Friday, 18 October 2013

On being told what to draw. . . by Jonathan Allen

From 'Fish and Chips' - a book by Julia Donaldson for Oxford Reading Tree

I have, in my career, done a reasonable amount of illustration work for educational publishers, and found it enjoyable, and a good way of keeping the wolf from the door in the 'inbetween books' times that I assume most writers and illustrators go through.

Although ostensibly it is doing the same job as illustrating a picture book for a non-educational publisher, if that's the generic term ;-) there is a completely different relationship between artist and editor.

For a non-educational project, you get given the text, with the pagination pretty much sorted out, and are, by and large, left to work it into rough visual form. You can have input into the position of the text, and can make a case for changing the layout from the original guidelines should the visual dynamics be shown to demand it. So you are a key part of the creative process and your skill and experience is made full use of.

An educational book project isn't like that. The layout is as good as set in stone, and you usually get very detailed instructions about what should be in each picture and where, down to what seem sometimes to be pedantic levels. As someone who has made a living out of being original and creative, this prescribed approach was a bit of a shock the first time I encountered it ;-)

This isn't really a moan about me, the poor artistic type yearning to be free but being strangled by the pedantic demands of educational publishers, it really isn't. I actually enjoy switching off my creative side for a while and just doing a bit of 'Doing'. I know I can do it well, and I guess I am happy to trade my artistic skill for the money (especially what they pay these days, say no more!), but not my ingenuity. That's extra ;-)

Which leads me to my main question, which is, "How did this artist/publisher relationship come about?" It does seem overtly and anxiously controlling, and to me, a bit odd. I detect a distinct lack of faith in what illustrators are capable of doing. I smell committees. . . and hear the wheels of corporate decision making grinding. Maybe they are right, maybe illustrators come up with total garbage when not reigned in. . . I dunno, but right or wrong, it has evolved into 'the way things are done' in the educational sector and I am curious as to why. And why the non-educational sector is so different in it's mindset when, as I mentioned before, it seems to me that they are producing, by and large, the same thing.

Do writers have these sort of issues? I imagine writing for a very particular age group must have strict 'do's and 'dont's'. . .


12 comments:

  1. It's interesting to hear about this from the illustrator's point of view. As a writer, the first time I was asked to provide detailed illustration notes for the pages of a reading scheme book, I was surprised. All the time I was doing it I felt incredibly naughty because with trade picture books it's a total 'no no' apart from essential notes on illustration that can't be interpreted from the words alone. I too was puzzled, but it was an intriguing exercise and gave a heady sense of power ;-) I also wondered what illustrators thought about the lack of control.

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    1. And I guess if you aren't a 'visual person' by training it must be as puzzling as trying to write in a different language.

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  2. When time is crazily tight and deadlines immovable, I guess what we have here are people trying hard to not let anything go wrong. Ok, I'm going to be a little bit naughty now and say that, yes, illustrators have been known to go off on strange tangents sometimes, you know...Ahem...quite often actually! Present company accepted, of course. The strictures can most definitely lead to dull work, but the bottom line is that the deadline must be met and the sales team must be fed their product, I guess.

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    1. I'm sure you're right. It's trying to minimize things getting messed up. They could try consulting illustrators earlier in the process maybe? To be fair I guess the Art Editor is often a trained visual artist if not actually an illustrator per se and would know something of the noble art ;-)

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  3. Really interesting blog, Jonathan. I often think people don't realise how different the process is between educational and trade.
    I agree Moira, it is about getting it done in a much shorter space of time. I can't say this is always the case but I have worked on educational series where they have told me they have spent a long time with their consultants etc designing the whole scheme and in the end the writers and illustrators of educational books seem to get very short deadlines much more so than for trade picture books. But there is also the possibility that it is because a trade picture book has no agenda, no specific teaching purpose. Educational books are handed out to teachers as a teaching tool, so yes, the words need to be carefully monitored to fit in exactly with the level so that it works for the teacher using it and I think the illustrations in some ways have the same issue.
    When the fashion for teaching reading changes - (currently phonics, again! - but I am not a teacher I write according to the brief and most of the jargon passes me by! )the difference for the writer is getting your head around the brief.
    In a previous reading system the child was helped to guess the word by what is in the pictures and in context with the words around it, so words like 'dinosaur' are fine because the huge creature in the image is a clue, but 'tomorrow' would be more difficult as it can't be drawn! In such a book an illustrator once put a dog in the middle of the picture, there was no dog in the story and this one looked important, so I commented on it and it was removed. But in Phonics, my recent book for Collins Big Cat 'The Singing Beetle' -about a snake that wants to eat a mouse who is tempted by a beetle, who likes to sing (badly!)
    It was originally and owl who wants to eat a mouse who wants to eat a caterpillar. But the Owl sound was in a higher level and not taught at this stage so it became a snake.
    So in answer to your question, yes the writer is just as restricted but I find that writing for the educational market is a great exercise in using and choose words and editing everything down to the bone, and I think that really helps in writing any picture book where each word is so important!

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    1. my reply turned out to be a new comment, see below!

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  4. I bet the consultants get paid better too ;-) I have written a couple of books for educational publishers in the past, but that was on the understanding that the text would be knocked into shape with whatever blunt instrument was necessary, which was fine by me. I couldn't handle working with one eye on the rule book, and keeping up with the latest trends in teaching. Just pay me to draw funny animals and I'll be happy. . .

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  5. Yes, like Paeony, I'm uncomfortable giving 'detailed illustration notes.' It feels like I'm being asked to provide something I'm not qualified to provide. Surely that's what art editors and artists are for. And I always want the artist to take things way beyond what I had in mind visually anyway - I love their 'strange tangents'!
    I sometimes quite enjoy the restrictions of educational - it's like a cross between a picture book and a crossword puzzle. But phonics are one step too far for me - I've done it once, but never again!

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  6. I've done phonics and, whatever I think about phonics as a reading scheme, I really enjoyed writing the book! Like Malachy, I found it was a bit like a crossword puzzle. I could only choose words from a set list, unless they were 'decodable' words, and I found the exercise of finding a word that slotted in quite fun! It wasn't as creative, however, as writing my own work and it felt like it used a completely different part of my brain.

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  7. I, too, like to mix writing my own ideas where I'm free to handle things as I please with the professional commissions where I sometimes need to fit a tight brief (woops - that sounds as if I model for Damart catalogues, and that's NOT what I meant!). It's a different writing challenge, and, in spite of inevitable frustrations, I think it refreshes the writer or illustrator mind to sometimes fit another's ideas. But only sometimes ....

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    1. Yes, working within tight restrictions, ( especially while wearing damart long johns. . . ;-) ) is a good way of getting out of your comfort zone and, like Abie said, it feels like a different part of the brain is involved. I quite like the challenge of seeing how much personality can be squeezed into the space available without becoming inappropriate. . .

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  8. I enjoy devising (it's not really writing) starter phonics texts and assume the publishers ask for detailed illustration notes because the words alone don't explain the story when you're only allowed to use 2 vowels and 6 consonants, no word longer than 3 letters, and a max 50 words in total. For picture books, I love the fact that the illustrator is free to get on with it and add their own interpretation to a text.

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