Many prospective children’s book authors are already familiar with the concept of storyboarding, but I’ve come to realize that it is important to help wordsmiths understand the purpose of pictures in a book.
Despite what Wiktionary might say, illustrations that merely echo the author’s words do not belong in Children’s Picture Books (CPBs). A good illustrator doesn’t repeat, in pictures, what the author has already stated in the text. Envision, if you will, a page with an apple and the word “apple” typed underneath. While this type of literal illustration has its place in school readers, such obvious image-feeding only serves to bore the audience seeking a story for entertainment. Chip Kidd said it best in this 2012 Ted Talk (for adults only!) about designing the cover for Stephen King’s Jurassic Park, “Because this (putting the word “apple” under the picture of the apple) is treating your audience like a moron. And they deserve better.”
Illustrators are trained to create in a way that is quite different from how an author writes. Rather, our job is to compliment and expand your text, similar to the way a composer adds a harmony part to the melody. What a dull piece it would be if every member of the choir sang the exact same notes! Our ears, and our eyes, delight more in intertwining phrases and media that seem to dance like two partners who’ve known each other for 50 years but still find something new about one another every dance.
In children’s books, it is important to avoid “spoon-feeding” the story to the reader/listener. Using more open-ended sentences and “breathing room,” in the story is essential to writing great children’s literature. Leaving space for the child’s imagination to work invites the child to become an active participant in the story. To some extent, you can let your reader fill in his/her own details in your story. Give children something to think about and wonder over. When the child is actively trying to guess what’s going to happen or how exactly something did happen, he/she becomes invested in the story’s outcome and wants to see it (or hear it) through to the end.
An author’s words should tell the reader only so much. Even most adults who cozy up with a good book don’t appreciate an overly “voicey,” commanding, or condescending commentary. I don’t want to be told what to feel! Make me feel it! Likewise, there’s a better way to express, “Sally felt sad because her favorite toy was broken.” Let the illustrator (and designer) express that sadness, not only in Sally’s face, but also in the page spread’s sudden hue change to a cool palette, a lower position of the words relative to the image, a thinner, more deflated-looking font, and so on. Perhaps you don’t even need to reiterate that it was her favorite toy because the illustrator has done such a great job, on previous pages, of showing how important that toy was to Sally.
Some of the suggestions in this post fall outside of the typical illustrator’s scope of advice-giving. I’m coming at you from the point of view of someone who’s had the pleasure of working as an author, an illustrator, a graphic designer, an art director, and, most recently, a publisher. From this more global perspective, I’ve collected (and paraphrased) the following pieces of useful advice to authors writing children’s books:
Bark less, wag more.
You have only 500-1000 words to use. Make them count. (More than 1500 words and you are moving into another genre such as early reader.) Skip the colorful descriptions, strings of adverbs, and long-winded character development. Focus on a strong, well-timed rising plot with a single, clear-cut resolution. A well-executed drawing of a woman peeling a large, bright, juicy orange in a sunny kitchen has no need for the words “the woman was peeling a large, bright, juicy orange in the sunny kitchen.” Now you have more space to write, “Mom said the children must hurry, so she helped with breakfast.”
Show, don’t tell.
As you write, ask yourself, “What ideas could be expressed in pictures rather than in words?” Leave plenty of breathing room, that is, ample creative space, for the illustrator to add visual layers to your story. In the third book of my Molly McBride series, never once did I mention in words that Dominic’s mom found the missing invitation: that entire twist of events was left to the illustrations!
But the Amazon reviews clearly told me that I correctly conveyed, via illustrations alone, this crucial plot point. My readers were able to surmise how it came to light that Molly and Dominic had misbehaved.
Organize from the get-go.
I advise authors submitting CPB manuscripts to number a sheet of paper from three to 30. The first page, page 3, will be single, right-sided (recto) page. The rest will be in spreads with the lesser-value even number on the left (verso) and the odd number on the right. (E. g. the first spread will be pages 4-5.) Place small chunks of your text beside the page and spreads on this list. Even better, check out this free tool on the Perpetual Light Publishing website.
Keep the pages turning.
End each odd page on a mini “cliff-hanger.” For example, instead of page 5 reading something like, “Joey saw the weirdest-looking ball he’d ever seen hovering in the air,” put “He stopped in his tracks. Hovering in the air in front of him was the weirdest thing Joey had ever seen.” Don’t reveal that it was a ball until spread 6-7. Better yet, don’t use the word “ball” at all. Let the illustrator paint it!
Plot a traditional plot.
Known in some circles as “the traditional plot,” there is a practically no-fail secret to making anything entertaining. And yes, it takes plotting. It goes like this: introduce the character, introduce the conflict, build up the action (most of the book), climax, resolve. This works just as well for an Indiana Jones movie as for a Backyardigans episode. Knowing that you have to get all this in between pages 3 and 30, you can even look at the list of page numbers from “Organize” above, and do some tightening up to ensure you are giving these essential parts of the story the proper order and length. There are plenty of articles online about this.
Good things come in threes.
From pigs to bears, the golden rule of children’s picture books (and many other forms of entertainment) is that Rule of Threes. In a nutshell, this generally means it takes your main character three attempts to resolve the conflict. This is a proven, old-as-the-hills storytelling strategy can be used in other elements of the story as well, such as three supporting characters or a setting of three rooms. Look for additional design elements in sets of three, like text boxes and background details.
In summary, a book’s illustrations have the power to not only bring out the best in the author’s words, but also to beckon the reader’s imagination to become an active participant in the story. And that’s what we all want, isn’t it? We want our books to be creative works that beg to be enjoyed again and again, for generations to come.
Jean Schoonover-Egolf is a retired Internal Medicine physician-turned-homeschooling-mom/author/illustrator/publisher. A catechist and volunteer librarian at St. Patrick Parish in downtown Columbus, Ohio (Go, Bucks!), Dr. Egolf spends her free time gardening and rearranging the dishwasher.