A Love Letter to Illustrators…
…from an author who cannot draw.
You have written a picture book. It’s a triumph! It sings and swoops like a bluebird. You can visualise it. Every single detail of every illustration that has yet to be drawn is as clear in your mind as the view from your window. In this case, and in many cases, you are the author, and the author alone. You are not the illustrator. You hand over the book to your publisher (maybe via your agent) and thus the book begins its epic journey to the bookshelves. This is a joyous moment. One for a big glass of something wine flavoured (wine, for example). This is also the precise moment the writer releases control. This is a very good thing. A scenario that might feel like a Dickensian mother handing over a baby in a blanket to be brought up by a new family in the countryside, is in reality the moment the true process of picture book creation begins. You, dear author, won’t have a clue what your book will look like, so it is a beautiful, nerve-jangling, sweaty palmed moment when you see the illustrator’s first sketches.
Let’s rewind, and dig a little deeper into why picture books are magical, and can live in our minds for a lifetime. Let’s begin with you – the author. What’s your job? To write the story. That is technically true, but in essence you are writing half the story. You are also laying the foundations and defining the tone. It’s your voice that sings the first notes before the illustrator strikes up the band. You are handing a blueprint to a team (editors / artists/ designers), each of whom excel in their specific roles. While this is all happening, you must wait, pressing your nose against the workshop window while the team works inside. You (most probably) won’t choose your illustrator. You might have an opinion on a shortlist, but mostly, an illustrator will be chosen for you. Why? Well, I like to think that the person writing the cheques gets the choice. But less bluntly, a commissioning editor will have a vision for the finished book and will commission accordingly. Personally, I find this the most thrilling part of the process. I have been lucky enough to work with some hugely talented illustrators such as Oliver Hurst, Salini Perera and Sarah Leigh Wills. The process in each case was wondrous. They saw things I couldn’t possibly have imagined. Authors write narrative as movement, like animation, and illustrators choose moments that best serve the book (not the author – the book is always the winner). Maurice Sendak once wrote of the illustration process: “You must never illustrate exactly what is written. You must find a space in the text so that the pictures can do the work.” This, to me, is the essence of the magic: the sensitivity. Their ability to pinpoint the frame in your storytelling that reveals the most. The more books I write, the more space I leave for the future illustrator. I would once write endless lines of illustration notes (sorry illustrators) but now I barely write any. I trust the process.
I have a book out this year. Gina Kaminski Saves The Wolf. It’s the story of a young autistic girl taking control of the fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood. The book has a tremendous energy, and contains stories with stories, and books within books. After I had written the story, with input from my lovely agent Isobel Gahan, it was commissioned by the equally lovely Perry Emerson at Little Tiger. It was clear to everyone that the illustrator needed a very particular energy, and enormous artistic flexibility.
‘Gina Kaminski is here to tell you three facts.
1. Little Red Riding Hood is full of BIG mistakes.
2. She is off to fairy tale land to fix them.
3. She WILL save the wolf.
Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? Certainly not Gina as she takes the narrative lead and tells the story in her own distinctive way. With fantastic illustrations from Francis Martin, and an innovative use of pictorial emoji language, this is the ideal book to empower every child to be the hero of their own story.’From the blurb of Gina Kaminski Saves the Woolf by Craig Barr Green
Enter Francis Martin. What a talent! An artist and musician who lives out in the wilds of Pendle Witch Country and the absolute perfect match. I had images in the landscape of my mind, but his artwork was from another planet! In a good way. Nothing at all like what I was expecting. And that’s the joy. He totally ‘got’ my character. He captured Gina’s joy, and anger, and worry and curiosity. Francis and Gina both carry the same whiff of rebellion! With great skill and sensitivity, Francis tuned into storytelling elements I had missed. He not only enhanced the story, he helped it evolve. It reminds me of some very wise words from the very wise Alan Ahlberg on the relationship between words and images in picture books: ‘You don’t have to tell the story in the words. You can come out of the words and into the pictures and you get this nice kind of antiphonal fugue effect.’ Francis Martin created this antiphonal fugue effect.
Of course, not every author illustrator relationship begins so smoothly. In a Guardian article, Michael Rosen (hero) and Helen Oxenbury (hero) spoke about the creative process behind the peerless, timeless classic We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. Rosen recalls the moment Oxenbury’s first illustrations were unveiled. ‘The editors peeled back the sheets, and I was stunned. First, they were such beautiful pictures. Second, I couldn’t figure out what they had to do with a bear hunt.’ Oxenbury remarked that ‘Michael had said he envisioned it as a king and queen and jester setting off to hunt a bear, but I immediately saw it as a group of children.’ Rosen was wrong footed and taken aback. ‘The editors said this was one of the most amazing books they had ever seen. And I confess, I didn’t get it.’ However, there is a happy ending for everyone involved, including every child and adult who has ever had the pleasure of experiencing this wonderful book. Rosen concluded, ‘[W]hat brilliant, clever Helen and the editors “got” and had created is that special thing that pictures books can do – which is to narrate different stories in print and in pictures.’ The rest is history.
There is a magic in picture books that comes from relationships: between text and image, between author and illustrator, and between the editorial team and the creative. These tensions, and this well of talent and enterprise fuse into something utterly unique, and utterly itself. Handing over your story to other people feels like a leap of faith, but it’s a leap that’s so richly rewarded. Thank you, illustrators!