As an illustrator, should you take on a picture book project with a less-than perfect manuscript?
This question will be answered throughout the week. If you have a question you'd like answered by the blue rose girls, please pipe up! (We're running out!)
MEGHAN:No. I get asked this on occasion and the reason I won't do it is because I write books myself. I don't want to say that the writing is easier or less time consuming because it's not but the artwork is more agonizing and the time to do it is more concentrated. Money-wise it's better for me to take on just writing tasks than just illustrating ones. Creating artwork can be draining. I don't have any plans to ever illustrate someone else's text UNLESS their story is one that I couldn't come up with. If I think it's amazing then perhaps I would. Obviously a less than perfect MS is out of the running.
GRACE: Well, I’d love to say no—only take on projects that you believe in. But, I also know what it’s like to go through the grocery list and cut out everything except for ramen noodles because that’s all you can afford. And in that vein, I’ll admit to taking on a few manuscripts myself that I haven’t been to fond of. If your finances demand it, try to see it as a challenge. Obviously the publisher doesn’t think it’s a less-than perfect manuscript or else they wouldn’t be printing it. What’s more important is that you see this as an opportunity to make something discordant able to sing.
ALVINA: Interesting question! Although I'd like to think that we wouldn't publish a text that is less-than-perfect as Grace says, I have to say that there are many factors involved in the decision to publish...ahem...and leave it at that for now. But I'll also say that sometimes manuscripts are shown to potential illustrators before they are edited, so that's something to keep in mind. As for your question, there are many things to weigh into your decision, but first of all, if you don't respond to something in the text, if you aren't inspired to create something wonderful around it, then perhaps you are doing it a disservice and shouldn't take on the project--another illustrator would be better for it. But if you are responding to something in it, but don't think it's the strongest text, necessarily, but this is your chance to break into the industry, then maybe I'd take on that project, because getting that one published book sometimes helps you get the next and the next. (I think the fellow BRGs can attest that one book contract helped open doors for them.) Also, what if the text was written by a celebrity? Or a more established author? On one hand, the text might not be very good and you might get some flack for doing it, but on the other hand, it's great exposure and potentially higher pay. I wouldn't look down on a working illustrator for taking that kind of job, and in fact, the illustrations are often what makes those celebrity books bearable. I hope this doesn't offend you picture book authors out there, but whereas I think you need both a superb text AND superb art to make a superb picture book, if you have wonderful art and mediocre text, I think the book can still be great, but if you have a fabulous text but mediocre art, it mars the experience for me. As an illustrator, you can bring the book to another level. As Grace says, make something discordant sing! Well put.
"if you have wonderful art and mediocre text, I think the book can still be great,"
-- I can't tell you how depressing this is to a writer! And I think it explains why the writing in picture books so often IS inferior to the art: it's not valued.
I am a writer and my advice is: don't do it. Having a story illustrated by someone who not only doesn't like it but doesn't even respect it is the worst thing that could happen to that story! If it were my story, I'd rather have it stay unpublished than have it illustrated by someone who felt that way. If you don't like or understand something (and -- although you are probably right that the text is mediocre, it could also be that you just don't like it!), it's not fair to the author to illustrate it.
Alvina, I'm really glad you answered this question in such depth and so honestly! I am doing the same -- well, at least as far as the honesty goes.
This something I think about a lot. It would be interesting to look at the picture books that have lasted -- I have a hunch that some (though not all!) of the ones that have lasted for decades have great stories and mediocre art! At least, that's what we concluded in the RISD class "Picture and Word" when it was taught by Phil Bailey and Judy Sue....we wrote and talked about the relationship between the two a lot, and I remember Phil writing on one of my papers that a great story with mediocre art would last, whereas a mediocre one with great art wouldn't! I also remember him using several books as examples of that point. But that was just his opinion -- and it was a long time ago, too! Still, it would be interesting sometime to look and count up.
Ashley Woolf, who was in the same class, says on her Web site that it had more influence on her than any other she took (and Ashley, if you read this: Hey! I still remember you telling us about your parents putting you to bed each night with, "Welcome to Mr.Sheet's Theatre" -- and lots of your other comments too). It was certainly the best class *I* ever took in college or graduate school.
ANNA: Yes, interesting question! If you are published and have broken into children's books already, which is a very difficult thing to do, then each book you choose to do after influences the course of your career, and gives you a chance the grow as an artist. If you are going to take on a project, which could be a year of sketching and painting, you must feel a level of dedication to it, if you don't want the experience to be depressing and frustrating. There should be something in the story that inspires you, that you can tap into and make your own. If you read the story and you don't feel anything, I wouldn't do it, it will be torture and like Libby said, disrespectful of the author. If, however, you read the story, which may not be perfectly written, and it sparks something in you than that may be worth exploring, in that case I would give the story a chance.
If, however, you are unpublished, I think there is a little less room to be choosy, and that first published book could be a platform for you to showcase your skills to get more work, especially if you do not write and are not submitting your own book dummies. I would still say that illustrating a ms you hate is not worth it, and really won't be much of a showcase as it will not inspire your best work. But if you think the story is enough of a springboard for you to get your feet wet then I would do it. A couple other things to consider... there is such a learning curve with that first book, I think all of us illustrators would say that our approach/style has changed somewhat since our first books, with each project you grow and change. That said, it might be worth it to make your first project one that is a little less precious to you, so you can get a feel for the medium in a more professional way. I would also consider the subject of the book, and if you would like to do more books along the lines of the one you are offered, as often editors/art directors will hire you to do something similar to other things they've seen you do.