Putting the Picture in Picture Books

Picture Book Illustrations

Picture books are illustrated stories. What does that mean to the writer of the picture book text? The biggest difference between short stories and picture books is the illustrations. Magazine stories, for example, may have one or two illustrations for each story. Picture books have an illustration on each page: you must think visually when writing for this genre.

Thinking visually doesn’t mean adjectives; illustrators can fill in colors, background, clothing, and other details. Instead, concentrate on verbs; telling your story with pictures requires action. Unless a description is crucial to the story, cut it. Include actions that move the story along. Thoughts and dialogue may advance the plot, but they can’t be illustrated; talking heads make for boring illustrations.

Picture book stories find ways to make thoughts concrete. You get the auditory, tactile, kinesthetic, olfactory, and gustatory.

Think of it this way:
the illustrators get the visual details. But you get everything else, hearing, feeling, moving in space, taste and smell. Only include the visual details if it really makes a difference to the story; otherwise, leave it to the illustrator. Visual possibilities
In other words, you are providing visual possibilities, not visual directions. You will give the illustrator one or two choices for each double-page spread, and within that choice, you give the illustrator room to make professional choices.

Be careful, though, about what illustration possibilities you provide.
In my picture book, The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman, I had the characters visit Reno, Nevada, where they attend a rodeo and then, visit a casino and win $5000! I assumed that the illustrator would illustrate the rodeo. Searching for Oliver K. Woodman by Darcy Pattison. I wanted that rodeo illustration. I grew up hearing my Dad announce rodeos, and especially remember the barrel rides: “A pretty ride by a pretty little lady.”

Instead, we find Agnes, Maggie and Lucinda — and Oliver K. Woodman — at a gambling table. It’s a great illustration, but not what I really wanted! In the sequel, Searching for Oliver K. Woodman, I send the wooden woman, the P.I. searching for Oliver, to another rodeo. This time there is NO OTHER illustration possibility: I got my rodeo scene.
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Study relationship between art and text. Choose about five picture books and study each page. Think about why the illustrator chose the content of the art. Did the text demand something specific, or was the illustrator give lots of freedom in the illustrations?

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