Writer in Residence

Picture Book Magic


People are often surprised to learn that a picture book begins with the words.  But every children’s book editor I’ve met has preferred to read a picture-book manuscript without any images.  A good picture book requires, before anything else, a well-written text.  A text that, although short (the shorter the better), has heart and soul conveyed through an unadorned but compelling narrative. 

            And yet it is also said that a picture book is a “marriage” of picture and text, a collaboration in which one cannot succeed without the other.   This process of collaboration is for me a kind of magic.

            As a picture book author who does not create his own art, I must write a manuscript that needs images, even though  I have no idea what those images will end up looking like.  So how does an author write for pictures that can’t be predicted?

            When I first began to write picture books, my manuscripts were too long and too descriptive.  In retrospect I see that I was being greedy, trying to keep for myself what truly belonged to the illustrator.  Over the years I’ve learned to leave out as much as I can.  This not only makes for a cleaner, more readable (and, I think, more poetic) text.  It also means there are fewer restrictions for the illustrator’s imagination.  Because I’ve also come to realize that the illustrator isn’t there to serve me.  My job is to create texts that allow illustrators to express themselves as fully as possible.  

            Something else I try to do—increasingly as time goes on—is to be suggestive rather than definitive about any meaning my picture books might have.  This can be tricky when writing for children, who like (or think they like) clear resolutions.  Is it possible for my story to feel resolved without being closed off?  That, at least, is what I try for.  And I think this approach also gives the illustrator more room to decide what the story means for them. 

            This is not to say that an author can have no influence at all on what a picture book will eventually look like.  The first step, of course, is to choose an illustrator who seems a good match for the text.  Editors and art directors like to keep a pretty firm hand on this decision, but they will come to listen to and respect authors who show a sensitivity to the visual side and a knowledge of current illustrators.  So the basic look can be “realistic” or “cartoony” or “retro” or “comic,” etc., based on the illustrator’s style.  (These labels are crude, I know.)  It’s easier to imagine what the final images might look like when the illustrator is someone with a dozen books under their belt.  It’s harder, although sometimes more exciting, with a new, young illustrator just entering the field.   Someone newly minted from art school is a bigger risk (there’s an acquired skill in being able to create a series of narrative images) but can bring a wonderfully fresh energy to a text.   This happened with two recent books of my own, Little Blue Chair and King Mouse.  I’m delighted that the first books by these two extraordinary artists, Madeline Kroepper and Dena Seiferling, were with my stories.

            Even a veteran illustrator can surprise the author, though.  I remember seeing Nicolas Debon’s pencil sketches for Thing-Thing, the story of a stuffed animal that gets thrown out of a hotel window.  I had imagined Thing-Thing as being soft and cuddly but Nicolas had made it over-stuffed and stiffed; the creature looked a little like a footstool.   I passed on my concern to the editor who wrote to Nicolas in Paris, asking for the change.  No, Nicolas responded emphatically.  This is how I imagine Thing-Thing looks and I would rather not do the book than change it.  Both the editor and I were surprised, but we agreed to let Nicolas have his way.  I learned a lesson then; just because I created Thing-Thing didn’t mean that I knew what it looked like.  Nicolas knew.  And he was right, too.

            This brings me to my final thought.  The collaboration between author and illustrator is to me magical because it is so often an imagined collaboration given that we don’t actually work together.  As the author, I try to write a text that an illustrator will want to do not because it’s a paying job but because it will allow them to express themselves.  And I expect that the illustrator tries to creates images that fulfill and even enlarge the vision of the author.  By imagining the needs and expectations of the other, we make a good picture book that children will be entranced by.  That, at least, is the hope.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.