As Patricia Forde along with Elīna Brasliņa celebrate the publication of their picture book Imagine! I am delighted to be hosting a guest feature written by Trish on how the relationship between author and illustrator has to be a dance, a synergy of trust between the picture and prose and how that can be achieved with reference to the delightful tale of a girl confiding in her grandmother of her fears and her grandma’s message to use her imagination to overcome.
Writing Picture Books and Trusting the Illustrator to Inform the Story by Patricia Forde
When I submitted my first picture books to publishers, a common note was ‘to leave room for the illustrator’. I think it’s very good advice to writers who don’t illustrate and is another part of the picture book craft that you have to learn. But what exactly does it mean?
Let’s take a step back. Picture books are short – around five hundred words in all. On a practical level, this means that you don’t have much room for adjectives or adverbs or much physical description generally! It’s a bit wasteful to say that the cat was black and that he was sitting on a mat unless those details are important to the plot. You could just say:
The illustrator can decide what kind of cat it was and where it was that it liked to sit.
So keep the text tight. Only write what we won’t be able to see. The illustrator will appreciate the creative space and will charm you with her magic.
The writer rarely gets to talk to the illustrator. The entire conversation is mediated by the publisher. I write very few notes to the illustrator in the text. I only put in details that aren’t immediately apparent from the words or in places where the narrator is unreliable and the illustration is meant to contradict the text.
But I want the illustrator to show that nothing could be farther from the truth, so the illustrator might draw the narrator hiding under the bed. In that instance, I would write a note to the illustrator saying:
I wouldn’t suggest how the illustrator shows this. The illustrator will imagine that themselves.
Let’s look at some examples from Imagine.
The text says that the little girl is afraid of ghosts but look what Elīna does with that! There are ghosts living in kitchen drawers, ghosts coming out of jam-jars and one even pops out of the spout of the tea-pot.
Later, the child says that she is afraid of vampires and Elīna designs a squad of vampires that would do justice to a red carpet on Oscar night! Our vampires have brooches, lace, bow-ties, dinner jackets, traditional cloaks and wonderful teeth!
When the narrator tells her grandmother that she’s afraid of dogs, the text says that the dark was creeping into the house at the time. Elīna draws a late evening scene, full of shadows and shows Grandma playing a ukulele – because that’s what grannies do in the evening, isn’t it?
But my favourite intervention from Elīna comes near the end of the book. The little girl is afraid that her grandmother will leave her, and the grandmother reassures her. The text says:
‘I’ll never leave you,’ says Granny. ‘Imagine me here, right in your heart.’
Because that’s where I’m always going to be.’
Elīna packs the bedroom with the characters from the earlier spreads – the pirates, the ghosts, the vampires – all crying. What could have been a maudlin spread becomes something really funny in Elīna’s clever hands.
Writing and illustrating picture books is a dance for two. Just make sure you leave room for the illustrator to do a few twirls! You won’t regret it.
Thank you so much Trish for taking the time to write such a wonderful exploration of the synergy between author and illustrator in picture books!
Make sure you check out the other stops on the tour for Imagine! Each day Trish has written new exclusive content about the writing process, her inspirations and the power of picture books.
Imagine! by Patricia Forde and Elīna Brasliņa is published by Little Island Books.