Using Illustration Notes - Put Down the Megaphone

It’s important that new children’s book writers understand the correct way to use illustration notes in their manuscripts. I think one of the main reasons new writers misuse them is because they have a skewed perception of the role of the illustrator in the creation of a children’s picture book.

For example, at a writer’s conference I attended recently, we were listening to a celebrated illustrator discuss some of his techniques. A woman raised her hand and said, “I’ve got this manuscript I’ve written about a little girl, and in my mind I picture her a certain way. She has blonde hair and freckles, and a crooked little smile. How can I explain to the illustrator exactly what I want?”

And I thought…oh my.

The illustrator kindly said, “Well, if she needs to look a particular way for a certain reason, like if she needs wild, curly hair because a bird builds a nest in it, write it into the manuscript or use an illustration note.”

She replied, “Well, her appearance doesn’t really matter for the story, it’s just the vision I have of her in my head. She’s my character, and I couldn’t have an illustrator who didn’t paint her my way.”

And I thought…oh my, my.

Her comments are a perfect example of the skewed perception I’m talking about. Some new picture books writers—and I’m not sure where this idea comes from—believe that the illustrator is their personal graphic designer, who basically takes orders from the all-powerful author. So they spew out illustration notes like commands from a director’s chair. It's a bit like "Bridezilla" syndrome.

“Yes, but I’m the one who created the story! Shouldn’t the illustrator do things the way I want?”

Although the author writes the text for the story, the illustrator is a professional with his or her own creative point of view. You must understand that illustrators are MORE IMPORTANT in the creation of picture books than authors, in many respects. Heck, they even get paid more. That’s because you can have a picture book without text, but you cannot have a picture book without pictures. The illustrations make or break the success of the book. My feeling is, as picture book writers we must bow down to the artists who bring our stories to life and pay homage. We should feel respect and admiration for these creative geniuses, allowing them as much freedom as possible within the framework of the text.

“What if I still want it done my way?”

To an editor, you will not only look like a naïve amateur, but a naïve amateur with a bad attitude.

“So...when should I use an illustration note?”

Only when:

1. The illustration must portray something which is not mentioned in the text.
2. It’s important to the story making sense.
3. Without the note, the illustrator might misunderstand your intent.
4. The editor agrees it should be there.

In my book Cool Daddy Rat, I had included too many illustration notes. My editor cut them down to two. One of my original notes said the characters were traveling in a taxi. My editor asked, “Why does it have to be a taxi? What if the illustrator puts them on the top of a double-decker bus, or in a helicopter? What about a subway train? Let’s be surprised by what the illustrator comes up with. Does it really matter what they’re traveling in?"

It didn’t. I got rid of the illustration note.
It's actually a very exciting experience finding out how an illustrator has interpretted your text. One of my friends and fellow authors was surprised when her little girl character was turned into a female beagle pup. My friend never could have expected such a thing, and yet was delighted with the result. The character is so charming she's bound to delight children everywhere.

“What if I still want it done my way?”

Sigh. Go to art school, and become an illustrator.


macky said…
wow. very interesting. i've always been curious about how the "other side" thought about their own "baby" being depicted by complete strangers.

i've received some surprised reactions myself. all positive, so far.

i'm enjoying your blog a lot.
Kristyn Crow said…
Hey! How cool is it that I get a comment from Macky, who illustrated Bedtime at the Swamp! Macky, I remember when your sketches for the book first arrived. Everyone (my kids and my husband, which make quite a big crew) gathered around, and were "oooing and ahhhhing" at the turn of each page. What a great experience that was. We were so impressed and excited. I was happy for days on end.

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