When I tell people that I write picture books, the conversation often goes something like this.
— Do you do the pictures, too?
— Nope. Just the words.
— Huh. Well, do you get to decide who does them?
— No. That’s up to the editor.
— Really! But doesn’t it bother you to give up control like that? What if they’re not like what you had in mind?
— With any luck, they’ll be better.
Okay. I never have actually said that last line. But now that I’ve thought of it, maybe I will.
Because here’s the thing. I like looking at art, and when I write a picture book, I absolutely see pictures in my head. I see color and mood and composition. Does it fill just one page, or spill across a whole spread? Is what’s happening sufficiently different from what happened on the last page, and what will happen on the page that comes next?
I know that someone else will produce the art that accompanies my words. But if I didn’t imagine pictures to go with them, I couldn’t write a successful picture book.
Without some idea of the images’ color and mood, I couldn’t calibrate the tone of my language – is it funny? Quiet? Suspenseful? Factual? Fantastic?
If I didn’t imagine some sort of composition, I couldn’t keep track of point of view – who’s telling the story? What does the narrator know? What does the reader know (through the picture) that the narrator doesn’t know, or doesn’t tell? Which details do I need to include, and which will the pictures convey?
Knowing whether a picture will fit on one page or spill across two is crucial for pacing. Should the story slow down here, or speed up? Should the page-by-page tempo be steady, or varied?
Finally, if I don’t have some idea of what each picture will show, I risk writing a story that doesn’t leave room for enough visual variety to hold the reader’s interest.
Back in when I was starting out, I used to make dummies of the picture books I was writing. I would take eight sheets of typing paper, fold them in half, and nest one inside the other to make a miniature book. I would write the title on the “cover,” paste the words onto their proper pages, and draw the pictures I imagined accompanying them.
It was a fun project. But it didn’t take me long to realize that for my purposes, a flat, comic-style storyboard worked as well as a 3D model of the book, and that the pictures I managed to produce were a far cry from the ones I imagined.
It’s not just a question of technical execution – although that’s huge. It’s also a matter of insight. Sure I see pictures when I write. But in the end, they’re secondary to the words I hear. Bringing a visual artist into a project means putting my words in the hands of someone whose whole job is to make the imagined visible, and to visualize images I couldn’t have imagined.
Do I envy those talented souls who can do both? You bet.
Do I worry as I wait to find out what the pictures will look like? Of course. But writing picture books is an act of faith – and an exercise in ceding control. Once an illustrator takes on a project, it becomes as much hers as mine. Her vision carries as much weight as mine. And while her pictures wouldn’t exist without my words, my words could never fly without her pictures.
That’s what I’m thinking about as I await word on who will illustrate my next picture book. It’s exciting and excruciating. And I’ll let you know who it is as soon I know.