Making Your Illustration Notes Work for You

Illustration by Jonathan Cooper

One of the first rules pounded into you as an aspiring picture book writer is, no matter how vivid your vision of your book is, you aren’t the illustrator. Sadly, you don’t get to decide that your protagonist is redhead with braids who lives in a split level home, at least not as an instruction to the illustrator. If you do add it as part of the text, always think about how necessary those words are. Don’t bog down a picture book text with non-essential details.

So you quickly learn that you shouldn’t sprinkle your manuscripts with detailed descriptions of what the illustrations will show. That will be up to the editor, art director and, most specifically, the illustrator.

In fact, you’ll find as you move into the publishing process that usually the author and the illustrator are kept out of contact, rather like the buyer and seller in a real estate deal. Most editors want the communication to go through them. Their job is to respect the creative talents of both the author and the illustrator.

So, no illustration notes…

Except, of course, when there are. When you need them. Usually for obvious reasons such as when the text contradicts what the illustration needs to show. For example, I might write:

Biff was so excited to be the new class monitor.
(Illustration note: clearly Biff isn’t excited at all. The last thing class clown Biff wants to do is police other kids).

 I don’t know if there are any rules about how to format illustration notes. The example above is how I do them. Separated from the regular text by spacing, in parenthesis, labeled as “Illustration note:” to make it crystal clear that what follows isn’t text. And all set in italics. But I’m sure other writers handle them in different ways.

One approach that does seem pretty universal is to put your note in present tense. It makes it more vivid, more immediate. Just as an illustration is more immediate.

I have another less obvious reason for sometimes putting in illustration notes. Your first reader is going to be an agent or an editor. They don’t yet have the illustrations to help them along. Most of the time this is good and it’s another reason to not use illustration notes. You want the editor to start owning this story. You want their imagination to start going to work. An experienced editor doesn’t need your help to start picturing what the illustrations will do.

Your text, hopefully, will create a mood, a tone, a particular experience for the reader. Sweet, funny, warm, old-fashioned, wacky. You can’t always know where the editors imagination will go, so don’t constrain it by illustration notes.

BUT…  if I think a note is necessary for the book to “work,”for the story to come across as effectively and persuasively as it can I’ll put one in.  It’s rarely comes up and it’s a tough call to make. Is this story more effective with that note or not? Tempted as you are to steer the editor to a certain reading (this is a warm, cozy story set in a Tudor cottage, damn it!) 99% of the time you’re going to want to restrain that impulse.

Here’s a specific example that I think shows all those elements at work. The other day I was critiquing a picture book in one of my writing groups. My friend is an experienced, excellent picture book writer, but she rarely has had to do illustration notes. I won’t use her actual words, but below is essentially what was happening in her story.

The sky darkened and…
“Look!”
(Illustration note: The girl points at the rising moon with her dog beside her)
“The moon.”

The basic story was about the seasons using lovely lyrical language detailing the changes in nature. But each section ended with a girl and her dog experiencing something from the changes. The twosome are, however, never explicitly mentioned in the text, and it wasn’t always clear from the text what the two were experiencing. The pictures would carry that part of the story. So, illustration notes seemed justified.

But thinking about that agent or editor’s reading experience, I suggested the following edit:

The sky darkened and…
“Look!”
(Illustration note: The girl, her dog beside her, points at the rising moon.)

 I thought this would create a more vivid experience for the editor. Number one: rather than bury that all-important rising moon in the middle of the note, move it to the end where it will stand out as the final image you’ve called the reader’s attention to. And, number two: I thought seeing the moon, having the reader look as the character instructs, was more effective than adding to what the illustration would show–the moon.

It seemed to me that the editor would have an experience closer to that of a child reader who might hear the word “Look,” then perhaps there would be a page turn, and then the sight of the moon. No words necessary in the text. But in this case, totally necessary as an illustration note to give the editor the experience you want her to have reading your story.

And, notice that you’re not telling the illustrator what the moon looks like. Who knows what they might come up with, and that’s half the fun!

 

“Lullabies for Maniacs”?

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While browsing and poking around over at The Poetry Foundation website, I came across an older article (2010) about the singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant. She had just come out with a 2-cd set of children’s poems set to music. The title of the article (“Lullabies for Maniacs”) plays on the fact that Merchant once was lead singer for the band 10,000 Maniacs. But for the cd in question, titled Leave Your Sleep, the songwriter did a deep dive into 19th and 20th-century children’s ditties, nursery rhymes, lullabies, and nonsense poems that her own daughter responded to, picking out some verses written by well-known poets like Robert Graves and Robert Louis Stevenson, some by uncelebrated authors, and others by the ubiquitous (especially in rhymes for children) “Anonymous.”

Here’s one Merchant set to music:

‘maggy and milly and molly and may’

maggy and milly and molly and may 
went down to the beach(to play one day) 

and maggie discovered a shell that sang 
so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles,and 

milly befriended a stranded star 
whose rays five languid fingers were; 

and molly was chased by a horrible thing 
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and 

may came home with a smooth round stone 
as small as a world and as large as alone. 

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me) 
its always ourselves we find in the sea 

E. E. Cummings

The 2-disc set is still available at Amazon. I’m not trying to hawk the cd here, so I’ll just copy and paste the list of tracks – and when you have time, you might want to use it as a list of poems you can look up for fun.  [Added note: Do not miss the video of the Ted Talk performance where Merchant sings many of these poem-songs, including “maggy and milly….” Click here for the link to it . ]

Track Listings

Disc: 1

  1. Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience
  2. Equestrienne
  3. Calico Pie
  4. Bleezer’s Ice-Cream
  5. It Makes a Change
  6. The King of China’s Daughter
  7. The Dancing Bear
  8. The Man in the Wilderness
  9. maggie and milly and molly and may
  10. If No One Ever Marries Me
  11. The Sleepy Giant
  12. The Peppery Man
  13. The Blind Men and the Elephant

Disc: 2

  1. Adventures of Isabel
  2. The Walloping Window Blind
  3. Topsyturvey-World
  4. The Janitor’s Boy
  5. Griselda
  6. The Land of Nod
  7. Vain and Careless
  8. Crying, My Little One
  9. Sweet and a Lullaby
  10. I Saw a Ship A-Sailing
  11. Autumn Lullaby
  12. Spring and Fall: To a Young Child
  13. Indian Names
—————————————————
The Poetry Friday round-up is being hosted today by Karen Edmisten. Head over to her blog to see what other people have posted.

Poems That Are Part of Me

It falls to me to complete this tour Around the Table, our fifth post about poems we met as children.

Certainly my sense of language and story were shaped by the many poems our mom read to us five children at bedtime. I especially loved There Once Was A Puffin by Florence Page Jaques (1890-1972), and proposed it as a text that I would illustrate for Dutton Children’s books early on in my career. It came out in 1995. The dedication reads, “To Mom, in whose voice I hear this still.”

Oh, there once was a puffin

Just the shape of a muffin,
And he lived on an island
In the bright blue sea!

He ate little fishes,
That were most delicious,
And he had them for supper
And he had them for tea.

But this poor little Puffin,
He couldn’t play nothin’,
For he hadn’t anybody
To play with at all.

So he sat on his island,
And he cried for awhile, and
He felt very lonely,
And he felt very small.

Then along came the fishes,
And they said, “If you wishes,
You can have us for playmates,
Instead of for tea!”

So they now play together,
In all sorts of weather,
And the Puffin eats pancakes,
Like you and like me.

 This poem was previously published in Child Life magazine and then reprinted in The Big Golden Book Of Poetry by Jane Werner Watson (1947).

Other childhood poem favorites were by A.A. Milne: Binker in Now We are Six, and Disobedience in When We Were Very Young, all with wonderful “decorations” by Ernest H. Shepard. I loved reading A.A. Milne’s poems to my own children and look forward to sharing them with grandsons, too.

Binker is about an imaginary friend who never lets the young protagonist down.

A sample:

The curious Disobedience is about a mother who does not mind her three-year old’s rules, which made me wonder if my mother needed better taking care of.

Here, in it’s entirety:

DisO1DisO2DisO3DisO4

 

Last but not least, here’s a shout out to the story-poems that Mom recited by heart. Once when I burnt my hand badly and couldn’t sleep, Mom sat beside my bed long into the dark night. I was comforted by the glow of the tip of her cigarette and her beautiful voice reciting one poem after another: The Flyaway Horse, The Owl and the Pussycat, The Highway Man, Custard the Dragon. Those cadences are as much a part of me as the genetic material I inherited. Little did she know she was nurturing a writer.

 

 

 

 

You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You

Following the poem-posts of Julie, Bonny and Margaret, here are a few tasty morsels of poetry from my childhood. I loved the book “You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You.” Recently I found it in paperback.

I especially liked Ciardi’s poem “Little Bits”.

Another favorite book was Ounce Dice Trice.

It might not have been called a book of poetry, but it was and is all about savoring words (and pictures).

My last word goes to Margaret Wise Brown from her book “Where Have You Been?”, illustrated by Barbara Cooney. This poem roosted inside me when I was about 5, and it has lived there ever since. I recite it to the crows in our neighborhood.

In the comment section I welcome any of your favorite poems or words from childhood. Thank you.

p.s. In my newsletter I mentioned the wonderful book Forgotten Words by Robert MacFarlane. It is actually called Lost Words.

NEXT!

Following the trend set by Julie Larios and Bonny Becker in their preceding posts on this blog, here is a favorite poem of mine from my younger years, by Ogden Nash. I even posted a copy of it on the wall of my dorm room (I have long had a thing for dinosaurs) along with my collection of dinosaur memorabilia, my freshman year at college. Keep in mind that this poem predates the Night At The Museum movies by several decades.

NEXT!

I thought that I would like to see

The early world that used to be,

That mastodonic mausoleum,

the Natural History Museum.

On iron seat in marble bower,

I slumbered through the closing hour.

At midnight in the vasty hall

The fossils gathered for a ball.

High above notices and bulletins

Loomed up the Mesozoic skeletons.

Aroused by who knows what elixirs,

They ground along like concrete mixers.

They bowed and scraped in reptile pleasure,

And then began to tread the measure.

There were no drums or saxophones,

But just the clatter of their bones,

A rolling, rattling, carefree circus

Of mammoth polkas and mazurkas.

Pterodactyls and brontosauruses

Sang ghostly prehistoric choruses.

Amid the megalosauric wassail

I caught the eye of one small fossil.

Cheer up, old man, he said, and winked —

It’s kind of fun to be extinct.

I still enjoy the work of Ogden Nash – his wonderful play with words. However, in rereading this poem now, it does take on a more ominous meaning than it used to!

The Children’s Hour

 

Last week Julie Larios wrote about the poem The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat on this blog. It brought back memories of my dad reading to us every Sunday night. Every once in a while it was an evening of poems, including that Gingham Dog and Calico cat one.

Dad’s selections were all over the map from my mom’s favorite (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock) to Ogden Nash to Edgar Allan Poe. How could you not fall in love with words? How could you not want to be a writer and play with words, too?

T.S. Elliott was as high brow as things got. We got doses of other more adult-ish poems, like Dorothy Parker’s Resume:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

But most of the poems were aimed at the kids sprawled around the living room. We loved things like Poe’s The Bells or Anabelle Lee and, of course The Raven.

It helped that we’d already heard The Purple Cow before we heard Nash’s The Abominable Snowman:

I never saw an abominable snowman
I’m hoping not to see one,
I’m also hoping if I do
that it will be a wee one.

The Cremation of Sam McGee (Robert Service), Casey at the Bat (Ernest Lawrence Thayer) and The Jabborwocky (Lewis Carroll) were favorites.

Sometimes the poems were sentimental like Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud  or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Children’s Hour.

But as kids who were growing up in an earnest world (Dick and Jane, Howdy Doody, The Wonderful World of Disney) our absolute favorite was How to Treat Elves by Morris Bishop, which my father gleefully read in a nice treacly manner.

It was transgressive and meta in a way none of us had quite heard before. Of course, this kind of thing is everywhere now. But back in the day my father could count on a delighted audience every time he brought it out. Here it is:

“How To Treat Elves”

by Morris Bishop

I met an elf man in the woods,
The wee-est little elf!
Sitting under a mushroom tall–
‘Twas taller than himself!

“How do you do, little elf,” I said,
“And what do you do all day?”
“I dance ‘n fwolic about,” said he,
“‘N scuttle about and play;”

“I s’prise the butterflies, ‘n when
A katydid I see,
‘Katy didn’t’ I say, and he
Says ‘Katy did!’ to me!

“I hide behind my mushroom stalk
When Mister Mole comes froo,
‘N only jus’ to fwighten him
I jump out’n say ‘Boo!’

“‘N then I swing on a cobweb swing
Up in the air so high,
‘N the cwickets chirp to hear me sing
‘Upsy-daisy-die!’

“‘N then I play with the baby chicks,
I call them, chick chick chick!
‘N what do you think of that?” said he.
I said, “It makes me sick.

“It gives me sharp and shooting pains
To listen to such drool.”
I lifted up my foot, and squashed
The God damn little fool.

Now there’s a kid’s poem!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43190/bed-in-summer

 

 

 

Like Cats and Dogs

gingham-dog-calico-cat1

In 2012 – yikes, seven years ago, already? –  I wrote a blog post for the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ faculty blog, Write At Your Own Risk. I wrote that post the day after the 2012 elections, ruminating about how hopeful I was feeling, and trying to evaluate the lessons I’d learned about friends, family, community and politics. You might say the people in the country then  (and the political pundits) had been fighting like cats and dogs. In that 2012 blog, I said, “As with many lessons we learn on the path to responsible behavior as neighbors and citizens, it comes in the form of a poem for children.” The poem I had in mind was Eugene Field’s wonderful “The Duel” (commonly called “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat.”)

cats and dogs 3

I’ll offer that poem up to you now because it’s been on my mind again lately, Maybe it’s a poem that wiggles its way into my subconscious every year there’s a national election? Maybe it’s bubbling up again because my nephew and I had a conversation about our diverging political opinions that made me lose sleep.

Maybe the poem will bubble up into your minds over the next few months, too. Similarities between ourselves and our gingham-and-calico counterparts abound.

As a writer whose audience consists of children, I’m going to reread All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  Learning to share, learning to be generous, learning to offer a helping hand to people less fortunate than ourselves, learning to take turns, learning not to be bullies.  Lots of lessons to re-learn amidst the meows and the bow-wow-wows.

THE DUEL

The gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat;
‘T was half-past twelve, and (what do you think!)
Nor one nor t’ other had slept a wink!
The old Dutch clock and the Chinese plate
Appeared to know as sure as fate
There was going to be a terrible spat.
(I wasn’t there; I simply state
What was told to me by the Chinese plate!
)

The gingham dog went “Bow-wow-wow!”
And the calico cat replied “Mee-ow!”
The air was littered, an hour or so,
With bits of gingham and calico,
While the old Dutch clock in the chimney-place
Up with its hands before its face,
For it always dreaded a family row!
(Now mind: I ‘m only telling you
What the old Dutch clock declares is true!
)

The Chinese plate looked very blue,
And wailed, “Oh, dear! what shall we do!”
But the gingham dog and the calico cat
Wallowed this way and tumbled that,
Employing every tooth and claw
In the awfullest way you ever saw—
And, oh! how the gingham and calico flew!
(Don’t fancy I exaggerate—
I got my news from the Chinese plate!
)

Next morning, where the two had sat
They found no trace of dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole that pair away!
But the truth about the cat and pup
Is this: they ate each other up!
Now what do you really think of that!
(The old Dutch clock it told me so,
And that is how I came to know.
)

–Eugene Field

cats and Dogs 2

It’s Poetry Friday, by the way. Click here to head over to Linda Baie’s blog, TeacherDance, to see what people are posting.

 

 

CAUSE AND EFFECT

Sometimes you don’t know the meaning of a picture book project until you are well into the work. So it was for our new book, SQUEAK!

The text and thumbnails were done and sketches well underway on a beautiful morning in Spring 2016 when insight struck. It hit during our docent group’s tour of Dunn Gardens, led by then-head gardener Zsolt Lehoczky.

As we headed out onto the Great Lawn – which is an important feature of this 100-year old Olmsted-designed estate garden – Zsolt noted the lush grass was pocked with gopher mounds. He explained that the rich soil attracts lots of worms and the worms attract the gophers.

I was walking beside fellow-docent Elizabeth Conlin. Under her breath, she murmured, “We’re all in this together.”

And I realized that’s what SQUEAK! is about. It’s the story of how, in a cause-and-effect way, a little mouse’s squeak can wake up all the animals in the meadows and mountains. “We’re all in this together.” Elizabeth’s comment became the epigraph for the book.

SQUEAK!  itself caused a further effect: I have come to know Elizabeth better. It turns out this cause and effect mechanism is key to her way of being in the world. She writes:

“I was tickled about the meaning of SQUEAK! when you told me about it. We were standing outside the classroom and I think the wisteria was in bloom. I’ve thought about it often. I love the possibility of kids experiencing your book and realizing that every sound and every movement they make can reverberate far beyond their imaginings. I love the idea of children being exposed to that concept.

“We are, essentially, vibration. The only true choices we have are in how to use and direct our energy/vibrations. I became a Kundalini yoga teacher when I discovered that I have the ability to positively effect the people I come into contact with — that I could learn to do it better and more consistently with just my vibratory frequency.”

When you put a book out into the world, you really don’t know what the effect will be, much as the mouse in SQUEAK! has no idea his tiny utterance will awake an entire ecosystem. Books themselves are both a cause, and the result of a lot of effect.

•• • • •  •  •   •

Next Monday evening, Sept. 16, at 5 pm, we will have the first public reading of SQUEAK! at Seattle’s University Bookstore. We plan a participatory reading. Everyone who comes can be part of the cause and effect of the story. The initial squeak will come from our grandson Otto, age 2, in his mouse suit. You are invited to get in on the fun. Plus, there will be snacks!

Note: Dunn Gardens is open through October and offers docented tours as well as ‘wanders.’ It is one of Seattle’s secret treasures. For more information about visiting: https://dunngardens.org/visiting-tours

 

 

 

 

 

Studio

Yes, Virginia. It does make a difference to have a room of one’s own.

illustration by Carson Ellis from her book HOME

About 30 years ago I got my first studio, an addition to our small house. My father designed it. He came out and built it along with my husband, family and friends.  It changed my life to get a studio – to take my aspirations to be an artist seriously, to have a place to work.

Over the years the studio filled up with projects in process and completed, with supplies to make new things, with paper, with cardboard, with fabric, with pictures that I pinned up for reference or inspiration, with pets. It was too full, but I never wanted to stop creating long enough to make it clean and organized.

This spring nature intervened. A tree fell through the roof of the studio.

Luckily it missed me by about 6 inches. Luckily we have good insurance. Luckily it missed most of my art and equipment.
Movers packed up and removed 164 boxes of art, objects, supplies and books from my studio and the adjacent bookshelves. After a bit, Greater Seattle Construction got to work and rebuilt.

Four months later the studio was repaired, repainted and empty. GSC did a great job.

The movers brought back all of the boxes.

I went through every item and ruthlessly discarded things. I unpacked and sorted, shelved and organized.
Now my studio is airy and clean. At least for the moment.


A clean space is no guarantee of fresh ideas or creative flow. But it does allow for the possibility.

It feels good to be back in this room of my own, heading into the future.

 

 

The Calico Jungle

I was at a friend’s house recently and she had a book sitting out that caught my eye: The Calico Jungle, by Dahlov Ipcar, published in 1965.

It was one of her favorite books as a child. She kept it and then read it to her own children (now adults).

It’s a quiet bedtime story, about a boy looking at all the “strange and wonderful” animals on the quilt his mother made for him.

It ends as he falls asleep and dreams he is walking through the calico jungle.

This friend of mine is an English teacher as well as a textile artist and quilter. Perhaps this book lies at the root of her adult pursuits? I wonder…

I wish I had seen this book when I was young, but I’m glad to discover it now. I will look for other books by illustrated by Dahlov Ipcar. Perhaps for a future post!