Monday 6 August 2018


A children's picture book needs to strike a balance between the written text and the illustrations. The text should be able to be divided up evenly, with an equal amount of text on each page. Each page - or each double page spread - has a sentence or two, or a paragraph. Each of these sentences or paragraphs must lend themselves to an illustration, and so the written text should provide a variety of scenes, characters, or actions. You could think of this as writing "captions" for the (not-yet-drawn) pictures. However, these "captions" must flow, as they should in any other well-written story, with an intriguing beginning, a rousing middle, and a good, satisfying ending.

The problem with many picture book manuscripts submitted to publishers is that writers do not give sufficient thought to the role of illustrator as co-creator of the finished book. Publishing Manager of Penguin Books, Laura Harris, has said that one of the main reasons picture book texts get rejected is that “the writer doesn’t give the illustrator enough to work with.” A writer needs to read her text with the eye of an illustrator, looking at each and every paragraph to consider what pictorial images might complement them. If she cannot imagine illustrations for each paragraph, then she can be said to have failed the illustrator, and so she must re-write.

In her book Making Picture Books (Scholastic Australia2003), Libby Gleeson writes: “In the best picture books, the illustrations are absolutely necessary. They carry parts of the story or the narrative and in some cases the language is dropped, and pictures alone are all that is needed. The process is like a film where words and pictures work together but sometimes silence is a powerful way to tell part of a story.

A picture book is not the same as an illustrated short story: in the latter words alone could tell the story and the illustrations simply break up the words or decorate the text. Illustrations in a successful picture book not only complement written text; they can, as Gleeson says, take the place of text, interpreting and extending the meaning of what the writer is trying to say in a way that might never have occurred to the writer (or to her editor). Colour – or lines or shapes - in artwork, for example, might convey personalities of the book’s characters, be symbolic of a mood (doom or humour) that the writer wishes to capture, produce an illusion (say of movement and surprise) or convey greater level of meaning.

To provide an illustrative brief or to instead allow the illustrator total freedom to make his interpretation is a problem which often besets a picture book writer. Many editors do not like writers to provide illustrative briefs. Illustrators like Shaun Tan say, “Manuscripts that presuppose or suggest what the visuals might be in advance, or even the breakdown of text per page, are quite uninviting to me.” In most cases where a writer has provided an illustrative brief, illustrators have totally disregarded them and gone on with their own interpretation of the written text. In any case, what is sure is that it is the written text alone which an editor judges as acceptable or not. If a creator submits a poor text accompanied by brilliant illustrations, then no matter how impressive the illustrations, the editor will have no hesitation in rejecting the submission.

And what of a picture book text? Illustrator Ann James says, “To write a picture book the writer knows less is more, but that each word is potent and a cue for interpretation by the artist.” She knows that the successful picture book writer needs to provide a strong, rich and streamlined text. Author Alan Baillie adds to this: “A picture book can only be about five hundred words, which means that every word has to pull its weight. The tension, the atmosphere, the characters, the humour.”

In general, the picture book writer needs to remember that the text is short and some of the story is contained in the illustrations. She needs to keep the language simple and direct. Not to overuse adjectives and adverbs. Not to clutter up sentences. To use simple – (as opposed to complex) verbs that are also appropriate. And, too, the writer needs to forget about descriptive language – for description is the illustrator’s domain.

Finally, here is what some Australian illustrators say about picture book texts:
Kerry Argent: “I like a text to move . . . minimal enough so that I can create extra layers and stories, visually.”
Shaun Tan: “I accept manuscripts ... that give much room for me to play and to tell my own stories visually, (that have) a certain ambiguity . . . that resist being fully explained.”
Ron Brooks: “To make a book, the words have to turn my heart around, make me go hollow in the belly, weak at the knees.”

© Dianne Bates

Dianne (Di) Bates is the founder/compiler of Buzz Words, an online twice monthly magazine for those in the children’s book industry. The author of 130+ books for young readers, she has published only one children’s picture book, Big Bad Bruce, illustrated by Cheryl Johns (Koala Books) which is in the KOALA Hall of Fame.

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