When I give workshops for beginning picture book writers, I always urge them to be brave—to leave room for an illustrator to help tell the story. I describe the picture book genre as a “linear collaboration.” The author’s work, the painstaking writing and revising that creates the story, comes first. Throughout this endeavor, a writer must allow for, and trust in, the subsequent development and integration of another creative process. Illustrations add so much to a story—setting and character details, humor, emotional content, even plot layers.
While I’m proficient at following my own advice to leave room for the illustrator, I’m still surprised when I first see sketches and art that have arrived for my review. For just about every one of my more than two dozen published picture books, the illustrator has created something entirely different from what I had in mind as I wrote the story. I should no longer be surprised, but I always am!
My recent picture book, OCEANS OF LOVE (Viking, 2022), is a good example. This humorous love poem imagines how ocean mamas might show love to their little ones. I envisioned silly, graphic art to go with stanzas such as the following:
Mother minnow darts and dips
in every tidal pool
to place her little swimmers in
the perfect minnow school.
As I was writing, I pictured anthropomorphized fish sitting at desks at an undersea school, with all sorts of visual puns adding to the fun. So, when I first saw Holly Clifton-Brown’s sketch for this spread, I was surprised. Instead of bold graphic images, she had created a realistic and stunning watercolor scene, taking readers under the waves to where light filters down on a luminous school of minnows. An understated “SCHOOL” sign protrudes from the ocean floor. Throughout the book, this realistic approach to illustrations was consistent, although some of the animals were drawn with smiling faces. Holly’s sketches—and her final watercolor art—have a depth and vibrancy that make the reader feel like they’re looking out from a deep-sea diving helmet.
When I reached the final spread of Holly’s sketches, I had an Ah ha! moment. I realized that her deliberate and thoughtful approach to the text created an additional plot layer for my story. The final spread shows a mother and child hugging in front of a large tank of ocean animals. The two of them are visiting the aquarium, imagining how other ocean mothers might be sharing their love!
Holly has added gently to my humor—I’m especially fond of the smiling clam faces in this silly spread!
Mother clam may tell her tots,
“Now, hurry, open wide!”
Dinner gets delivered when
there’s plankton on the tide.
But Holly added much more with her gorgeous art and mother/child plot layer. She infused my story with a whole lot of “heart.” The beauty and tenderness of the illustrations make a snuggled story time with this book different—and better—than what I envisioned when I wrote it.
So, I remain ever willing to be surprised. And I have oceans of love for illustrators like Holly Clifton-Brown who help bring to life the magic of picture books!
Blog first published on 5/3/22 on Writers’ Rumpus Authors & Illustrators Wild About Kidlit!