On Illustration Notes, By Liz Garton Scanlon

Here’s the thing about illustration notes:

They are not illegal.

They will not get you blackballed in the industry.

They will not ensure that your story won’t sell.

So what’s the problem? Why the general no-no vibe around authors peppering their manuscripts with helpful hints for would-be editors and illustrators?

I like to think of it this way. When I’m writing, pretty much nobody lays any rules on me. I mean, there’s the awareness of a relatively standardized length and an appropriate audience age, but really I’m just told to write something kid-centered that will be a pleasure to read aloud (again and again). Oh, and to preferably write it really well.

Can it rhyme? Sure, but it doesn’t have to.

Can the characters be talking animals? Sure, but that’s not required.

Can it be funny? Yep, or touching. Or soothing. Or tender. Or surprising.

In other words, I get to do what I want. Follow any old idea down any old rabbit hole. Beckon the muse. Dream. Screw around. Push the envelope over the top. Tangents, digressions, wild hares? Sure. I mean, eventually I have to reign it in to something that looks like, y’know, a manuscript or even a book. But during the creative process, it’s pretty much no holds barred.

And it is because of that immense (and scary) creative freedom that every so often, magic happens. Not on most days or in most manuscripts, but occasionally. The unexpected word or turn of phrase, the wild idea – these things happen because there were no limitations on the mind or heart.

And that is what illustrators need, too–that wide openness in which to create their own magic. When we give them parameters, we short-circuit a whole bunch of possibilities – illustrative and even narrative possibilities that we can’t begin to imagine. And the illustrators won’t imagine them either if we don’t give them the space to play.

For me, one of the best parts of being an author is receiving the artwork for one of my books. And that thrill isn’t because it looks exactly like what I dreamed it would look like, but because it looks like something beyond my wildest dreams.

So yeah, give the illustration notes a rest, unless you absolutely have to include them for an editor or illustrator to make actual, logical sense of the story at hand. And while we’re at it, let’s not overdo other details that illustrators can manage either. A character’s clothing, the color of the sky on a cold day, the items on a teacher’s bulletin board… these things can happen visually while we, as authors, focus on the who, the what and the why-oh-why.

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Liz Garton Scanlon is a mom, children’s author, and teacher. She lives in Austin, Texas, and has written many highly acclaimed and award-winning picture books, including….

All the World, illustrated by Marla Frazee

The Good-Pie Party, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton

Happy Birthday, Bunny, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin

Think Big, illustrated by Vanessa Newton

Noodle & Lou, illustrated by Arthur Howard

A Sock Is a Pocket for Your Toes, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser

She also has a brand-new novel, with a Kirkus starred review! So, check out The Great Good Summer while you’re at it, where Liz paints the pictures all by herself with words!

Learn more about Liz Garton Scanlon and her books by visiting her web site.

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9 Responses to On Illustration Notes, By Liz Garton Scanlon

  1. Thank you for the gentle reminder! We were just talking about this in our critique group. Your post came at just the right time for me!

  2. Wishing magic for us all. 🙂

  3. Bonnie Herniman Yowler & Dolores Warfel says:

    Thank you so much for wise words that encourage us to be creative and stay creative.
    So much fun!!!

  4. Well said, Liz!
    And I agree with you as an illustrator.
    Yes, creativity must have a certain amount of freedom in order to show the true trials, tribulations and joys of life.
    I have had the pleasure of being the illustrator of many well-written manuscripts.
    These author’s wonderful words have inspired me in creating illustrations to match and even enhance their words. Occasionally a few helpful suggestions have been made by the authors and editors, no problem.
    Only once did I feel my creative freedom was jeopardized in illustrating a children’s books, the book was over-art-directed, a term from the days of advertizing illustration. The art director had me redo the sketches so many times that the images seemed to no longer be mine. Of course I completed the job but in the end the art seemed lifeless and stiff and so did I. The book was published but soon went out of print. I’ve learned from the experience that creative freedom is important for good art, as you have perceived.
    One more thing about illustration notes, in recent efforts to become an author/illustrator I found an agent who wanted to see a manuscript only, no art because she was confident about my illustrating but not my writing. I ended up adding illustration notes to my manuscript because an important message was told in the book with pictures not words. Like you said, the notes were needed to make sense of the book. Now I’m happy to be working on sketches and samples of art that will go with the manuscript, but that’s not an illustrator’s point of view, that’s an author/illustrator’s.
    Thank you Liz for your insight.

  5. Heather Pierce Stigall says:

    good points! I am guilty of putting illustrator notes in my manuscripts but I am finding that as I revise I am able to take many out and am hopefully only leaving in essential ones if any at all.

  6. What a guideline! If you are not the illustrator of your manuscript you are already admitting that you want the help of a creative mind to make your vision come to life. And just as we want from our critique partners, you want their honest input and comments for improvement, not “yes” men. In the same way you want an illustrator that adds that something extra without your nudging.

  7. Thanks everyone, for reading and sharing your thoughts.

    Ponder — I love having the illustrator’s perspective here!

    And Heather — YES!! I should’ve said that! Sometimes we use illustration notes in our early drafts — to help ourselves figure out what we’re doing and where we’re going. And then we can delete them before we send the manuscript out….. Such a good point.

  8. Juliana Lee says:

    And look what happens when you leave room for the illustrator… a Caledcott Honor!
    Thanks for the post, very timely.

  9. Pingback: On Illustration Notes, By Liz Garton Scanlon | Ashley Wolff

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