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Illustration Basics for W riters

By Carol Baicker-McKee

W hyPicture Book W riters Need to Understand Illustration
 Market is insanely tight
 Award winners are disproportionately writer-illustrators – and there’s a reason for that
 Understanding illustration enables you to write picture books that are more appealing to editors,
potential illustrators, buyers and award committees – not to mention to kids.
 Best picture books tell the story through a marriage, not just hooking up, of words and images. Where
the Wild Things Are Icky word alert: synergy.

Picture Book A natomy and Design
 Number and O rder of Pages
o 32 is usual. Almost always a multiple of 8 or 16, because of how books are printed and bound.
(Used to see more 48 page books; now are seeing more 24 page books. Board books often have
even fewer pages.) Page one and page 32 stand alone, rest are spreads with the even numbered
page on the left and the odd number on the right. See sample.
o End papers. Illustrated or decorated ones are less common these days because of cost concerns
(but are frequently considered by award committees). Depending on how end papers “work” they 
may give you more or fewer pages to work with. Can also start “telling” the story on them
visually. Design issue decided by publisher, not author.
o Front and Back Matter – Usually need to leave 1-5 pages for front matter (half-title, title,
dedication, copyright). Back matter is occasional, more common in nonfiction. Author’s note, 
recipe, references, afterward, etc.
 Shape and Size Considerations
o Shapes and Layouts
 Tall rectangles are most common. (Mimi.) Good for most stories. Long rectangles suggest
a journey. (See The Ride, Apple Pie). Square good for stories that circle back to
beginning ( Cheep). Shape usually decided by illustrator, but sometimes by art director or
editor. Market influences.
o Full spreads, single page and spot illustrations. Variety tends to be desirable. Mix affects how
many “illustrations” there are. Different ones for different purposes. E.g.: Lists – work well with
spots. Big moments – full spreads.
 Relationship between text and illustration; other design elements. In the best books, words and
pictures work together, each carrying own weight, not simply replicating the other (unless something
requires as much explanation or emphasis as possible) – and creating something new and special by
relationship between them. Also have to consider balance on each page/spread between amount (and
shape)of text and size/complexity of needed illustration. Developmental level of audience. White space.

E lements of a H ighly Illustratable T ext – lots of exceptions, but good general rules. Don’t be the exception as
a newbie – save that for later when you’re a recognized master.
 Leaves space for the illustrator’s storytelling. Most important take-away lesson. Don’t hog the ball. 
Let the illustrator make decisions, play an important role. Cheep! as an example. Wordless texts like
 A voids describing what can be shown You need less description than you think. Have to relinquish
control sometimes, even it means things are different from what you envision.
 A ction-heavy – must be “showable.” Granny book example. Thinking is hard to show, for example, as
are a series of feelings divorced from action.
 A llows for visual variety More than one setting. ( Goodnight Moon vs. Goodnight Gorilla ) Suggests
need for variety of POV, depth, full spreads vs. stand-alone pages vs. spots. Amount of variety,
necessary detail, etc. is appropriate for developmental level of audience. Cheep vs. Mimi vs. Apple Pie
 Suggests rhythm and balance Illustrations that can be repeated, with a variation are good. So is
suggestion of balanced illustrations at beginning and end, and something big for the big moment.
 F its comfortably in 32 pages. Can be tricky to have right number of scenes. Like writing a screenplay.
Scenes and acts (often page turns)
 *C reates or allows tension between words and images This is hard – but the characteristic most likely
to be in an author-illustrator book and absent in an author+illustrator one. Emily Gravett’s Wolves; last
page of Ellen Stoll Walsh’s Mouse Paint, The Dumb Bunnies, same branch spread in Owl Babies
(Waddell and Patrick Benson). Can create humor, other emotions. Makes reader feel powerful – sense
that he knows things that character might not.

A Process for W riting a H ighly Illustratable T ext
 Planning and F irst D raft Right from the start keep demands of a book that will be illustrated in mind.
(The Ride again – so much at night. In the dark. What saves it.) Write the first draft though, putting in
everything you need/want to say. DO NOT FUSS OVER LANGUAGE AND GETTING
 Dividing Up the T ext – making sure it works in 32 pages. I do it first on the ms. Takes many tries to get
it to fit. Then:
o Storyboard – many illustrators do these as 1st step. Use stick figures, blobs, etc. (Even illustrators
o Dummy – I prefer these. Thumbnail dummies. Gives better sense of page turns and whether the
suspense or momentum are adequate. Again, stick figures, primitive backgrounds are fine.
o Annotated Text – may be easier for non-drawing people, especially in terms of including details
that you can then decide to omit from text.
o Important considerations:
 Page turns – something has to make you want to go onto the next spread. Each Pear Pear
 Variety, rhythm, repetition, balance – can’t have too much or too little on each spread. 
Balance between amount of text and amount of illustration needed.
 The big moment. Sometimes the big illustration actually follows this. But make sure it
comes after a page turn and consider allotting a full spread for it. Mimi
 Last image. Has to be something that gives a sense of completion. Might echo earlier
image (like beginning) but with a twist.
 C utting and C hanging (with an emphasis on cutting) Now you should be able to see what you can
take out. See if you need to change the order, add or subtract scenes to make it fit, etc.
 Playing! Look for the synergy moments, the dance between words and images. How can you make the
words and images genuinely interact and not just engage in parallel play?
 Perfecting F inal D raft Now is the time to get your language perfect. Should be beautifully spare,
almost poetic by this time. Your beautiful phrases will stand out better too, without all the clutter of
unnecessary words.

M iscellaneous
 Different kinds of illustrated books (board books, novelty books, early chapter books, nonfiction books)

 How to write good illustration notes

 Finding your own illustrator (or not)

 Living with surprise/disappointment

 Preparing for the picture books of the future

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