Illustrating someone else’s story.


Recently I was asked, “What’s it like to illustrate someone else’s words?”

More or less they were asking –  “What is it like to illustrate someones else’s story/vision/book?”

With picture books, it’s a wonderful challenge. Usually when the story arrives it is completely different from what I have been struggling with/writing/revising or working on and it’s a welcome change of pace.

Honestly, when I get a manuscript from my agent to consider, I put off reading it for a day or so. It’s exciting to get a call from a major publisher, why chew through the experience quickly? Who knows how many of these opportunities one will get in life!?

When I read it, I take my time. I read it 3 or 4 times in one sitting. At this point I usually have a pretty good idea if I want to illustrate it.

Sometimes I forward it to my daughter to get her opinion. She has a visceral take on material, as anyone who spends time with an 8 year old knows. They don’t mask their feelings up and it’s interesting to get her perspective. Her feelings don’t make me accept or not accept a manuscript, it just gives me another POV.

If I don’t quite know what to think about a manuscript I’ll ask my wife to read it and I don’t tell her how I feel about it.

In the past year or so she read a manuscript I was a bit confused about. I liked it, saw potential in the illustration but the story fell a bit flat for me. She brought attention to a relationship in the story that I hadn’t considered and this made the story work much better for me.

Of course I also discuss it with my agent. He has a business perspective on it: how the book fits with my other work (schedule wise and content wise), if the material lets me do what I do best (or don’t do well!) and how good of a fit I am with the publisher on a personality level.

These different opinions rarely change my mind on whether or not to accept a book. What they do give me is a different perspective on finding potential in the material. But the final decision on if I illustrate the book or not is usually (99% of the time) the same decision I would make after my first read.

In my career, I guess that’s what it is now (scary!) I have turned down between a half dozen and a dozen manuscripts for various reasons but the most import reason is that I just didn’t ‘feel it’. I didn’t find anything in the manuscript that I thought I could execute on especially well. I didn’t see a reason why I was the right person to illustrate that book. And when I took my first kids lit class from Marla Frazee she pointed out that when you accept a book – it’s a huge commitment and you better very much love the book. It’s not something you dash off. You might work for 2 years on a book, which is about my limit for being able to pay attention to anything. That’s why feature films seemed like slow death to me. 4 or 5 or 6 years on a project would be exceptionally difficult for me.

So if I like the manuscript, decide I can bring something special to it, it fits into my schedule and the contract is negotiated successfully THEN the fun begins. And because I sometimes alter my style a bit from book to book, I start to get an idea about how I can make the book more than just the words on the page. And this is the learning curve with picture books. It took me a long time to fully understand that the words are JUST THE BEGINNING to what you can do with a picture book. And the best picture books go way beyond the words and create a completely unique experience from endpapers to back cover.

I’m still learning.


About mfearing

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