I started out wanting to write children’s books and kind of fell into illustrating. It was the summer before my sophomore year of college (Willamette University 2010) that I got it in my head that I wanted to write books for kids. I volunteered a bunch at nearby schools and was blown away by a lot of the books I read with the kids such as Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth, No, David! by David Shannon, and Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems. I wanted to make books like those (still do)! I began writing manuscripts, joined SCBWI, and started submitting.
With some prompting from my then girlfriend (now wife!) I started carrying around a sketchbook everywhere (yes, even occasionally to the loo). It wasn’t long before my doodles were helping me write stories and not long after that when I found that illustration was something I was as passionate about as the writing.
I’m not advocating that all picture book writers become author/illustrators, but I do think that in order to create great interplay between text and illustration it is necessary to think about every aspect of the book regardless of whether or not you are the one creating all aspects.
How can writers (who do not illustrate) capture the same interplay magic?
I’ll admit that creating great interplay between text and illustrations tends to come easiest to author/illustrators. But humans are generally highly visual creatures. It is by far our most well-developed sense, so I don’t think it is too much of a stretch for writers to try on an illustrator cap when working on their writing. These are some of my tips for picture book writers:
1. Think about the book holistically. Including pagination! Have a vision for the book in its entirety. But be prepared to let that vision change when it is the illustrator’s turn to create. There are far too many horror stories of writers trying to dictate what to draw to the illustrator. It is a sure way to stifle the book and is the reason why the author and the illustrator usually don’t have contact when working on a book.
2. I, for one, think illustration notes can be a good thing, but the wording of those illustration notes should be as well thought out as the text itself. Just as with the text . . . less is generally more. DON’T give a detailed description of the character or do something like include a picture of the dog your character is based on. DO provide illustration notes when they are imperative to understanding the story/plot and/or when you think the illustration either should augment or contradict the text. For example, if the text says “Mr. Mermicorn was the happiest mermicorn in all the sea”, but the illustration is meant to contradict and show a grumpy Mr. Mermicorn, this is a moment that an illustration note might be in order. AVOID detailed illo notes, but DON’T avoid them altogether IF there is a good reason for one.
3. Set the illustrator up for awesomeness. A great example of this is Oh no!: Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World by Mac Barnett and Dan Santat. Mac does a great job of leaving a lot up to the illustration and providing text that begs for fun illustrations. Consider the opening text “Oh no . . . Oh man . . . I knew it.” This text pleads for the illustrations to augment it in a fun way, which Dan Santat more than rises to this challenge with an opening spread of San Francisco in ruins. There are so many things to learn from this one spread. The text gives ample white space for the illustrations to fill in and Dan’s illustration also is symmetrical with the text in that it then leaves the exact details of what has transpired unanswered at this point. Great page turn! And an excellent case of setting the illustrator up to create something AMAZING.
5. Be open to the illustrator’s vision! This book isn’t YOUR book alone. It is a joint venture! A collaboration! Regardless of whether or not you ever even talk to or meet the illustrator. And the book doesn’t belong to just the two of you either. It belongs also to the publication team (editor, art director, designer) and MOST importantly to the readers and parents. Mo Willems explains this partnership well HERE. Everyone has a part. And just as with a great piece of music it isn’t enough for everyone to play their notes and hit their beats . . . it is about how it all works together. And now I’m sounding cliché and sappy, but I really do think there is something to this.
What do you feel is the secret to finding your voice as a writer? As an illustrator? (When did you realize that you had “found” yours?)
I wish there was some secret or trick to it! I’m always reaching for this elusive ideal of how I wish my books would turn out. That ideal is comprised of a loose hodgepodge of things such as books I adored as a kid (anything by Bill Peet), books and art I admire today, design I find appealing, stuff that tickles my funny bone, and piranhas. My style/voice is also a result of practice, muscle memory, and brain farts. The thing is I never feel like I have “found” my style/voice because it is constantly evolving, but if I do step back and look at what I’ve done it is clearly my work.
Marietta is so great and there are certainly many factors that make us a good match, but if I was to pinpoint one factor that is especially important . . . communication! Something I’m not always so great at, so perhaps patience is a close second. But as with any relationship, good communication is huge. Being clear and honest and forthcoming!
Thank you for being our guest today, Ben!
Thank you! Always fun to talk about books! Especially about books filled with pictures.
Don't forget Part II of Ben's interview! Take a peek inside Something Extraordinary and learn which mentor texts inspired Ben HERE.