I teach courses on writing picture books, and quite often students tell me that they have been told by other teachers that there is a ‘rule’ that an author mustn’t include any notes about design or illustration along with their texts. To me, that’s wrong. Very wrong. The joy of picture books is the playing of the words, the pictures, and the book itself, together to perform a story. If the originator of the story, usually the author, isn’t thinking about aspects of the book beyond the words from the story's inception, the result is going to be more limited than it should be.
There’s a reason why many of the very best picture books of all time (Rosie’s Walk, Elmer The Elephant, Goodnight Gorilla, This Is Not My Hat, Handa’s Big Surprise, and many more) have been written and illustrated by the same person. By thinking of the pictures and words together, those author-illustrators have honed the two to work together in powerful ways. It’s no surprise that most of those books have very short texts. Creators who illustrate as well as write, trust the illustrations to show most of the story, and they then use the text to tease the reader into reacting to the pictures, or they use the text to bring the pictures to life with dialogue. They know that children ‘read’ pictures, even when they can’t all ‘read’ texts yet.
Publishers usually have both editors and designers, but, traditionally, it’s the editor who is the first gate keeper for a publisher, deciding which texts to let in to further discussions which might then include designers. A recent publishing experience has made me wonder whether publishers should always work along that set path towards a book.
I had a picture book story idea about a rabbit who wants some space for himself, away from the noise and activity of the other rabbits around him. So Jack, the rabbit, runs to an empty space, where he draws a red line to define ‘his’ space in which he can read his book in peace. Of course he then finds that being alone in a space can become lonely, and he wants to re-join his friends, but is now stuck because he’s made the rule about nobody crossing the line. You can read the book if you want to find out how that problem gets resolved! But my point here is that I felt that story was one which could be mostly shown in pictures, and then need very little text. In fact, I thought it would be better with very little text. So I wrote the text, adding notes about what the pictures needed to show. Here’s an early version on which my artistic sister had made comments and sketches.
And I drew amateur sketches too, just to help me work out quite how the book might work.
I sent my text with its illustration and design ideas to a couple of big publishers who had published me in the past. They didn’t want it. I don’t know if the preponderance of illustration notes put them off. I hope not, and I suspect they just didn’t feel that story was for them. But then I read about a new children’s book publisher that was emerging from an existing publisher of beautiful adult comic books. That was Flying Eye, just starting up within Nobrow. So I sent my story to Sam Arthur of Flying Eye. He, and his partner in the business, are both from a design background. Suddenly it was the design idea (coming from an author!) that was of real interest. This felt so different from the way I'd worked with other publishers!
Rebecca Crane illustrated My Very Own Space very beautifully, and Flying Eye have published it equally beautifully, with felty thick paper within a hardback cover with gloss highlights and a fabric trimmed spine. All of Flying Eye’s picture books are beautifully conceived and produced, and they are winning major prizes (perhaps most notably Shackleton's Journey by William Grill winning the Kate Greenaway Medal). So I wonder if other publishers should include designers alongside editors as first filters on story proposals that come in?
Boast alert! Last week My Very Own Space was the Observer’s Book of the Week - hooray!
So, yes, do dare to add notes about potential illustrations or design … but do it wisely, explaining story content and presentation rather than stepping onto the illustrator’s toes by detailing visual things that have no direct relevance to the story.