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.