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January, 2008

Word Wright

Do The Writing And You're Done (Kids Lit)
Just the words, ma'am
By  Alison Tharen

If you're a writer, there is no need to submit illustrations with your manuscript.
hen Napoleon Bonaparte uttered the famous proverb "a picture is worth a thousand words," I doubt he was holding a copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales. Yet truer words could not have been spoken to describe the art of children's picture books.

The very idea that complex stories can be told with just a single still image, or that an illustration may be more influential than a vast amount of text, is integral to understanding and appreciating the art of the illustrator and their role in the success or failure of a modern picture book.

Without the illustrator's intensity of imagination, vivid realization, comic ingenuity, intuitive understanding, and empathic delight in the child's point of view, the story would remain a mere collection of words. It's the illustrator who really sells the book. If the cover and pictures inside don't visually grab the consumer - the child or the parent - the book will suffer a lingering death on the shelf.

Close your eyes and imagine you are listening for the first time to someone reading The Waterhole by Graeme Base. You attempt to conjure images of the landscapes and animals. You try to visualize the different colours and textures. Finally, you try to picture the waterhole itself.

Now look at the book. Unless you have a vastly superior imagination to the majority of mankind, your mental images didn't even come close to matching the stunningly vivid and vibrant illustrations presented on the pages. Base's illustrations are as much a part of the story as the words, the images he creates forever fused to the words he writes.

Children's book illustrators have a difficult job. In a picture book, each illustration must respond to and enhance a story that more often than not was written by someone else. Within these constraints, it's their job to bring the work to life - to add details, visual clues, pictorial discoveries, and the all-important wow factor that makes this book stand out on the crowded display shelf. No matter how powerful the text is, in a picture book it's the images that make your imagination spring to life and stick in your mind.

So what does this have to do with you the aspiring children's book writer? A lot. Many inexperienced writers make the mistake of wanting to - or thinking they have to - illustrate their own work or hire someone to do it for them. Bad idea.

If you are primarily a writer, there is absolutely no need to submit illustrations with your manuscript. Publishers expect to evaluate manuscripts without them. They don't need any visual aids. Including unsolicited artwork with your manuscript will only increase your chances of getting rejected and almost ensure you a ride on the slush express.

If you are lucky enough to find a publisher who is interested in your work, they will hire the illustrator. Many have a list of preferred artists ready at hand. Suggesting a friend or relative for the job is another bad idea, and arguing that you choose your own illustrator just gives a publisher another reason to turn you down.

If you insist on going this course, make it clear that you are offering your ideas on illustration as a suggestion only. It would be best to wait until after you're offered a contract to even open your mouth on the subject. Chances are good that the publisher will want to select their own illustrator and won't like the illustration style you've chosen for yourself. Remember that their motive is profit in an industry that has to compete with millions of other books. You've done your job as the writer. Now let them do theirs.

In a world inundated with the mass production of comic books, television, cartoons, animated movies, videos, and computer games, the picture book illustrator has overwhelming competition. Thankfully current technologies - such as photo-offset printing - allow today's illustrator to work in a wider variety of media than artists of the past, and advances in technology permit a greater degree of experimentation in the arts.

This is good news for children's book authors. We can look forward to even greater works to come.
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Alison Tharen is a former staff writer for Toronto, Canada's Grolier Publishing Inc, the author of 28 published children’s books and contributing author to 18 children’s text books. She is currently finishing two new children’s book manuscripts. Email

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