In the deep woolen dark,
as we slumber unknowing,
let the sky fill with flurry and flight.
Let the air turn to feathers,
the earth turn to sugar,
and all that is heavy
As an editor, when authors give me such powerful, precise words, I almost immediately begin to imagine them with pictures. In the case of the above lines of poetry by Joyce Sidman (part of the text of the forthcoming picture book Before Morning), I remembered, quite vividly, how illustrator Beth Krommes captured snow and night and a deep sense of calm in the last spread of Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature, their earlier collaboration. That I’ve previously matched an author and illustrator has no bearing for me — perhaps surprisingly — on a new manuscript. My brain seems to approach each manuscript as something entirely fresh. Joyce’s poetry in Before Morning expresses a profound longing for a less busy world, a world that allows for true togetherness and freedom from schedules. Right away, I could see Beth’s sculptural scratchboard art capturing a place of magic and peace, one where wishes can come true. And I could see her bringing this world to life, but doing so in entirely unexpected ways, for Swirl by Swirl and Before Morning are quite different books. The pairing came to me as a sudden, almost urgent conviction: Beth was just the right illustrator.
“What do you think of Beth for this?” I asked Joyce. Consulting with the author is always my first step, and is the beginning of a long collaboration between author, editor, and artist. I understand that not all editors ask for the author’s input, but it’s a practice I have rarely regretted. Yes, it can make the process of settling on the right artist take longer. And yes, sometimes I find myself in the awkward position of trying to convince an author that a certain illustrator would serve his or her text well. But it is a dialogue that remains important to me. I would hate to have any author unhappy with art that is so inextricably tied to his or her words. Authors, like all artists, need to operate in a climate of freedom to achieve their best work. And I can’t help believing that forcing a match upon an author would be taking away an important liberty — one that might influence how that author writes his or her next picture-book text. Authors have described to me all too well how it feels to see their words misrepresented in final art. To choose one’s words so carefully and then see them take on unintended meaning surely must affect how confidently and passionately an author chooses his or her words the next time. Also, more than once, an author’s objections have helped me see the manuscript in a new light. The book belongs to the author; the editor’s job is to listen.
Hoping to preserve that sense of freedom for the author is also why I always share sketchbook dummies with authors. Authors have lived with the text far longer than I, and they catch things, both large and small, that I might never spot. For example, author Kathryn Gibbs Davis reminded me that gas lights, not electric lights, would likely have lit the streets during George Ferris’s time in Mr. Ferris and His Wheel, illustrated by Gilbert Ford. Authors also need the chance to comment on pacing and page-turns and where their text is being broken. This kind of discussion always brings about a richer, more thoughtful picture book.
Do I always see pictures in my head when I read a picture-book manuscript? Yes, pretty much. If I don’t, it is often a sign that I might not be the right editor for the text. But sometimes I have less conviction than other times about who would make the perfect illustrator. And sometimes our top-choice illustrator declines or is too busy and the author doesn’t want to wait that long. This is an opportunity to go shopping — it is fun! Fun to rely on serendipity, to look for odd associations, to see what catches the eye, to select the match that surprises. When I have a list of potential illustrators (I keep a bulletin board full of clippings from artists with whom I’d like to work), I will create a sort of mood board of their work. I’ll lay out the samples next to me while I reread the text. Then I wait to see what “feels just right,” which I realize sounds vague. But I look for a match that feels fresh, even unlikely. A match that will yield a book that gives readers a different way of seeing things or of looking at the world. If an artist has already illustrated a similar text, I find I am less interested in that artist for the project. I need to have that sense of heading into the unknown — of trying something new. I want the feeling of not being entirely sure of what I am doing. As Neil Gaiman said, “Where would be the fun in making something you knew was going to work?” Ultimately, I look for the direction that feels irresistible — often for reasons I don’t yet fully understand.
And once I have that direction, I pick up the phone, or write the author: “How about this illustrator?”