Helping out the illustrator, even when you don’t know who they are yet

I’ve been working on a new picture book manuscript, my first one in a while. It’s a poem that came out of  experiences with my kids and with others’ and the troubles they face.

I put it away for a couple days, pulling it out again this morning. Now that I’ve decided it’s a picture book, I’m revising it with an eye to the requirements of the format.

O the horror! It’s unillustrateable!

(Yes, I just made that word up.)

What do I mean? 

Illustrators don’t just draw nice pictures–they support the text. They provide additional interest to the book and, most importantly, help the reader build meaning out of the words.

When you write a picture book (assuming you aren’t also the illustrator), you need to establish concrete, evocative images or lively scenes that are natural material from which an illustrator can work. They need to vary enough in content or setting in order to maintain visual interest for the reader.

That is, unless you think young children really dig “My Dinner With Andre.”

Moments begging for illustration are missing in my current picture book draft. I’m going to have to go back and sneak in some more opportunities for a future illustrator (whomever he or she turns out to be) to insert their images if I’m ever to convince an editor they want this story.

Have you ever re-experienced  your first draft, or switched genres mid-project, only to realize you’ve missed some of the essentials of the genre? I’d love to hear your story in the comments below.

illustrator bear at easel

Is your manuscript unbearable? You gotta make the illustrator’s job easier.

3 thoughts on “Helping out the illustrator, even when you don’t know who they are yet

  1. This is an incredibly useful observation. I suspect people who’ve never written for the genre would expect that, despite the title, the illustrator’s job is to enhance the text, to add something that’s missing. But it is truly to recreate in picture form the moment written on the page. I also suspect that if you’re used to more “advanced” writing, it may be unnatural to be this explicit. Thanks for the insight!


    • There are certainly “missing” things the illustrator supplies: for example, the text of a picture book has very few physical descriptors of people or setting. But you need to bring in opportunities for those images to appear.

      Sometimes the illustrator goes in completely unexpected directions…but as long as it supports the child’s attempt to make meaning of the words, all is well.


  2. This is a really great reminder to switch up the setting, even for older kids’ books that may not need as many illustrations. If it’s “unillustrateable,” that’s a good reminder to us as writers that we might need to mix up the setting and action a bit to keep the reader involved in the story.


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