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Blog: This Writing Life


  • Writer's pictureMelissa Stoller

It's All About . . . Leaving Room for the Illustrator in Picture Books

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

This post originally appeared on the Children's Book Academy blog.

One rule to follow when writing picture books is to “leave room for the illustrator.” An author must write words that allow space for the illustrator to bring his or her own vision to the project as it relates to and expands on the text. I wrote my stories with this rule in mind. However, I didn’t truly appreciate the nuances until I was polishing my picture books after my illustrators, Sandie Sonke (SCARLET’S MAGIC PAINTBRUSH) and Sandy Steen Bartholomew (READY, SET, GORILLA!), worked their magic. At that point, I was able to edit and remove some phrases because the pictures told the story without the extraneous words. Now, when I draft new manuscripts, I am even more conscious of leaving room for illustrators to expand on the ideas that I begin with my words. Here are three examples from recent picture books that highlight this concept:

1) “Everything you need for a treehouse starts with time and looking up and imagining a home of timber and rafters in wrangled, gnarled bark.” Everything You Need for a Treehouse, by Carter Higgins, illustrations by Emily Hughes. Here, the author writes lyrical prose that allows the illustrator’s imagination to take flight in a wondrous, opening two-page spread. And notice the author didn't mention a boy and a girl, and there is no indication of the dog that the illustrator includes.

2) “Maximillian Villainous came from a long line of famous villains. But Max was different from his family.” Maximillian Villainous, by Margaret Chiu Greanias, illustrated by Lesley Breen Withrow. The author didn’t elaborate on these Villainous relatives, but the illustrator included portraits on the wall so the reader could see the long line of villains. Throughout the book, the author includes brilliant puns and wordplay, and the illustrator enhances the story with vibrant and clever artwork.

3) “’Here,’ said a student, passing the birds a book. They didn’t know what to do. ‘Like this,’ said another student. ‘Watch me!’ The birds tried their best to blend in but . . . NOT . . . ALWAYS . . . SUCCESSFULLY! The bell rang in the nick of time.” No Peacocks!, written by Robin Newman, illustrated by Chris Ewald. In this portion of the story, the illustrator has free reign to imagine how the peacocks would blend into a classroom. The comic antics of the peacocks result from both the text and the art.

When you draft new picture books, if you’re not the illustrator as well, consider the open areas you can leave for the illustrator's enchanted images. The author's words won't tell the whole tale. Instead, the dance that authors and illustrators engage in together creates the incredible world of picture books.


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