Book Review: Writing with Pictures

Writing With Pictures book coverI’ve finally finished reading the book that I won at the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) conference in Los Angeles a couple of months ago. Well, technically I didn’t win the book; I won a gift certificate to the SCBWI store for having one of the funniest tweets at the conference, but that’s another story.

After looking through the rich selection, I settled on Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books, by Uri Shulevitz. As my editors and illustrators will tell you, I’m not much of an illustrator, although I learned to draw veiltail guppies pretty well back when I was breeding them for pocket money in high school. They’re my “go-to” critter when little kids want a picture. But I digress.

Since the first word in the title is “writing” and the subtitle begins with “how to write,” I figured the book would be slanted toward authors rather than illustrators. As I stood there holding the book, an announcement came over the PA saying that the next session was preparing to start and the store was closing. I was running out of time to pick a book, so I grabbed this one.

First impressions after a quick scan of the book:

  • Mr. Shulevitz is a talented and versatile illustrator.
  • I should have looked more closely at the title and realized that “writing with pictures” can be interpreted to mean “writing with pictures instead of words.”
  • The book was published in 1985, but the majority of the illustration is in a style that would have been more fitting quite a few decades earlier than that.
  • Most of the book is black and white, and the color section is hopelessly outdated in a world of InDesign and Quark.

I waffled back and forth on whether to actually read the book and decided to go for it. It’s good to branch out. Although I figured it wouldn’t do much for my writing skills, I’ve worked with a lot of illustrators over the years and the book might help me to understand them better. All in all, I think that was a good decision.

Writing with Pictures spends very little time addressing the writer’s craft. It doesn’t tell you how to fit your words to your target age group, how to structure a story, how to write dialog for kids, or any of the other things that make us good children’s writers. It does, however, talk a lot about layout.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I don’t work like many children’s authors do. When I write books like my Who Pooped in the Park? series, I visualize pages and plan the text to fit them. Mr. Shulevitz’ book addresses page layout well. He talks about it from an artistic point of view, but also looks at how the layout of the pages affects the flow of the story. Part Two (“Planning the Book”) is an excellent guide to the structure of an illustrated children’s book, and I think any children’s author would benefit from reading it. I had to slog through many parts of the book, but that one definitely held my attention.

Planning Grid
This is a portion of one of my manuscripts as I sent it to the illustrator. For each page, it shows the text that will appear, the sidebar (if any), and a general description of the illustration and layout. From here on in, the illustrator’s skill takes over.

My first impression was right as far as parts of the book being out-of-date. The final section had a good basic description of the printing process, but then went into great detail on color separations. Artists and designers today don’t have to think “30% yellow”; just pick a color from the palette, tweak until you’re happy with it, and use it. As long as you’re designing in the correct color space (make sure it’s CMYK, not RGB!), the software will take care of everything automatically.

Please don’t take this to mean that I think Uri Shulevitz is out of date. Heavens, no! He’s still winning Caldecott awards, and that puts him way ahead of me. But the techniques for manual illustration, layout, color separations, and so forth have changed. Younger illustrators who grew up in the digital age don’t work the same way.

I won’t even try to judge the usefulness of this book to an illustrator. That’s outside my field. If you write children’s books, however, I’d recommend reading it—even if all you read is Part Two.

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