Monday 4 January 2021

Letting Go - The Art of Arranged Picture Book Marriage

Happy New Year to all of you. May 2021 bring us together in joy and wellness. 

As the first Picture Book Den post, I want to start with a new resolution for Picture Book writers. 

Do your best work and then let go.

Allow me to tell you why!

As a picture book writer, I’m dependent on the partnership with an illustrator to bring my book to life. This is usually (unless one of the partners in this relationship commands influence) a mediated relationship. It’s almost like arranged marriage – until the book comes out, the two parties talk through their respective people. While there might be inconsequential bickering or a misunderstood thought like in every arranged marriage, normally both sides are excited for what’s going to happen next – the wedding – the book.

The writer talks to the editor, the illustrator talks to the designer and the editor and the designer bring consensus understanding where the red lines are on each side. I say arranged marriage because often the illustrator is chosen by the publisher’s team – the editor and the designer together. If you’re lucky, they might ask you for an opinion. Just like those old-style arranged marriages in Victorian England. 

As a picture book writer by trade, I’ve long come to understand that the publishing team knows what they are doing – they can visualise the final book (which is why they offered to publish it) and they have an idea of which illustrator will suit. 

There are a number of factors to determine who should illustrate – 

  • the content and the story itself determines the kind of illustrator to choose, 
  • the style of the illustrator for the market they want to sell the book in. The look that appeals to American readers might not be the same as what will appeal to European readership. 
  • And so depending on the marketing and publishing strategy, the designer and editor will come up with their shortlist.
  • Then of course the illustrator needs to be available within the planned timetable and should be willing to illustrate and the terms need to be negotiated.

Once all of that is done, the final choice will be communicated to the writer who will go and look them up on the Internet. Unless there is a press announcement for the book being published, there won’t be a peep until the cover is ready which is normally earlier than the inside pages – so the designer and editor can showcase it around the rights markets – in trade fairs and with internal sales and marketing teams. 

As a writer, this is the first Zen step of letting go. What Buddha said, that. 

What Krishna said in Bhagvad Gita – Do you best work and leave the consequences to the workings of the world. 

That’s the most important thing for all writers, but especially picture book writers (who are not illustrators themselves) to keep in mind.

Let go of that vision in your head when you wrote the story. 

Let go of the preconceptions of how the end-papers will look like or where the spreads are broken. 

Let go of the expectation on how the covers will look or even what the blurb will say.

When you let go, any little role you play during that design and production phase will feel like empowerment.

For example, when I wrote Shubh Diwali – the story is told in the point of view of a child. There is mention of family – but nothing specific. 

Charlene Chua, the amazing illustrator brought it to life – she created the characters in the story, she made them inclusive and she introduced blended families without having to say that in the story. That made the book stronger, inclusive and joyful to more families. 

That is the power of collaboration especially when two (or more) people work separately but on the same thing. 

There is a different kind of joy in working together too – thinking of characters together, coming up with the storyline that will best serve the illustration. That is a different experience, and that doesn’t always happen to all writers in the publishing world. And remember, not all writers and not all illustrators like to work together closely. By nature, many of us create best on our own. We like tinkering in our own spaces before we produce the work. 

The flip side of allowing the writer and illustrator communicate is the spoon-feeding of imagination or the stress of too little or too much control. It doesn’t make sense for the writer to point out unnecessary things like the coat on the character should be red and I think there will be three cars parked on the street. Unless it’s critical to the story (in which case you will have either included it in the text or in the illustration notes [used sparingly]), the illustrator must be able to imagine the story in their own mind and come up with their art.

There are of course a few caveats:

a) There are stories that are drawn from real life – either of someone or the author. So, it makes sense that in those cases, the writer is able to provide visual references. Without cramping the artists’ style, the writer can guide the illustrator with the source material.

b) Stories that are culturally specific – when writing stories from a specific culture – it’s important to keep the details as authentic as possible. For example, when Frané Lessac illustrated Pattan’s Pumpkin, I was allowed to look at the roughs. I shared all of my research with the team but Frané too did a zillion % research on her own.

c) The market place – sometimes there might be a reason why something can or cannot be portrayed in a picture book (either in words or pictures) and that could dictate how the final look comes about. 

When you let go, you’re often surprised. 

When I wrote You’re Safe With Me, I had imagined (to my limited knowledge of art), a different style. 

But when Poonam Mistry tackled the story in her style, she earned herself a place in the Kate Greenaway Medal shortlist. Not only that, children love her art. If you had asked me four years ago if children will enjoy a book busy and full of intricate drawings that adults love, I would have said no. But I’m a convert – children love the intricate art, the details they can find each time they read, and the mirage of images that makes them work hard to find the full picture. 

When I write a story, in my head, there is usually a running movie. I write down what I see . I read aloud the words numerous times. Every edit is read aloud and every beat is checked. Even when not in rhyme. That story I imagined in my head, is just that. Then the editor reads the story and they imagine it while they read. Then the designer does the same thing. Then a big idea in broad strokes is sent to the illustrator with the text and they wait to see what the illustrator comes up with. 

That’s like the suspense of the arranged marriage, isn't it? What will you discover on the day of the wedding? How beautiful will it be? 

Some of you will wonder if I ever get to communicate with my illustrator? Yes and no. Often as a writer I don’t get to meet my illustrator unless they live in the same city or country. Sometimes we find ways to connect via video chats or emails. Most often I meet my illustrators (if at all) after the book has come out. However, contrary to belief, we never discuss the second book we might work on together. 

I’ve worked with Poonam Mistry on three books and we have met a few times. But each time, we will circle around the next book in question like – I’m still writing it. I can’t wait to read it. That’s it. It’s not my place to tell her or feed her ideas. The text must do that.

That is why the text must stand on its own. Remember that often the book is read aloud to children. If read in a class or in a library, the children might not even see the pictures closely until later. But the words must tell the story and there happens the magic when the listener imagines the story in their head. And that's when the connection is complete from writer to reader. Then the listener explores the art and they discover the same joy as the writer – matching their own imagination with what’s on the page. 

The cogs turn, the wheels move and the reader is understanding the relationship between words and pictures and how imaginations vary and discovering new ways of telling a story. 

So, my word of advice – Let go! Don’t try to control the process too much. And don’t expect to control the process too much. There is joy in letting go. 

Chitra Soundar is an internationally published author of over 50 books for children. 
She is also an oral storyteller and writer of many things.  Chitra writes picture books and fiction for young readers. Her stories are inspired by folktales from India, Hindu mythology and her travels around the world. Her books have been published in the UK, US, India & Singapore and translated into Chinese, German, French, Japanese and Thai. 
Find out more on her website  and buy her books here


Wanderer said...

Great advice, wrapped in a metaphor of an arranged marriage. Brings to the fore how the book becomes much stronger when the writer and the illustrator work both separately and together, in the interests of the story.

Arya samaj said...
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