Illustrators: Responding to the Text

 Julie Paschkis

 #1. What elements of a manuscript first capture your attention? Plot? Language? Imagery? Tone? Sound? Theme?

Language is the first thing that grabs me. But it is hard to pick out any one element; all of the elements work together to create a good story. I respond to a good story first as a reader. When I read something that I want to illustrate I feel a general excitement. I rarely envision specific imagery right away.

I read a text so many times and from so many angles as I am illustrating; I really grow to appreciate a well-written text more and more as I am working on a book.

In your wonderful book WHO PUT THE COOKIES IN THE COOKIE JAR? I responded to the rhythmic qualities of the language and also to the loving message. It felt right to illustrate it in a way that was influenced by the books of my childhood.

2. What elements of a manuscript inspire your choice of style, line, and palette?

For example, your illustrations in THROUGH GEORGIA’S EYES, HERE COMES GRANDMA, and MRS. CHICKEN AND THE HUNGRY CROCODILE are at once related, yet still different from one another.

Before I start drawing at all I let the manuscript percolate in the back of my mind for as long as I can. Gradually I get a sense of what I want the illustrations to look like. It is a combination of intuition and rational decision-making. I will also do research related to the text.

 When I illustrated THROUGH GEORGIA’S EYES I read her biography, looked at lots of her paintings, visited her home in Abiquiu and her museum in Santa Fe before starting any sketches. That was the rational part. But I was still stumped for how to approach it. In Santa Fe I went to the folk art museum and saw some Polish paper cuts and made the intuitive leap to illustrate that book as paper cuts. That way I could honor her paintings without trying to paint a Georgia O’Keeffe; translating the medium allowed me to use her imagery in a way that was still mine.

In HEAD BODY LEGS by Meg Lippert and Won-ldy Paye I wanted bright colors and simple shapes intuitively to echo the simple and funny story. Specifically I was inspired by Asafo Flags of West Africa as a way to approach the storytelling. I continued that style in MRS. CHICKEN and in THE TALKING VEGETABLES.

Asafo flag


In every book I want the pictures to amplify and echo the words. And I want to have fun painting it. I think I have succeeded if the reader can’t imagine the words and the pictures without each other. The words come first in my process.

3.  Is there a picture book text that you would love to re-illustrate? What about the text excites you toward doing this?

I would love to illustrate Peter and the Wolf. I did a poster for NW Sinfonietta a few years ago. I listened to the story and the music while I was working on it. I love them both so much. I would like to illustrate the whole piece.

4.  As an illustrator, what is it that you most want writers to understand about you creative process?

I want the author to write a great manuscript and trust me to bring my best to it. These are the things that make it fun for me to illustrate a manuscript:

*There are wonderful words.

*Something happens – it is easier to illustrate a story than a reverie.

*Not everything is spelled out; there are places for me to use my imagination.

*I think that the same qualities that make a book good to read make it good to illustrate.

THANK YOU, JULIE, for sharing your thoughts. To learn more about Julie, her illustrations, books, paintings, and fabric designs please visit her website:  <>

Picture Books Referenced Above

HEAD, BODY, LEGS by Won-Idy Paye & Margaret Lippert, Holt, 2002.

THROUGH GEORGIA’S EYES by Rachel Victoria Rodriguez. Holt, 2006.



One Picture Book Text: Two Interpretations

 When Richard Jesse Watson mentioned FERDINAND THE BULL as the picture book text he’d most like to illustrate I hurried to my bookshelves. I have loved FERDINAND since childhood, and some 40 years ago found a German edition illustrated by Werner Klemke.

While we’ve grown used to folktales being illustrated or interpreted by a wide range of artists, it is unusual for a modern text to be re-illustrated. Our initial reaction often resembles our response to the remake of a beloved film. “What have they done?” But exploring such examples can be valuable to those of us who write but not illustrate. It helps us understand how two different artists can experience and envision our words and story.

Though this German edition is out of print, we can see all the illustrations thanks to the Internet. Go to YouTube: Ferdinand der Stier.wmv – YouTube.



Picture Books Discussed

Leaf, Munro. FERDINAND THE BULL. Illus. by Robert Lawson. Viking, 1938.

Leaf, Munro FERDINAND DER STIER. Illus. by Werner Klemke.  Transl. by Fritz Guttinger. Parabel Verlag, Date Unknown.

Illustrators: Responding to the Text

After 100 posts about picture books, I’m yearning to add other voices. I’ve begun to invite illustrators to answer a few questions about how they respond, relate to, and expand a text they didn’t write themselves. In other words, how do illustrators respond to our manuscripts.

Our first illustrator is Richard Jesse Watson.

#1. What elements of a manuscript first capture your attention? Plot? Language? Imagery? Tone? Sound? Theme?

What a clever question, George.  The first thing that captures my attention is the envelope (that is, if it arrives by mail). Things are changing so fast, that the traditional form of mail may be obsolete by the time you get this response. But I’m sure you remember what mail is even though your readers may not.  So, to clarify for you readers of George, I was referring to Medieval Mail, or Snail-Mail, or Analogue Word Transfer, or in other words,  The Hob-Nobbing of Wizards, using paper and ink made from walnuts. .  What was the question? Oh, right, am I intrigued by envelopes?  In a word, yes.  The fact that someone sent me an envelope with yummy words or story, is so exciting.  And the possibility of illustrating those words sends me into a little orbit. An orbit of imaginings.  Ahhh, what might I do with these words?

The tone of the words is what hits me at first.  Does the writer grab me by the…uh,  medulla. Am I intrigued? Is this writing fresh? Not like, Slap!!>>fresh, but original voice fresh. Then the other things follow: Imagery. Sound. Plot. Theme. Etc.

#2. What elements of a manuscript inspire your choice of style, line, and palette?

For example, your illustrations in THE LORD’S PRAYER, THE HIGH RISE GLORIOUS SKITTLE SKAT ROARIOUS SKY PIE ANGEL FOOD CAKE and THE MAGIC RABBIT are at once related, yet still different from one another.

 The final emotional delivery of the manuscript will inspire me to want to illustrate the story or not. As an illustrator, forsooth, even as a reader, I want to be led down a garden path; hopefully one with pretty flowers, and ripe fruit. Some lizards would be cool. Maybe I could be wearing a Davy Crockett hat.  It sure works if you surprise me with your thoughtfully arranged words, maybe startle me!  Amuse me? It does me-the-reader wonders if you can emotionally nudge me, or even wrench me  in some lingering way.  We could also just have fun.  “Good clean fun,” to quote Bill Murray.

But all that to say, a good story will compel me to experiment with medium in some unique way. My goal is to be true to the text but to explore the text and as N. C. Wyeth said, “To paint between the lines.”


 #3. Is there a picture book text that you would love to re-illustrate? What about the text excites you toward doing this?

I would love a chance to re-illustrate THE STORY OF FERDINAND by Munro Leaf. Actually it is so perfect the way it is. Forget I said anything. Ixnay on the what I saidnay.  But I love the anti-war sentiment, and the idea of letting each person be true to their unique gifting. Hard question to answer because I love so much in literature.  I am currently illustrating The Twenty Third Psalm. I would love to illustrate some Washington Irving, some Edgar Allan Poe.  THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS is a book I have always wanted to illustrate.

#4. As an illustrator, what is it that you most want writers to understand about your creative process?

 That illustrators cry real tears. We bleed. We put our pants on one leg at a time.  We eat turkey one leg at a time.  An illustrator’s job is to create a sub-text to the writer’s text.  A children’s picture book illustrator will be telling HALF of the story. One half, your words, one half, our pictures. It is an intimate collaboration. A perfect marriage of text and art. Or like the bishop says in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, “Mayowage…”

THANK YOU, RICHARD for sharing your thoughts.  For a fascinating look at Richard’s work and life please visit his website: <>

THE MAGIC RABBIT by Richard Jesse Watson

 Picture Books Referenced Above

Moore, Clement C. THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS. HarperCollins, 2006.

Watson, Benjamin James. THE BOY WHO WENT APE. Illus. by Richard Jesse Watson. Blue Sky Press, 2008.

Watson, Richard Jesse. THE MAGIC RABBIT. Blue Sky Press, 2005.


Picture Books and the Short, Short Story

II of II

Illustration by Ethan Long. BIRD AND BIRDIE

The best and best-known picture book short, short stories feature friends and siblings. It only makes sense because an established relationship lets one “cut to the chase” and story. George and Martha are two of the best-known pals and hippos in literature. James Marshall captures and explores their relationship through seven collections of short stories.

Whether one labels them as vignettes or sketch stories, Marshall’s moments revealing the lives of George and Martha engage and entertain. They also linger in the reader’s memory. Who hasn’t been caught putting the equivalent of split pea soup in a shoe in the hopes of not offending the cook?

No matter how long or fat the great American novel may be, it still comes down to a series of brief and personal moments. Such moments are the heart of GEORGE AND MARTHA and Laura Kvasnosky’s ZELDA AND IVY. Where George and Martha are chosen friends, Zelda and Ivy are siblings who are expected to act like chosen friends. This common and complex relationship gives author Kvasnosky a rich and varied playground.

While each short story in ZELDA AND IVY feels complete in itself, the full collection brings both a deeper connection with the characters and a deeper connection with reality. Zelda may eventually have a moment of compassion, but she will always be the older sister who makes sure she gets to do everything first.

Ethan Long’s BIRD & BIRDIE is different in that it focuses on the creation of a relationship. And, like all new relationships, BIRD & BIRDIE is series of miscommunication, upsets, and opportunities for empathy.

Some people write long stories. Others write long stories by creating a mosaic of moments. That option is our opportunity. On those days you can’t think of a story or plot, relax and return to the moments of you life.  As James Marshall, Laura Kvasnosky and Ethan Lang prove, those moments might well be a collection of stories just waiting to be shared.

 Picture Books Discussed

 BIRD AND BIRDIE IN “A FINE DAY” by Ethan Long. Tricycle Press, 2010.

GEORGE AND MARTHA by James Marshall. Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

ZELDA AND IVY by Laura McGee Kvasnosky. Candlewick, 1998.

Picture Books and the Short, Short Story

I of II

In the early 1970s Arnold Lobel and James Marshall (who became good friends) each started what became a series of short story collections about two good friends. FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS* and GEORGE AND MARTHA brought a new possibility to the picture book. Rather than a single narrative arc based in plot, one could also focus on characters and relationship in a series of encounters. Another way to look at short stories, be they by Chekhov, Cheever, Marshall or Kvasnosky, is that they are snapshots of human behavior. In the end, every novel and every life is an album of such snapshots.

Within the term short story there are a variety of subgenres and fluid definitions of each. There is no rule that one must not blend these categories, but it is valuable to know their differences and possibilities.

 Flash Fiction

 Primary characteristics are extreme brevity, fast pacing from one plot point to the next, and less developed characters. Many sight Aesop as the first flash fiction writer.

Eve Feldman’s BILLY & MILLY, SHORT & SILLY brings extreme flash fiction to picture books. These 13 stories are each told in only three or four words. For example:

 Stoops. Hoops. Scoops. Oops.

 Stoops” establishes setting (front steps). “Hoops” establishes activity (shooting hoops). “Scoops” establishes second character’s activity (eating an ice cream cone). And “Oops” proclaims conflict (rogue basketball ruins the ice cream cone). Tuesday Morning’s illustrations are vital to the reader’s grasp of these very mini stories because they clarify setting, characters and action.

Another of Feldman’s stories manages to establish setting, character, conflict and resolution in only four words.

Bunk. Trunk. Skunk. Clunk.

 Whether you’re writing picture book short stories or a single story picture book try a draft using only 5 to 10 words. You’ve got nothing to lose, and it might help you find the primary beats of your story.

Illus. by Tuesday Mourning BILLY & MILLY

Next spring brings another example of cracker-jack flash fiction in picture book form. Jeff Mack’s forthcoming FROG AND FLY: SIX SLURPY STORIES is a playful delight.  I read the F & Gs at my local bookstore, and can’t wait to by my copy come March.

Coming next: The “sketch story”, the “vignette”, plus George & Martha, Zelda & Ivy, and Bird & Birdie.

*Because FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS is an early reader I will not be discussing it these two posts. For a look at Frog and Toad and as they compare and contrast with George and Martha please visit my biography on Lobel entitled ARNOLD LOBEL (Twayne, 1989).

Picture Books Discussed

BILLY AND MILLY: SHORT AND SILLY by Eve B. Feldman. Illus. by Tuesday Mourning. Putnam, 2009

BIRDY AND BIRDIE IN “A FINE DAY” by Ethan Long. Tricycle Press, 2010.


GEORGE AND MARTHA by James Marshall. Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

ZELDA AND IVY by Laura McGee Kvasnosky. Candlewick, 1998.

Are You a Good Date?

Edward Lear

One of my favorite quotes about writing refers to two elements we rarely associate with picture books, but I believe they are vital to our writing. #1 Kurt Vonnegut. #2 Dating.  The quote comes via John Casey who reports,

“Kurt Vonnegut used to say to his class at Iowa, ‘You’ve got to be a good date for the reader.”

What’s a good date? An equal. Someone engaged in the moment and conversational. Someone who fosters a give and take. Sparks interest. Someone who is open and able to reveal what they have in common. Honest. Gently flirtatious.

Are you a good date for your reader? Are you making sure to work toward keeping his interest and attention?  Are you being honest, or pretending to be something you’re not?

Like fish in the sea, there are plenty of books. If we want to make sure our reader wants to see us again we’re wise to capture both their head and heart.

Breaking Through the Fourth Wall

Ferris Bueller's Day Off

 In theater and film stories are typically performed inside four walls. The fourth wall is the front of the stage facing the audience. While it is not a real wall, audience and actors agree to treat it as a wall with a very large peephole. Audience and characters do not acknowledge that the other exists. It is a vital part of the suspension of disbelief. Well, most of the time. The same is true for picture books. Again, most of the time.

The movie FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF is one of the best-known examples of a character acknowledging and speaking directly to the audience. Many interactive or concept picture books do this by asking questions like “Can you find?” or “Whose feet are these?”  A few picture books break the fourth wall to an even greater extent by having the reader actually become part of the story. Think of it as THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO in reverse!

Michaela Muntean’s DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK views the reader as the second character in the story. The reader becomes the antagonist by simply opening the book and turning the page. We (the reader) don’t mean to cause trouble, we’re just curious to follow the story. Who can’t relate to innocent curiosity getting us into trouble?

 THE PURPLE KANGAROO by clever Michael Ian Black not only makes the reader a part of the story. It makes the reader the butt of the joke.

The book that first brought Don and Audrey Wood to everyone’s attention puts yet another spin on breaking the fourth wall. THE LITTLE MOUSE, THE RED RIPE STRAWBERRY, AND THE BIG HUNGRY BEAR gives the reader the role of a concerned observer speaking from the audience. We do what every audience member wishes he could do, warn the characters in the story.

Why not take a playful chance, and see if you can make your reader an active part of your next manuscript.

P.S. For an interesting look at other forms of metafiction in picture books visit Philip Nel’s:

“Metafiction for Children: A User’s Guide – YouTube”

 Books Discussed

 DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK by Michaela Muntean. Illus. by Pascal Lemaitre. Scholastic, 2006.

THE LITTLE MOUSE, THE RED RIPE STRAWBERRY, AND THE BIG HUNGRY BEAR by Don & Audrey Wood. Illus. by Don Wood. Child’s Play 1984.

THE PURPLE KANGAROO by Michael Ian Black. Illus. by Peter Brown. Simon & Schuster, 2010.


Dawn Simon interviews George Shannon

23 October 2011

I recently had the pleasure of answering questions from Dawn Simon for her blog, PLOTTING AND SCHEMING, at

Dawn had great questions, and I hope you’ll visit her blog soon. You’ll be glad you did.

Happy writing and rewriting…

Picture Books, Pacing & The Vital Tease

IV of IV

“The journalist tries to give you the facts. The narrative writer tries not to. Part of telling a story well is keeping information back and letting it escape when the time is right.”  Nancy Willard in Telling Time

Releasing information at the “right time” is an essential part of storytelling for all ages. Even when characters discover the perfect solution or experience an epiphany, the reader does NOT want to be told. The reader, like the character, wants to experience the discovery.

Two picture books published over 25 years apart make excellent use of delay and discovery. Both do so in such natural and quiet ways that readers may not even realize the delay. However, rewriting either with a bland and didactic voice demonstrates how much there is to lose by not waiting for the “right time.”

In Julia Donaldson’s wonderful WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD timing becomes everything. We are introduced to the farm animals and all their sounds. This information may seem benign, but he becomes vital to the finale. Readers also learn that Ladybug never says a word. That is, until she hears two robbers plan to steal the prize cow. When Ladybug speaks it is to report the robbers’ plan aloud, but she whispers “her plan into every ear.” This builds both hope and suspense.

Both of these emotions would be dashed, not to mention intrigue, if Donaldson had her Ladybug proclaim her plan aloud. “You will all imitate one another which will confuse the robbers.” Once the reader knows what’s going to happen there’s little reason to continue. There is nothing left to experience.

In the hands of a lesser writer, Felicia Bond’s THE HALLOWEEN PLAY might have become a didactic bore. Bond identifies her main character, Roger, but at the same time begins her narrative with the equivalent of a wide movie shot. This establishes that Roger is very much part of a group. Once the play begins Roger waits back stage for his cue. When that cue arrives the reader witnesses Roger’s appearance on stage as the giant pumpkin around which his classmates sing and dance.

It is a moment of pure joy for both Roger and the reader. “Before he went to bed that night, Roger’s father took a picture of him (as the pumpkin). But Roger didn’t need a picture to remember.” And, neither does the reader because the joy was experienced.

In contrast, feel the joy and inclusion evaporate if the narrative began with a close-up of Roger.

It was three days before Halloween, and Roger’s class was giving a play in honor of the event. Every day the class practiced, but Roger wasn’t very good. His classmates laughed and rolled their eyes. “Don’t worry,” said the teacher. “We’ll find something you can do.”

Farewell curiosity, joy, and inclusion.

As we can see through experience the difference between revealing information and reveal that same information at THE right time is as vital as Mark Twain’s comparison of the word and THE right word—lightning bug to lighting.

 Picture Books Discussed

 THE HALLOWEEN PLAY by Felicia Bond. Harper, 1983.

WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD by Julia Donaldson. Illus. by Lydia Monks. Holt, 2010.

Picture Books, Pacing & The Vital Tease


In PLAYWRITING: THE STRUCTURE OF ACTION Sam Smiley explores three vital elements in revealing a story. The first, exposition or back-story, is more important and useful in plays and novels than brief picture books. However, the second and third, planting and pointing have much to offer the picture book writer.


Smiley explores eight forms of planting, but to simplify we’ll say planting is an item of information that turns out to be significant later in the story.

MY LUCKY DAY by Keiko Kasza includes a plant that’s sly as a fox. Or should we say pig? When a pig knocks on Fox’s door, Fox declares “My lucky day!” Pig attempts to stall his demise by suggesting a bath, getting fattened up, and tenderized with a massage. After Fox collapses from exhaustion from all his related chores Pig runs home declaring, “This must be my lucky day!”  Lucky? Not so fast. Kasza’s clever twist of an ending makes perfect sense thanks to her plant. Pig schemed the entire day. Pig made his lucky day by creating the situation. Next up, Wolf.

Kevin Henkes’ deliciously distilled SHEILA RAE’S PEPPERMINT STICK includes a line that is at once planting and pointing.

“If I had two, I’d give you one,” said Sheila Rae…” as she balances on stool, pillows, and books to keep her candy out of reach.

The fall of the arrogant occurs on the next page when Sheila Rae literary falls to the floor and her peppermint stick breaks in half. She is now forced to keep her to keep her promise. “If I had two” serves as a plant and gives reason for the sharing at the conclusion. It also (with Sheila Rae perched so high) serves as pointer that makes the reader hope for a case of prophecy fulfilled.


 Where a “plant” makes the reader think back through the story, a “pointer” sparks the reader to look ahead. It whispers something of interest and related is coming ahead. In other words, anticipation and suspense.

Examples of “pointing” can be found through a manuscript. Marie Bradby’s third and fourth sentence in MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE is a pointer that immediately creates anticipation of an answer.

My stomach rumbles, for we had no morning meal. But it isn’t really a meal I want, though I would not turn one down.

Pointers appear much later in SQUAWK TO THE MOON, LITTLE GOOSE by Edna Mitchell Preston. But they still pull the audience forward with concern and anticipation. After Little Goose is chastised for waking the farmer with a story about a giant sky fox eating the moon:

Little Goose waddled away

   With her head hanging low for shame.

Up the lane

Across the meadow

Back to the pond

With her head hanging low for shame

And she never once looked at the sky.

Preston’s emphasis on not looking up sets the stage for something Little Goose will miss seeing. After “not looking up” ends badly, Little Goose heads home with her head held back and never taking her eye off the moon. Once again, such an absolute can only bring a problem, and the reader senses it coming. Little Goose doesn’t see the Fox till he’s caught her.

Plants and Pointers serve the reader like a classic English butler—indispensable, but rarely noticed. Let’s write like a butler’s butler!

 Books Discussed

MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE by Marie Bradby. Illus. by Chris Soentpiet. Scholastic, 1995.

MY LUCKY DAY by Keiko Kasza. Scholastic, 2003.

PLAYWRITING: THE STRUCTURE OF ACTION by Sam Smiley. Prentice-Hall, 1971.

SHEILA RAE’S PEPPERMINT STICK by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, 2001.

SQUAWK TO THE MOON, LITTLE GOOSE by Edna Mitchell Preston. Illus. by Barbara Cooney. Viking, 1974.