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Picture books: pictures vs. words

What makes a picture book work well? The pictures or the words? Well, both, of course. But mainly the pictures… but there again, if there wasn’t a good story…

Some brilliant people can write good stories and draw wonderful pictures. Lucky them. Mostly, a relationship has to be struck up between a writer and a talented artist.

As far as my experience goes, publishers prefer to ‘play cupid’ in these relationships, and like to control contact between the two precious creatives. I’m guessing there have been all sorts of problems in this area in the past. Clash of egos. Fallings out. And worst of all, ganging up on the publisher.

It’s a tricky balance. Sometimes as the writer of a picture book story, you know that the pictures can do so much of the work. The lovely touches in pictures which can be clumsy in words include visual clues to plot development, sense of place, objects to find, little details, subtle facial expressions and repeated visual jokes.

It really is quite hard to get a picture book text just right. So few words in which to convey so much: a strong plot, a believable world, good characters, interesting themes and ideas suitable to the readership, such as sharing or team-play, and other whimsical qualities such as humour and 'Aaahh' factor. The pictures are crucial in helping to hold the story together. 

I recently went to the graduation show at Edinburgh College of Art and made a bee-line for the illustration exhibits. Some of the art styles were delightful but what I did notice was that the stories built around the lovable illustrated chickens and bears were quite weak and under-developed.

So maybe a graduate from the creative writing department should be hooked up with an illustrator? Nah. The world of picture books is not that formulaic. Apart from the elusive chemistry which must exist between collaborators, there is so much to be decided on contractually and financially between author and artist. On the whole, publishers don’t seem to like a pair pitching up with a deal already stuck between them.

Remain flexible. If an artist does you some illustrations for a presentation, or a writer provides some words to accompany your drawings, then pay them a flat fee so you can move forward without them. It’s a business deal not a marriage.

Janey Louise Jones' Princess Poppy books are published by Random House. Her latest book Cloudberry Castle was published in September (Floris).

If you found this article useful, you might like to take a look at:

How to create a fantastic picture book

Interview with Debi Gliori