Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Picture This: Leave Room For Your Illustrator

By Leslie Muir

JH: I have a fun treat today for you picture book writers out there. Leslie Muir is here to talk to us about a unique challenge for those who prefer their stories under 500 words. How to aid your illustrator without telling them what to draw.

As I learned at a recent SCBWI conference, this is a common reason picture books get rejected. The story has little to no room for the illustrations to tell the story along with the actual words. Even if you don't write picture books, the same idea is a great way to help show, don't tell.

Leslie is a writer, painter and poet. She has three published picture books to date. Her next book, C.R.MUDGEON (Atheneum), illustrated by Julian Hector, is being released TODAY! You can learn more about Leslie and her books at: www.lesliemuir.com And feel free to “like” her on Facebook at Leslie Muir Books For Kids.

Take it away Leslie...

Writing a picture book is akin to crocheting a cap, for a mouse, out of thread. It’s a project small in scope and seemingly simple (1,000 words or less), but its creation is intricate and slow, and downright vexing. And to make things more complicated, a picture book author must write with very different audiences in mind: the young child (who likely can’t read yet or is just learning), the discerning adult reader who forks over the cover price and/or their lap time, and finally the person I’ll be focusing on, the illustrator.

Many picture book writers, while toiling over a story, develop a highly personal notion of what the artwork should look like, and they cling to it. As a consequence, and in a well-meaning attempt to lead the illustrator, they drop in too many details--like a trail of boulders. And if, per chance, they make it to publication, a potential illustrator may shy away from the project for fear of being hogtied by the author’s vision, and therefore unable to freely explore her own.


The hungry-looking monster peered over Billy’s hand-carved, antique sleigh bed. Its yellow eyes, round as Frisbees, stared at Billy’s toe. The monster had pointy purple scales, a black hairless mole on the middle of his left nostril and green teeth. Note to Illustrator: Teeth should be chartreuse in color.

Not good, I know, but it does show how overburdened description (and, ahem, the almost always unnecessary Illustrator Note) not only bogs mood and pacing, but completely hijacks an illustrator’s ability to add his or her point of view through the artwork, art that will enrich and enliven the characters and story beyond what’s said in the text.

An illustrator needs to be able to fill in some blanks, so an important question I’ve learned to ask myself is: “What should I leave out?” And usually, if I’m honest, it’s a lot. I try, though not always successfully, to keep only those details that provide subtle hints about my characters and setting, without knocking an illustrator over the head with a frying pan.

New and improved example:

Slowly, the monster peered over the edge of Billy’s sleigh bed. Its tummy grumbled. “That toe looks tasty,” it thought.

As you can see, I’ve left out details like color, shape and size, but included the word “tummy,” suggesting that my monster has a child-like personality. Now the illustrator has some wiggle room, and I’ve shed some literary pounds. She is free to conjure up her version, adding new layers of detail, atmosphere and tension, maybe even a touch of needed humor or emotion to the story. In the end, the pictures won’t be exactly what I envisioned, they’ll be better. And my text will be better too, cleaner and crisper for trimming those pesky details.

About C.R. Mudgeon

C.R. Mudgeon likes knowing what to expect. Always. No surprises, no excitement. Until one day a new neighbor arrives with her spicy cooking (tickles his nose), noisy band practice (hurts his head), and… oodles of cherry tomatoes!

How is C.R. Mudgeon to cure all of these new maladies?

Maybe with the help of a new friend, C.R. will discover that a little spice is just what the doctor ordered. 


  1. I imagine that the main notes that should be left for the illustrator would pertain to plot rather than style, such as a page without words where the picture explains something going on where the characters have stopped talking for a moment like a stare-down or noticing something important.

    Less telling is usually good anyway for the story. I've written some doozies of heavy description that I've later slimmed way down.

  2. Excellent piece! I love the metaphor of a crocheted cap for a wee mousy. Perfect! I love Leslie's books!

  3. Congratulations on the release of your new book Leslie. Thank you for sharing your piece with us.

  4. Great post! Although I illustrate my own books, the same rules apply. I also love the mouse cap metaphor and C.R. Mudgeon looks delightful. Congrats!

  5. Congrats your book release, Leslie! Can't wait to share with the little loves in my life :~])

    I'm all about granting the illustrator creative license!
    The more descriptive a word and stronger the verb, the harder they word for your story to paint a picture.

  6. Thanks for the kind words, everyone!

  7. Thank you for sharing with us. I loved reading this post so much I copied and pasted for further study. (Hope that is okay with everyone)

    C.R. Mudgeon looks charming! Adorable! Congrads on the release of the new book.

  8. Yes truly - the crocheted cap for a wee mousy is positively BRILLIANT!!!! Great piece. :) e