Illustrations. The one aspect of picture book making that has made me cry, holler, pull my hair out, snort and despair, in no particular order. Because of my constant persistence on going beyond the obvious when thinking up illustrations for each frame, I have ended up rubbing people the wrong way each time. Here’s why:
a) Because of a general resistance from most illustrators to go (even) one level deeper than simply paraphrasing the words. If the text reads-and the birds flew away-we need to go way way deeper than just showing the birds taking off. We need to make our visuals so rich and engaging (not the same as cluttering the page; not at all) that the child forgets there are words too on that page. We need to make eyes that speak a thousand unsaid words, wings that invite children to climb upon them into those magical flights of fancy, we need to show the eager sky opening its doors to the child to step in and get lost, we need to show what the birds that didn’t take off are missing, we need to show what else in the universe joins our child and that flying bird in their out-of-the-world soar. We also need to show that part of the world that our child and the bird are leaving behind once they’ve taken off. And I haven’t even started on the million possibilities of parallel stories around the beaming sun! In an ideal picture-book-world, the page should not even say that the birds flew away. Unfortunately, what we get instead are terribly unidimensional frames with too many extra words (authors and editors, are we listening?) and too few visual elements to allow for a multi-layered reading of the picture book. What new will the child explore on a page each time where there is nothing left to explore after the first (two seconds of) reading!
I’m not saying we need to end up with cluttered over-crowded pages which attempt to show so much that they fail to say anything at all. Indeed, there’s a certain irresistible charm in picturebooks with minimalistic illustrations. But not everyone gets it right. A fine balance, and we can have a captive audience in our young explorers.
b) Because talented and accomplished illustrators resent being ‘told’ (even by way of gentle suggestions) what to do. I have been asked a couple of times in not-so-polite-terms to mind my business. I have to remind them, in polite terms, of course, that it is my business to have a spectacular book out. Creative freedom and space are great virtues (and rights) to fight for, but not at the cost of a book. Certainly not at the cost of the book.
c) Because most illustrators tend to forget that when working on a picture book, they are not just brilliant artists who can conjure up the most fascinating (and aesthetically sublime) and breathtaking frames. No. They are there to assist the author in telling a story. Actually, more than the author, it is the illustrator who should be able to create depth and multiple layers of reading / interpretation through their illustrations. By often ending up preparing (just) artworks that can draw the oohs and aahs of connoisseurs at art exhibition, I feel, we are cheating our children. Illustrators, dears-and I know henceforth I will be totally shunned by one and all-you need to disassociate the talented mind-blowing artist within you with the story-teller that’s crouched in there, just waiting to burst onto the fore. Don’t silence the latter. Please.
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