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Picture Book Manuscripts and Illustrations

by Harold Underdown

Picture books meld text and illustration: in a successful picture book, it's hard to imagine one without the other. Perhaps for this reason, many people are confused about how to submit a picture book manuscript. I receive a constant stream of questions on topics such as how to include illustration notes with the manuscript, how to find an illustrator for a manuscript, and how to present a "package" of manuscript and illustrations. The comments that follow should answer the most common questions that come up in this difficult area. This article can be read as a whole, or just by scrolling down to the questions that interest you.

Do I need to find an illustrator?

No, the publisher selects the illustrator. Even though picture books end up with text and illustration seeming to be inseparable, many of them start out as manuscripts, and stay in that form until after a publisher offers a contract to the author. Only then does the publisher select an illustrator, who will typically receive half of the royalties for the book. The publisher works with the illustrator through sketching, layout, and final illustrations, and may not involve the author much in the process. Authors are often unhappy about that, but it's done to let the illustrator develop his or her own vision.

For more on this, read this article, written by an illustrator: How to Find an Illustrator for Your Picture Book

How do I include notes for the illustrator?

Publishers generally do not expect or need illustration notes or suggestions to accompany a picture book manuscript. Editors are used to working with these manuscripts in unillustrated form, and can visualize how they would be illustrated, and the book laid out, without any help from the author. In fact, since they are used to working with such manuscripts, they are likely to be better able to visualize a given manuscript than that manuscript's author.

Any illustrator who may be assigned a manuscript will also be able to think about it visually. Authors and illustrators bring different skills to a picture book, and just as a writer does not need writing suggestions from an illustrator, an illustrator does not need illustration suggestions from a writer. Above all, the illustrator does not need descriptions of a setting or a person; though the author may imagine them one way, it is the illustrator's job to bring them to life. The result can be both surprising and pleasing to the author, as the illustrator takes the illustrations beyond what the writer had been able to imagine.

There are occasions when notes to the editor or illustrator may be necessary. If the story relies on visual irony, for example, with the text saying one thing, and the illustrations showing the reality, a writer can say so--but it is best to do this in a cover letter, and to resort to a note in the manuscript only if absolutely necessary. There may be surprises revealed when a page is turned, for example, in which case a short bracketed note may suffice. In final manuscripts, double parentheses are traditionally used for notes, as they mean "DNS" or "do not set." For more on notes, read one agent's response to the question: Should You Include Illustration Notes in Your Picture Book Manuscript?

In a folktale or a story with an historical setting, objects or clothing unfamiliar to today's readers may appear. There is no need to describe them in the body of the text, or to include a lengthy note to the illustrator: the publisher will choose an illustrator who can handle such material, and that person will do the research needed to create an authentic setting. This point leads into the next question:

Can I include visual reference materials?

For historical fiction, nonfiction picture books, or folktales, visual references can be helpful. If a writer comes across potentially useful materials while researching her story, she should make a note of the source, or even make copies. The writer can then let her publisher know that these materials exist, and the editor may then pass this information along to the illustrator. Writers need not include such materials in an initial manuscript submission. (Note that for photo-illustrated nonfiction, writers may be asked to do the photo research, but that is for a different type of book.)

Some writers base their stories on experiences from their own childhoods or with their own children, and want to provide visual references from their own lives. This is a very different situation. There is precedent for it, such as in the Winnie the Pooh stories of A. A. Milne, which Milne wrote about his own son and his son's stuffed animals, who then became Ernest H. Shepard's models. However, the Pooh stories are unique, and also provide a warning; throughout his adult life, Christopher Milne was haunted by being known as Christopher Robin.

The important thing to remember is that stories are stories, and are often more effective if not moored too tightly to a specific circumstance. Writers who have written stories from their own experiences should ask themselves if the stories can't be separated from events that inspired them, and consider the possibility that they might even be improved by doing so. One of the great joys of writing, after all, is being able to improve upon reality.

I'm an author, and I've teamed up with my friend/neighbor/relative the illustrator: how do we proceed?

Much of what I have said so far is standard advice, found in many books on children's book writing, repeated at conferences, discussed in courses on writing. But when they hear that they should just submit a manuscript to publishers, some authors wonder what to do, because they've already teamed up with someone they know, who has illustrated their manuscript, and they want to submit the manuscript and illustrations together.

Presenting a "package" of this type can be done, but if the writer is unpublished, and the illustrator is unpublished, doing so will reduce the already slim chance that a publisher will be interested. Editors are able to evaluate the manuscript and illustrations as if they had been submitted separately--they do that all the time when looking at published books. Presenting them together, however, suggests that the writer wants them to be published together, and that means that a rejection will be the result not only if the manuscript isn't what the editor wants, but also if the illustrations don't impress, or if the combination of story and illustrations is not one she likes.

Writers and illustrators who have already taken this step should consider how strongly they feel that their work must be published together. If the author can imagine another illustrator, and the illustrator could imagine illustrating manuscripts by other people, then they should submit separately. The writer can submit her manuscript, and perhaps suggest the illustrator later if her book is accepted for publication; the illustrator can submit the illustrations she did as samples to an art director.

If a writer and an illustrator have considered this question carefully, and both feel that there are strong reasons why they must present their work together, then of course they may do so. They should follow the guidance of Uri Shulevitz in his Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children's Books, and prepare a professional-quality dummy, accompanied by a few color copies of finished sample illustrations, to increase their chances. A printed sample, if the material was self-published, is an acceptable alternative. But in this situation author and illustrator should go into the process with their eyes wide open to the simple fact that they may have considerably reduced their chances of getting themselves published.

What if I know a really good illustrator?

I do sometimes hear from writers who know a published illustrator who has created some illustrations for their manuscript, or who has offered to do so, or who might be persuaded to do so... They wonder if in such a case the usual warnings about submitting manuscript and illustrations together still apply. The problem here is one that the writer must settle in his or her own mind. Are you sure you want to impose upon a friendship, and possibly damage it, in the hope that it will increase your chance of getting published? Some will answer yes. Others won't be so sure.

After all, even if you submit your manuscript with the illustrator's samples, and even if the editor likes the samples, she may not believe that they are a good match for your manuscript, or even that teaming up your manuscript with that illustrator's work will "help" it. The editor still has to want to publish the manuscript.

What if I am an illustrator?

Here we come to a different situation. If you are an illustrator, you may well have good reasons to submit a manuscript you have written with your illustrations. You have to be clear first of all as to your intentions. Do you want to use the manuscript to create a comprehensive sample, to show what you can do as an illustrator with the picture book format? This is a very good reason to submit manuscript and illustration together. Of course, you need to be prepared to give up your manuscript and take an offered illustration contract. If you decide to create this kind of presentation, Uri Shulevitz's Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children's Books will be very helpful. Once you have completed such a project, you would submit it to the art director.

Or do you want to place a particular project--a story that matters to you, and that you want to illustrate? As with the writer submitting with an illustrator, you have to realize that this can get in the way of a contract. A publisher might like both your story and your illustrations but not agree that your illustrations are the best match for the story. But this approach can work, and there are illustrators who also write. Some, like Maurice Sendak, became writer-illustrators after years of illustrating other people's stories. But others, like Grace Lin with The Ugly Vegetables, actually break into the business with a written and illustrated book, and then go on to a full-fledged career. Submissions of this type would go to an editor.

In either case, an illustrator should not complete every illustration, as the publisher will almost certainly want to have their editor help with the story, and their art director to work with the illustrator to polish the book design and individual illustrations.


Guidance on writing picture books can be found in Margot Finke's piece on Picture Book Basics and in Breaking the Rules for Picture Book Manuscripts, an entry in my blog.

Johnell DeWitt wrote a good overview about the use of illustration notes.

To understand the typical 32-page structure of a picture book, read Basic Book Construction.

Related resources can be found on my Illustration Articles Index page, the Genres Index page, or the Writing Articles Index page.

Comments? Questions that weren't answered? Contact me.

This article is copyright © Harold Underdown, 2006-2017, and may not be reproduced without permission. Single copies may be printed out for personal, non-commercial use.

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