As promised, Rita Lorraine Hubbard, author of The Oldest Student, is here to share a bit from “behind the scenes” in the publishing process. Authors are often in a quandary about illustration notes, so here are some thoughts from Rita on her experience with her latest picture book.
Notes from THE OLDEST STUDENT:
What I Learned About Illustration Notes
by Rita Lorraine Hubbard
It’s such an honor to be here on Beth Anderson’s blog. She says I can write about whatever I want, and today I want to discuss what I learned about writing illustration notes (or not writing them, in this case) during the production and launch of my latest picture book, THE OLDEST STUDENT: HOW MARY WALKER LEARNED TO READ.
First, a bit of background. I’ve been writing for as far back as I can remember. From early on, every time I spotted a blank sheet of paper, I quickly folded it and began writing my own little books. And illustrating them, too! Of course, the illustrations were more doodles than anything else, but the point is, I was the one who decided where everything should be placed on the page; I decided how every character should look.
Fast-forward to today. Even after having learned much about the art of the picture book and how the business works, I admit that I’m often still tempted to slip illustration notes into my manuscripts. Somewhere along the path to publishing, I convinced myself that, should my manuscripts ever be acquired, the artist would have no clue what I was talking about if I didn’t offer a flurry of well-meaning, no-pressure-but-I-think-you-should-do-it-my-way illustration notes.
In the case of THE OLDEST STUDENT, even before the manuscript was acquired, I had already envisioned the type of art and layout I felt would do justice to the book,. I believed that a fine artist (like John Holyfield, who masterfully illustrated HAMMERING FOR FREEDOM), should create sketches that showed freedmen surging down the roads as they raced toward “Freedom Land.” I felt this fine artist should accentuate every wrinkle in Mary’s hands and face to get the point across of just how old she really was. I was convinced that only realistic illustrations would make the book pop.
Boy, was I wrong.
The publisher had politely asked me if I had any illustrators in mind for the THE OLDEST STUDENT, but in the end, they – in their sage wisdom – ignored my suggestions and went with the mega-talented Ms. Oge Mora. I’m so glad they did! Ms. Mora used simple shapes, acrylic paint, patterned paper, and book clippings to create her vision of Mary Walker’s world…and oh, what a vision it is! It’s…breathtaking.
When I first saw the mock-up of Ms. Mora’s illustrations, I actually choked up. My eyes brimmed with tears, and even though the tears never fell, the emotion was definitely there. She had nailed it; she had breathed life into my words. She had reached inside herself and connected with the essence of Mary Walker, and she had brought the character to life. In short, she had done her job…and she had done it with no help from me.
At that moment, I learned a valuable lesson: that the publishers – and indeed, the illustrator, know best. Why am I sharing this with you? Because I hope that you will trust the process. No matter how tempting it may be to drop an illustration note here or there to be sure the editor and/or the illustrator understand that YOU want the character’s face to be brown, or their dress to be blue, or their hair to be red, DON’T DO IT. Unless your art notes are crucial to the story, trust the process and leave the illustrations to the experts.
You’ll be glad you did. I know I am.