the mouse who runs down the clock, just ready to leap onto the ground at the feet of a wide-eyed family, is roughly three times the size of the children that a concerned mother reaches to pull close . . .

addams_gooseSame text. Yet illustrations with different moods, impact, and implications. What has gone into each interpretation is the temperament, tastes, particular skills, whims, and personalities of each artist. They asked themselves the same questions and came up with vastly different answers. And there are, of course, many more options for how these same words could be, and have been, put into pictures. The variety comes from artists investing themselves in the work, reaching into their personal creativity — the unique combination of their conscious skills and unconscious ways of viewing the world.

This is a substantial part of the glory of picture books, that they inspire visual artists to share an intimately personal worldview with the audience through the lens of a particular set of words. The same sorts of questions artists ask about Mother Goose rhymes are asked about traditional picture book texts, and they evoke the same variety of responses. Even a fairly obvious text like Goodnight Moon leaves a lot of room for an illustrator. There are certain reasonable expectations about what should be depicted pictorially to accompany lines such as “Goodnight kittens / And goodnight mittens.” We may anticipate that the artist will draw kittens and mittens. But how many kittens, and how many mittens? Are the kittens asleep? Are the mittens asleep? How do you show sleeping mittens? Perhaps the kittens are sleeping on the mittens, or playing with them. Or eating them.

The choices are still there, even with the most straightforward of texts.

krauss_veryspecialhouseAnd illustrators are good at weighing these choices and making decisions. They rise to the challenge of creating fully realized and nuanced worlds to correspond with the writer’s words. All and all, it is a good thing they are such skilled interpreters as they are sometimes faced with a text that is less than straightforward. The experience an artist has in drawing inspiration from words can come in handy when a text contains fewer obvious illustration cues. Take the words in a spread from Ruth Krauss’s immortal A Very Special House

MORE MORE MORE

MORE MORE MORE

MORE MORE MORE MORE

—blop blop blop—

MORE MORE MORE MORE

MORE MORE MORE MORE

NOBODY ever says stop stop stop

— a book for which illustrator Maurice Sendak received a Caldecott Honor.

Goodnight MoonReturning to Goodnight Moon, if someone other than Clement Hurd had illustrated Goodnight Moon’s great green room, we may justly suppose that the room would still have been green. But any other similarities or differences are a matter of pure speculation. And the odds of anyone choosing to illustrate the words “more more more more more more” the same way Maurice Sendak did (even with a prompting Ruth Krauss at his elbow) are slim. All picture books are branded with the personalities of their illustrators. Those personalities, as reflected in the art, are a vital and inseparable part of the experience of a picture book, and the more inspired the artist is, the more excited, the more involved in bringing a text to life an artist is, the better the book will be.

Because you don’t read a picture book. You look at a picture book. And this leads to the great inequity of the genre: a wordless picture book is still a picture book. But a pictureless picture book is a poem or a short story. And a picture book text that can be spoken aloud with no reference to the illustrations and that does not, on such a reading, lose a jot of nuance or of meaning, is not a successful picture book text. In book form, it may be an illustrated short story. And it may be wonderful, but it isn’t magic.

So, how does the writer cast her part of the spell? How does she invite an artist in? How does she create a text that allows the illustrator to invest herself in the finished book? It’s partially a matter of attitude. Even as the writer struggles for the perfect words, the awareness must be there, on some level, that once the text is out of her hands, the book is no longer solely her own. Nor is it primarily her own. Nor is it primarily anyone else’s: a picture book belongs equally to the author and the illustrator — which is why, contractually speaking, the proceeds are split evenly between the two. Because while an illustrator’s vision is crucial to the finished product, and while no two illustrators will create the same book from the same text, without that text, without the writer, there is nothing.

Harry the Dirty DogObviously, the picture book author hopes her text will entice and inspire the artist. And there are a couple things she keeps in mind when creating a manuscript. First, the text must be illustratable, one that an artist can bring her vision to and enrich with visual storytelling. This means, in part, leaving room for the art to help convey the story. There are some obvious implications to this, such as not getting carried away with descriptions. It’s one thing to say,

Harry was a white dog with black spots

who liked everything,

except . . . getting a bath

and it’s quite another thing to say,

Stretched across the upper part of the doorway was a big spiderweb, and hanging from the top of the web, head down, was a large grey spider. She was about the size of a gumdrop. She had eight legs, and she was waving one of them at Wilbur in friendly greeting.

The first of these two descriptions, written by Gene Zion, leaves many questions open. We know there is a dog and we know something about his coloring, but that’s about it. We know he has black spots — two spots? Three spots? Are we talking about a Dalmatian here? A mutt? A big dog, a little dog? Long hair, short hair? The artist asks all of these questions, and Harry the Dirty Dog comes to life in Margaret Bloy Graham’s illustrations because he is the particular canine she wished to draw. Created by the author, Harry’s visual appearance convinces the reader because the illustrator has invested her own creativity and heart in him.

Charlotte's WebIn comparison, E. B. White’s description of the spider Charlotte leaves much less to interpretation. We know what she looks like — the size of a gray gumdrop with eight legs. We know where she is — in a large web in the doorway. And even what position she is in — head down, one leg waving in a manner we should regard as friendly. E. B. White was writing a novel, and he understood it as part of his job to provide images through his words. He gives us the specific details we need to picture his characters and their actions. Garth Williams’s black-and-white art for Charlotte’s Web is inspired, but it is not what brings these beloved characters to life.

Meanwhile, Zion was writing a picture book. In his single, unadorned sentence of description, he tells us two definitive things: Harry has black spots, and he doesn’t like baths. The crucial second fact, an internal attitude rather than an external detail of appearance or action, is one that is hard to illustrate and can be most concisely captured with words.

But of course leaving room — or better yet, creating room — for an illustrator goes beyond not tying visual details into the narrative. Good picture book texts are often compared to poetry. The words must be chipped away and chipped away so that only the essential few needed to carry the narrative forward and give it its unique flavor remain. The writer’s job is to pare a story or experience down until the essence remains, spare and shining. The writer distills. The illustrator expands. The writer tells us there is a white dog with black spots. The illustrator shows us he has short legs, a long body, stumpy tail, pointy ears — one black, one white — woolly fur, a big black nose, and an impish look in his eyes as he schemes to avoid the dreaded bath.

While it’s easy to discuss avoiding excess description, the same sort of restraint needs to be applied across the board to every aspect of a picture book manuscript—in the depiction of actions, reactions, interactions, everything. In the course of a picture book there may well be key moments of action and emotion when the text stops and the pictures carry the reader forward with a force that is more immediate, powerful, and transcendent than a thousand words. The great balancing act of creating a picture book comes in recognizing this and understanding that it may not be clear from the text alone where the pictures need to dominate. It may not be known until the artist has dummied the book out, going through the initial sketches and fine-tuning the pacing and visual impact of the story. A picture book text is not truly finished until the picture book art is finished. It is an organic process, and the very words that inspire and inform an illustrator may become superfluous once the artist has internalized the text and returned it as drawings.

This is why writing picture books is an act of generosity and of faith. The writer is offering her work up to the rewards of collaboration, accepting that this book she has worked so hard on is about to become, for a space of time, someone else’s baby. She has to sit idly by, hopefully occupying herself profitably with other projects, for a time span that can seem to go on forever. It can be two years or more from the time an illustrator is signed up to when a book is finally published. During this time, the book is as alive for the artist and for the publisher as it was for the writer when she created it. But it is out of her hands. And it is being shaped by someone else’s vision. When the text is returned, finally, with the art in place, there is the potential for the original vision to appear altered, maybe even for the better.

And this, in turn, is why the hardest part of editing a picture book — that is to say, the scariest part of editing a picture book — is commissioning the illustrator. Editors and art directors are not naive about the importance of finding artists who resonate to an author’s text. We look hard and consider not only who has an appropriate style, but who has the right heart. We are not looking for artists who will subvert the meaning or intent of the author’s careful words. It is our charge to take the text and pair it with a visual storyteller who is moved to tell the same story through her related but different skills. We are hoping to find the artist who wants to illustrate the manuscript not because she kind of likes it and needs the money but because she takes the text to heart — as the author did when she wrote it, and as the editor did when she acquired it. We know that the best artist, the one who will make the best book, is the illustrator who brings her whole creative self to bear and is ready to interpret and expand the text in ways — and this is crucial — that are sympathetic to the author’s vision. This is not an easy task, and it is not one that any editor takes lightly.

In some ways, it is less nerve-wracking to work with authors who illustrate their own work. And many of the very best picture books are the product of a single imagination. Author-illustrators would appear to have the upper hand in this genre. They don’t have to worry so much about whether the words and pictures will end up in perfect sync — the matter, after all, is firmly under their own control — and they certainly have the ability to put aside concerns about excess wording. They may know full well what will and will not be conveyed in the art from the outset, and they are also free to adjust both aspects as they go.

But there are very few people who are equally as skilled with words as they are with pictures. William Steig was one, James Marshall was another, as is Kevin Henkes. And illustrators, by and large, are aware of this. As pictorial storytellers, artists are generally very respectful of words and of the skill of authors. They recognize that writing is an art different from their own, and that their creative strengths lie in the visual rather than the verbal.

It is vital that the writer extends the same respect to the illustrator. It doesn’t work for a writer — or an editor — to attempt to compensate for not being a skilled draftsman by telling the artist what to do. It indicates a lack of faith in the artist, and even worse a lack of respect, to pepper a manuscript with instructions for how a scene is to be conceived of and executed visually. For an author, it is comparable to the experience of being approached by a neighbor’s uncle who has discovered she writes children’s books, and who has come bounding over to share his own great idea for a picture book — only he’s not a writer, so he’ll tell it to the author, and all she has do is write it. Golly, what a wonderful opportunity! How thrilled the writer must be to be invited to use her talent and carefully honed skills to be the stenographer for someone else’s great idea. Undoubtedly the writer will be inspired to reach into her soul for her best effort for that one.

Much more effective than trying to tell an artist what to do is striving to present manuscripts that allow an artist to tap into her deepest creativity and bring everything she has to bear on the project at hand. The joy of working in picture books is the joy of discovery, the delight that comes from witnessing an artist’s original, personal, and recognizably perfect interpretations. The expert illustrator has a visual vocabulary that goes beyond anything that can be articulated or guessed at in words. She positions two figures conversing in a way that informs us of their feelings for each other, or uses an unexpected close-up of a minor character to tell us the impact a piece of news has on a community, or she gives such animation to a cottage in the woods that it becomes as welcome a sanctuary for the reader as it is for the hero. Great books come from creative freedom for both the author and the illustrator.

This can be unnerving for an author, and understandably so. When I have the chance to give frank advice to authors of picture books, this is what I say. If you are not comfortable letting an artist (and face it, we’re talking about a stranger) bring a different vision — one that you can neither predict nor control — to the book, don’t write picture books. Some people thrive on collaboration, and some don’t, just as compromise comes more easily to some than to others. There is no moral superiority on either side. As a writer, you work very hard for your words and you have a distinct and hard-won vision. It’s up to you to decide whether and how much to share. But if you love picture books and are committed to this unique, powerful, and deeply rewarding genre, I entreat you to remember how essential the artist’s wholehearted cooperation is to casting the picture book’s spell, and I encourage you to strive for magic.

Anne Hoppe is executive editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books. Her article is adapted from a talk delivered at the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Program at Vermont College on July 26, 2003.

From the January/February 2004 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more, click the tag Collaborations.

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