Writers focus on words, and sometimes we tend to forget the critical role illustrations play in a book’s success—especially a picture book. Having published eight picture books (two with Penguin, four poetry/picture books with Boyds Mills Press, and two self-published), here are some things I’ve learned about working with illustrators.

Equal Partners

In picture books, artwork gets equal (and sometimes dominant) billing in relation to the words. How can authors best work with illustrators? Here are some things to know.

  1. The publisher makes the pick. Unless you are an author/illustrator or a VERY famous author, the publisher will choose the illustrator for your book (unless you self-publish, which I’ll address later). I feel fortunate that my publishers have sought my input on potential illustrators. In every case, I have been extremely pleased with the outcome.
  2. You don’t work with the artist directly. Everything filters through the publisher—sketches, comments, and revisions. That’s partly for efficiency. It also prevents authors and illustrators from potentially arguing.
  3. Be open to new ideas. You may perceive your characters in a particular way, or they may be described physically in the text. Speak up if the artwork runs counter to that. But also be open to the artist’s conceptions. When I wrote One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count with Me (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin, 2017) https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/533525/one-leaf-two-leaves-count-with-me-by-john-micklos-jr-illustrated-by-clive-mcfarland/9780399544712, I was totally focused on the tree and the leaves. In fact, I was surprised when illustrator Clive McFarland’s first sketches included a young boy. Of course, it added greatly to the appeal of the book. When I wrote Raindrops to Rainbow (Penguin Workshop, 2021) https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/646848/raindrops-to-rainbow-by-john-micklos-jr-illustrated-by-charlene-chua/, I pictured a young boy (a young me), but I didn’t specify a gender in the text. Illustrator Charlene Chua created a delightful red-haired girl and added a cute Corgi sidekick. Again, great choices.
  4. Voice your opinions. Feel free to comment if you see things in the sketches that contradict the text or just don’t seem right to you. Publishers welcome such comments. Realize, however, that you may get overruled.
  5. Be flexible. Publishers and illustrators are professionals, and they know the elements that make picture books successful. Be open to embracing their vision!

Going the Self-Publishing Route

If you want full control over how your project will look, consider self-publishing. I had a particular vision for how I wanted The Sound in the Basement (https://firststatepress.com/) to look, so I hired New York artist (and friend) Eric Hamilton to do the illustrations and published the book through an imprint I started called First State Press. Eric and I discussed and collaborated on every image, and the final product truly reflected my vision.

For Beach Fun: Poems of Surf and Sand (https://firststatepress.com/), I approached award-winning photographer (and friend) Lisa Goodman of Wilmington about partnering on the project. We worked together closely to pair just the right photographs with my poems (and in some cases to revise the poems to fit the photos). We also split the cost of producing the book.

The plus: Self-publishing allows you to realize YOUR vision for your book. The minus: YOU are responsible for marketing and selling. It took several years to recoup the investment I had made in these two books. But they turned out just how I wanted, and that makes it all worthwhile.

Which model is right for you—traditional publishing or self-publishing? That’s for you to decide. Either way, prepare to collaborate with the illustrator to create your masterpiece.

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