What Beautiful Illustrations Can Do

In my personal development as a picture book writer, I fully admit that one of the first things I had to learn was to let go of what the book would look like. It is extremely tempting to include copious notes, in hopes that an illustrator will create pictures that mirror EXACTLY what the writer sees in their head. This is the writer’s story, after all, is it not?

You could take this limited view, but you would be missing out on many wondrous possibilities. What if the illustrator creates a vision of your book that is far beyond anything you imagined? What if they elevate your words, creating images that supplement, partner, or even transcend what you have written?

I was not always a believer. Then recently I read two picture books that demonstrate how an illustrator working with a writer’s words can elevate the piece to something quite special.

The first example is an author/illustrator. You may say, “Well, that doesn’t count. He’s working with his own story.” I would agree that it may guarantee that the writer’s vision is illustrated the way he sees it. However, it does not guarantee that the resulting words and pictures work together to create something that is greater than the individual pieces.

Lane Smith, is well known for illustrating for others, such as Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man. He has also illustrated his own books. My favorite of his own stories (that I have read so far) is Grandpa Green. Grandpa Green’s great-grandson tells his grandfather’s story, as he wanders through a garden. The garden is full of topiaries and other garden creations that show each of the memories that the boy shares. For example, Grandpa got chicken pox: “He had to stay home from school. So he read stories about secret gardens and wizards and a little engine that could.” These words are accompanied by a two-page spread of bushes and trees cut to resemble a lion, a scarecrow, a tin man, and a train. In the end, you discover that Grandpa is old and sometimes forgets things. “But the important stuff, the garden remembers for him.” We are treated to another two-page spread of all of the garden creations, made by Grandpa himself.

Besides the beautiful illustrations throughout the book (made all the more amazing by the fact that he uses the color green almost exclusively), the story itself is sweet. But when you combine the story and the illustrations together, it lifts up the book to make it poignant, charming, and endearing. The pictures reinforce the words, and give them so much more meaning. My son and I were so taken with the book that we immediately went back to the beginning and read it again. I was pleased to discover that Grandpa Green has earned Lane Smith the 2012 Caldecott Honor.

The second example is Two Little Trains, by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. The first item of note with this book is that it was published in 2001, 49 years after Ms. Brown’s death. More amazing still, there are many more of Margaret Wise Brown’s books that have been published posthumously with modern illustrators.

In Two Little Trains, Ms. Brown uses techniques seen in other books of hers: a repetitive, rhythmic language that compares and contrasts objects and concepts. For example:

One little train was a streamlined train,

Puff, Puff, Puff to the West.

One little train was a little old train,

Chug, Chug, Chug going West.

The words themselves are fun to read, and would be enjoyable to young children. However, the illustrators have taken the text to another level. On each left hand page is a drawing of a real train, making its journey. On each right page is a drawing of a toy train, making its own journey through the house. As the real train zooms along the metal tracks, the toy train runs along its own improvised track made from the fringe of a rug. Again, the illustrators have elevated the words to create a much bigger, more nuanced story. The illustrations ensure you want to turn the page and see what will happen next.

I apologize for not sharing more images (since I am talking about illustrations after all), but I have left them out for fear of using images that do not belong to me. All the more reason for you to go to your library or bookstore and search out these beautiful books for yourselves!

What books do you love, that combine illustration and text in a wondrous way?

One thought on “What Beautiful Illustrations Can Do

  1. So true that you walk a fine line when writing picture books. It is a marriage of words and art, and you have to let the illustrator do his/her job. On the other hand, sometimes it’s very important to be clear what you intend, as in a situation where humor is shown in the art, not written in the text, but both the editor reading for the first time and the illustrator must know what you intend or the humor, and possibly the meaning, is lost.

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