Monday, September 18, 2006

Question of the week:As an illustrator, should you take on a picture book project with a less-than perfect manuscript?

Question of the week:
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.


Blue Rose Girls said...

I think Libby has introduced a very interesting question! Perhaps this could be another question of the week? What is more important? The pictures or the text?

I have to disagree that great text will make a book last even if the artwork isn't so great. This weekend I was working in the music dept. of the bookstore (yes, still as a cashier...sob) and I was so fascinated by what I saw. We have a big screen where we preview new movies. We are not allowed to put the sound on. Dozens of kids sat for long periods of time without moving while watching a Disney movie in silence! They were absolutely glued! How can one watch a movie without sound? Are the pictures THAT important? To kids, I think they are!

I'll use one of my own books as an example--in The Adventures of Patty and the Big Red Bus the little sister actually does the heroic deeds. I was surprised to see how many adults missed this! Adults read the text and pay far less attention to the pictures... but KIDS do the OPPOSITE. Every kid immediately noticed that the little sis was the hero.

When I think of my favorite picture books I think of the pictures. I imagine their magical qualities and how they can contain separate stories. Can a book be BRILLIANT without good text? Absolutely not! But a book can't be great without great artwork. You need both.


Blue Rose Girls said...

I also think the "learning curve" that Anna mentioned is another good discussion. I don't like looking at my first book for that reason!


Libby Koponen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Blue Rose Girls said...

Like so much else in children's literarure, or any kind of literature, for that matter, doesn't it depend on the kid? Even as a small child, I responded more to stories than to pictures. Even to just words --their sounds and their meanings! This is not to say that I don't love pictures -- I do -- I respond to them intensely, I love looking at paintings, I go to museums just for fun, I sometimes just LOOK at the pictures in books without reading ... I am just saying that in books, the words were and still are more important to me.

That's why I'm a writer, not an illustrator.

This may be weird, and not most people's experience, but it was mine when I was a child and it still is. Probably most small children are more like you and those kids in the bookstore than like me; we live in a really visual culture. But there are some out there who love words.

Another reason why -- as Alvina said in one of her posts awhile ago -- we need all different kinds of books for all different kinds of kids.

Finally, it's not an either or thing (I know you aren't saying it is, I just want to be clear!) -- the ideal is to have the words AND the pictures be great. Isn't that the whole point of a picture book? What started me on this was the idea that it was okay for the words to be mediocre.


alvinaling said...

Ha--I knew I'd be starting a discussion by saying what I said!

Libby, I think you're right--it depends on the person. If you're a more visual reader/learner, the illustrations are going to matter more to you. Maybe I shouldn't be admitting this as an editor, but when I go to read picture books at the store, I hardly ever read the text, and if I do, I'll skim the first few pages and then flip through the rest. But of course I love the written word! And yes, I'm sure other editors are different. For me, the art is more crucial to my enjoyment of a picture book than the text. But as Libby says, it IS the truth that we want both to be great, and I think to have a truly great book, they need to be.

I guess what I meant is that if I had to work on a book and had to choose either the text or the art to be mediocre (and when I said "mediocre" I didn't mean BAD), I'd choose the text.

This discussion is going to be skewed if we don't get more authors commenting, especially picture book authors, since everyone besides Libby (and me) here is an illustrator. So please, comment away!

Anonymous said...

Blue Rose Girls Comment: Illustrations Versus Text

I’m going to put in my two cents here regarding illustrations and text in picture books. And let me say that I am writing from the perspective of someone who spent more than three decades as an elementary classroom teacher, three years as an elementary school librarian, and the past four years as the teacher of a children’s literature course at a university. I am also a parent who read aloud to her daughter. I am passionate about children’s literature. I own thousands of children’s books of all genres.

Most definitely, if a picture book had a beautiful/interesting/eye-catching cover, I’d pick it up and begin to read it. But if the words didn’t sing to me, didn’t read well, didn’t capture my interest—I wouldn’t have considered purchasing it for my classroom or my school library. Today, I won’t purchase such a book for my own library as one to share with my college students or in teacher workshops. I also won’t give such books as gifts to children.

I believe that wonderful illustrations can make a good book better, a fine book outstanding—but they can’t make a bad text shine. I think clumsy illustrations can definitely detract from a good text.

I think adults who touch the lives of children—parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians—should do their utmost to ensure that children are given/read/introduced to the best books that are available. With picture books this should mean that both art and text are high quality.

How will children learn what good writing is if they are not read well-written books? Who will be their role models? What kind of writers will we have in the future?

From Editor/Author William Zinsser:
“No kind of writing lodges itself so deeply in our memory, echoing there for the rest of our lives, as the first books that we met in our childhood…”

As a second grade teacher who read her students all kinds of carefully selected books and poetry, I saw how they often emulated children’s authors like Myra Cohn Livingston, Valerie Worth, Cynthia Rylant in their own writing.

Sure, kids are visual. Sure, they like to look at pictures. But nothing takes the place of holding a whole class of students rapt in the reading of a great book. After all, most fiction books have few or no illustrations. I always read my second graders Joanna and Paul Galdone’s version of the picture book THE TAILYPO without showing them the illustrations. (After reading the book, I had them illustrate their own version of the Tailypo creature.)Still, it was always a book they asked me to read over and over again.

I am sick and tired of celebrity books—often with fine illustrations—masquerading as works of children’s literature. I am also tired of—and please excuse this term—crap like WALTER THE FARTING DOG: TROUBLE AT THE YARD SALE!

I am definitely in league with Libby. I love the way some authors use words. I love the picture books of William Steig who wrote interesting stories with challenging vocabulary. And CHARLOTTE’S WEB is a masterpiece: an engaging tale with humor, lessons about friendship, the cycle of life—and beautiful language. I read that book aloud more than twenty times to children and was never bored. It actually got better with every reading!

I know this is a bit much for a comment on a BLOG—but I worry that our young children may get shortchanged with books that are not the best. Some states do not require that educators take a children’s literature course in order to become licensed teachers. School systems everywhere are cutting librarian positions for financial reasons. There are fewer and fewer independent children’s bookstores with owners who actually read children’s books and know what quality children’s literature is. Who will be recommending good books to and for our children? Who will be responsible?

Blue Rose Girls said...

I think when reading aloud to kids repetition works best. A book kids respond really well to, for example, is Bark George. Books where kids can predict what's going to happen next is also a big bonus when doing readings because after all, kids want to be smart just as adults do. Of course text is important. Great illustrations that are combined with a text that meanders along and is boring will not hold a child's attention. When doing group readings I don't think illustrations are as important as the words... BUT for a book to last I still think it can't without great artwork. Look at No David--there's hardly any text at all, but I've watched how kids respond to it. In a book like that, it's the artwork that really counts. Lots of books for that age group are like that. The only picture books that are a few years old + that you can still find in a bookstore are the Caldecott winners. So whether we like it or not illustrations count for a lot! And... um... since I'm an artist I have to say I'm glad that they do.


alvinaling said...

I don't think any of us are advocating for bad text OR bad art. We want both to be great. I think the debate is which affects us more when it comes to picture books, the text or the art, and I think we've found that it depends on the person, depends on the child.

I forgot that I actually had addressed this in one of the talks I give at conferences, "What Makes a Good Children's Book"? I touch on how I think for picture books the art is crucial, but then I also give an example of where the text was more important to me as a child, in a book where I actually didn't like the art: Whose Mouse Are You by Robert Kraus, illustrated by Jose Aruego. I read this book so many times as a kid that I memorized it (we all have one, right?), and I still have it memorized to this day. And I didn't like the art, and still don't like the art. So, well, I guess I agree that a text that sings can overcome the art (not that the art is BAD, just not my taste).

Anonymous said...


I didn’t mean to imply that I think the artwork in children’s picture books is less important than text. Both should be of equal—or near equal excellence and importance. What I was considering is some of the picture books published today that have stunning illustrations and inferior texts. I feel bad for the illustrators who have done such beautiful artwork—because individuals like me may choose not to purchase their books because of the texts.

I guess what I really am trying to say is that in a picture book I am affected by both the art and the words. I am a very visual person myself. What I want in a picture book is for it to be a perfect—or near perfect—marriage of text and illustrations.

Picture books with rhythm, rhyme, and refrains are wonderful to read aloud to very young children. I really like the texts in the following books—but I doubt that I would like the books so much with illustrations that did not work so well with the words:
CASTLES, CAVES, AND HONEYCOMBS, written by Linda Ashman and illustrated by Lauren Stringer.
RUB-A-DUB SUB, written by Linda Ashman and illustrated by Jeff Mack
TO MARKET, TO MARKET, written by Anne Miranda and illustrated by Janet Stevens
BEAR SNORES ON, written by Karma Wilson and illustrated by Jane Chapman
MY LITTLE SISTER ATE ONE HARE, written by Bill Grossman and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes

MOONGLOWING, written by Elizabeth Partridge, is a lovely book for very young children, too. It has just two words on most pages—but the words are well chosen. And the illustrations by Joan Paley most definitely are of equal import in this picture book. It is the combination of art AND text that I respond to in this and other picture books.

And I most heartily agree that a book like BARK, GEORGE is a crowd pleaser—for young and old audiences alike. I used to read it to students in my elementary library and I read it to students in my college course.

Speaking of a Blue Rose Girl: I came to know Grace’s artwork through the book RED IS A DRAGON: A BOOK OF COLORS. I was attracted to it in a bookstore because of its striking book jacket. But before I purchased it for my school library, I read the book. Had Roseanne Thong’s text been disappointing, I probably would not have bought the book for my school library. I probably would not have studied Grace’s colorful and exuberant illustrations. I might not have become such a fan of her work. Fortunately, the text and illustrations were both great. I went on to purchase all of Grace’s books for my school library, my own library, and to give some as gifts to children.

victoria said...

Thanks for all of the answers to my question! I think the varied answers (Yes! No! Maybe so)- reiterates what I already knew- that an illustrator should just go with their gut instinct in response to a particular text. And to be really honest with themselves as to whether or not this is the right project for them.- at least, that's what i took out of this discussion.