Working with illustrators

Bison, by Eli Clark
One of the illustrations Elijah Brady Clark did for my first “Who Pooped” book.

At the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) conference in Los Angeles last weekend, I was hoping for an opportunity to network with other children’s picture book authors and illustrators and compare notes. Boy, did I get that opportunity! I expected a clear picture to emerge of how the relationships work, but I ended up with a more muddled image than I started with.

For perspective, here’s how it worked with my first Who Pooped in the Park? book: I went to the publisher with a concept and a title. Shortly after issuing the contracts, they sent me portfolios from three illustrators and asked me what I thought. I called the editor, Kathy Springmeyer, and told her which was my favorite. As it turned out, I picked the same one they had picked. Life was good. Elijah Brady Clark was our chosen illustrator.

As Eli went to work on a cover design, I wrote the book in a three-column layout (there’s an example in another blog post of mine). The left column described the illustration I wanted on that page or spread. The center column was the text. The right column was the “Straight Poop” sidebar, if that page had one. After Kathy finished doing what editors do and we came to agreement on my manuscript, she sent it off to Eli. He did rough sketches of all of the pages and sent them to Kathy. I believe they went back and forth once or twice before I saw the sketches, but I don’t know. I went through them and marked up anything that wasn’t accurate or that I didn’t think fit the flow well.

Once everybody came to agreement, Eli produced final color illustrations, the art department put it all together, Kathy and I did a final round of proofreading, and the book went to the printer.

One of the first pieces of advice I heard at SCBWI was to make sure never to include illustrations in a submission because it’s better for the editor to read the manuscript and picture which in-house illustrator would fit the best. Shortly after that I heard from an editor that they’re actively looking for good author/illustrator teams that work well together. An agent later on said that they don’t like representing both the author and the illustrator because it’s too much work and confusion.

Cats by Rob Rath
An illustration by Robert Rath from one of my later books in the series.

On Sunday, I attended a session by children’s author Verla Kay. She said that she has no input into the illustration process at all. The publisher selects the artist, and the entire book design is done before she gets a chance to see it. Personally, I find that prospect depressing. Having no input into the art and overall design not only takes all the fun out of writing for children, but in my humble opinion, it reduces the quality of the final product.

At SCBWI’s conference, I met an author and an illustrator from Arizona that are working on their first book together. Each page is a collaborative effort, with the text and pictures carefully hand-crafted to work together well (when their book comes out, I’ll post something about it on this blog. What I saw looked really good). I also met illustrators looking for authors, authors looking for illustrators, authors married to their illustrator, authors who did their own illustration, and authors like Verla who had multiple books out and had never communicated directly with their illustrators.

What kind of conclusion can you draw from this?

Believe it or not, I think there is a conclusion to be drawn. And that is that you should do whatever works for you. Don’t try to figure out what agents and editors are looking for. Just produce the best manuscript you can produce—however you like to do it—and then look for the right agent and/or editor.

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