Teamwork: Illustrations and Text in a Picture Book

Monday, May 24, 2021
 What's great about the picture book genre is that two mediums are telling the story: the author's words and the illustrator's pictures. What picture book writers who aren't illustrators often forget is that there are two mediums telling the story. (I'm raising my hand--I used to be one of these!) How can you let the illustrations do some of the work of telling the story? Here are a few tips below. 

Tip one: Let the illustrator handle the description. 
Picture book writers are telling an entire story with a problem, solution, and character development in about 1000 words or less. There's no time for a paragraph of what grandma's living room looked like after the kids finished decorating for a surprise party, for example, but as we know, "A picture is worth 1000 words." The illustrator can draw or paint or whatever he/she does to create this scene while you, the author, get on with the problem in the story. 

In Fred Olds's book, The Cat, the Mouse, and the Neighbor's Dog, he never once describes what the cat looks like, but here she is from the illustrator's mind looking out the door and checking for the big, bad dog next door. Debut illustrator Vivian Brown created this from Fred's text, and now readers will have this picture in their mind whenever they think about the poor cat!

And when I say, "Let the illustrator handle the description," that's really what I mean. Illustrators are experts and creatives, just like writers. It is your story, but they know how to tell a story with photos, so trust them. Don't use an illustrator note unless it is extremely unclear what the illustration should entail, or you are hiring the illustrator yourself, and so you are also the art director.

Tip two: Have fun with the illustrations. 
Some of the best, award-winning picture books are the ones where the illustrator puts in some special touches throughout the book that might not be in the text. Maybe the main character always has a shoe untied in the illustrations. Maybe the clouds in the sky are forming words or pictures that aren't mentioned in the text. Maybe there's a dog or cat or alien in several scenes hiding out until it's time for their appearance in the text. Now if you have something like this that is crucial to the story, and it's not in your text--then you put an illustrator's note. It's as simple as this: (Illustrator's note: In each scene from page 6 to 16, there's an alien hiding out before he makes his apperance on page 18.) 

Tip three: Even if you are a writer, study other books for the illustrations. 

Peter Brown is one of my favorite picture book writers and illustrators. His book, Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, is one of my family's favorites! This is a true masterpiece of how the illustrations and text go together. There are few words, so a lot of the storytelling is told through his drawings. This is one of thousands of books out there that you might be drawn to. But here are some questions to ask yourself as a writer, thinking about illustrations for your picture book while you are studying others that have done it successfully:

  • What part of the story is told in text?
  • What part is told in illustrations?
  • Could you understand one without the other?
  • Do I like the way this author's and illustrator's work goes together? Why or why not?
  • What is my eye drawn to in the illustrations and why?
  • What is my ear drawn to in the text and why?
  • Is this a good book to be read out loud to children while they look at the illustrations? Why or why not?
We all love picture books--many of us were raised on them, and we have continued reading them to children and grandchildren. Everyone is not meant to write one though. It's not easy! (See post one and two.) And before you push "publish" or send this manuscript in to an agent or editor, it's important to understand how the text and illustrations work together, even if you are "only" the author. And that's a huge deal! 

Margo L. Dill is a picture book writer and editor, living in St. Louis, MO. She is also the owner of Editor-911 Books. To find out more, visit her website at or check out Editor-911 by clicking here.  


Cathy C. Hall said...

Some of the best advice I ever heard was at an SCBWI conference from an editor (talking about picture book writing): Leave room for the illustrations. Totally changed the way I worked on PB text when I thought in terms of what needed to be there from the writer's side.

And yep, illustrators are brilliantly creative and will often take a story to the next level. It really is a collaborative effort; thanks, Margo, for the reminder!

Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--Picture books... poems... They're hard to write because there's no room for unnecessary fluff.

Your tips--especially your first one--are great. Someday, I'll get back to my picture book project. But not today...

Margo Dill said...

Cathy: I miss those conferences and learning from smart editors! :)

Sioux: You definitely should! When you are ready. :) Remember what Nicole said the other day: the story won't get moldy like your sandwich will...

Angela Mackintosh said...

Excellent post, Margo! It's so true about the illustrator putting special touches that aren't in the text. When Nicole interviewed Anna Levine about her picture book, All Eyes on Alexandra for her blog tour, she said that the illustrator included a red string around the bird protagonist's neck to differentiate her from the others. It's beautiful how pictures and words complement each other and complete the story.

I love that Mr. Tiger cover! The flat cutout style is fun, retro-looking, and pops. Those are GREAT questions to ask.

I'm working on an illustrated memoir, and I don't know if there's a market for it because it would be too expensive to print, but it helps my writing process to create portraits of the characters and situations in the book. It finishes each chapter and brings it all together for me.

Jeanine DeHoney said...

Once again Margo, this is great information as I work on my picture book ideas and revise some old manuscripts. Thank you.

Margo Dill said...

Ang: you are such a talented artist! I think where there’s a way, there’s a market. :) like a graphic novel maybe? How do they keep costs down?

Jeanine: can’t wait to hear about your picture book ideas!

Margo Dill said...

Ang: you are such a talented artist! I think where there’s a way, there’s a market. :) like a graphic novel maybe? How do they keep costs down?

Jeanine: can’t wait to hear about your picture book ideas!

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