Illustration notes—the bane of a writer’s existence. There are so many conflicting opinions about illustration notes, it’s hard to know where to begin. First off, an illustration note is a quick description of what the author envisions at a certain point in the story. The notes are intended to stand in place of an illustration that might be needed in order for the reader to understand what the author intended.
An illustration note is not a play-by-play of how the author sees the characters, settings, and scenery of the story.
Here’s an example using Where the Wild Things Are:
“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind …” [Art: Max is wearing a white wolf suit with buttons down the front and is nailing a line of tied-up clothes to his bedroom wall.]
That is a bad—scold it and send it to time out—illustration note. In fact, you DO NOT need an illustration note for that line at all. It’s perfectly fine just the way it is.
So let’s find an illustration note you might need using the same story:
“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!” [Art: Three wordless spreads of a rumpus.]
A spread is the two facing pages in a book, and the only reason you might need this illustration note is because your next line is going to jump to:
And your reader might wonder what happened between “… let the wild rumpus start” and …
“Now stop! …”
Before writing this post, I reached out on Kidlit 411 and asked writers what they’d heard on illustration notes. And fortunately, Harold Underdown, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books, chimed in:
I see a lot of manuscripts with *unnecessary* illustration notes in my work as an independent editor … My constant refrain is to remind writers that they are writers, not art directors, and that if they build their manuscript around illustrator notes they are not leading with their strength, which is writing.
I’m going to interpret that using If You Give a Mouse a Cookie …
I don’t know if Laura Numeroff used any illustration notes in her text, but if we extract just her text, her story works masterfully without them. Consider:
“If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk.”
We don’t need to know that the little boy sees the mouse outdoors and that he walks into his house to get some milk in order to enjoy or even understand the idea that her words alone create.
Going further, take the page where the mouse wants a nap:
“He’ll crawl in, make himself comfortable and fluff the pillow a few times.”
She could have said:
“He’ll crawl in and make himself comfortable.” [Art: mouse fluffs the powder-puff pillow.]
BUT, the story loses something without “and fluff the pillow a few times.”
It’s part of the overall voice and cadence of the story and is a more delightful read with it than without it.
To quote Harold again:
Sometimes — often — what’s needed is a different approach. Instead of trying to cut their text down to that Holy Grail of 200-300 words, let their writing shine at 500 or so … If you look at published books, you’ll often find that books with separate authors and illustrators do have longer text, while those magical 300-word books are done by author-illustrators. You can find recent picture books with 400-600 words of text written by one person and illustrated by another… Last Stop on Market Street won the Newbery with 750 words! Illustration notes CAN be necessary, but IMO the terror about writing too long justifies their overuse …”
I had three illustration notes in my submission that resulted in A Morning With Grandpa (I won the 2013 Lee & Low New Voices Award with the manuscript). [which, by the way, she won with the art notes in it.]
1. The first was an introductory note that set the stage: (Illo note: The characters are a grandfather and a 5-6 year old girl, in a garden.)
2. In the second note, I wanted to emphasize Mei Mei’s hyperactivity, but in retrospect I’m not sure it was completely necessary:
“Martial arts!” Mei Mei bounced up and down. “I can do karate. Watch me. HYAH!” (Illo note: Mei Mei bounces all around the garden doing karate chops and kicks.)
(In the final published version, the wording was slightly different: “Martial arts!” said Mei Mei, bouncing up and down. “I can do karate. HYAH!”)
3. In the third note, I wanted to emphasize that the characters both ended up in wobbly poses:
Mei Mei’s tree wobbled and bent to one side.
Gong Gong’s tree did the same, the other way and slower.
(Illo note: both do imperfect, unbalanced tree poses).
The final published version was as follows: Mei Mei lifted her leg and stretched her arms like branches reaching high to the sky. Her tree wobbled and bent to one side.
Grandpa slid his leg up and raised his branches too. His tree leaned the other way.
What you may find interesting is that by the time the manuscript went to the illustrator, there were NO illustration notes. The text was altered at the beginning to set the stage that it was in garden, and the other notes were not deemed necessary.
As Sylvia’s experience teaches, she didn’t get knocked out of the running because of the illustration notes she included with her manuscript, but in the revision process, she ended up with an even stronger version that eliminated the need for illustration notes.
Now, I understand the panic that has just set in and you’re shouting at the computer screen, “But what if my illustration note is really needed?”
Stacy McAnulty, author of eight childrens books (with four more on their way), offered to share her experience with her recent release Beautiful—a perfect example of a manuscript that needs illustration notes. I asked her a few questions, which she was kind enough to answer:
Talk about art notes in general. What’s your rule of thumb when you use them?
I like using art notes. As picture book texts become more and more sparse, art notes are necessary for the manuscript to be understood. That said, agents, editors, and art directors know how to read PB manuscripts. They know how to fill in the blanks. My general rule of thumb is the art note must be crucial to the plot or character or highlight a joke. For example, if I have a character named Fang, I will put a note. [Illustration note: Fang is a wolf.] Because the name alone doesn’t tell the reader the species. Fang could be a dino, a vampire, a dentist. A plot example might be: Julie ripped up the present and screamed, “Just what I wanted!” [Illustration notes: Julie’s gift is an umbrella.] Obviously, an umbrella will be important later on …
What feedback have you received from your agent or editors about any of the art notes you’ve used? What about from the illustrator? Have you ever been asked for more art notes?
I’ve never been asked for more notes. But I have been asked things like, “Did you envision these dinosaurs wearing clothes?” And to my knowledge, I’ve never been rejected because of illustration notes. I’m lucky to have a critique group that will point out frivolous ones. I do recommend to new writers that they research an agent’s preference on this heated topic before submitting. If an agent has publicly made his/her disdain for illustration notes known, by all means, take them out. Take them all out.
Beautiful is the perfect example of a manuscript that needs art notes. The art has to contradict the standard definition of the text you wrote, so art notes, I imagine, became very critical. Can you talk about that experience?
Beautiful is an extreme example. There were more art notes than text. Here’s an example from the manuscript that went on submission.
Beautiful girls move gracefully.
[Aggressive sports maneuver or climbing a tree.]
And can light up any room.
[In a tent or a fort with flashlights.]
This is what the editor and art director initially saw. As I worked through revisions with my editor, she mentioned NOT giving the illustrator the notes, at least at first. We wrote a letter that explained our concept. I don’t know if the notes were eventually shared, but I assume so. In the book, spread 8-9 is girls playing sports, and 10-11 has girls in tents with flashlights. But other pages don’t match my suggestion. For example…
Beautiful girls know all about makeup.
[Using football eye black.]
In the book, the girls are dressed as pirates and have facial hair drawn on with makeup. It’s a great picture and better than my suggestion in the note.
There are two follow-up books to Beautiful. Brave, which comes out in the fall, and Love, which will be available in late 2018. With these manuscripts, I also had an illustration note with every line. And I believe they’ve all been given to Joanne Lew-Vriethoff (the amazing illustrator who gives these books life). But we think of my notes as mere suggestions. Joanne, or the editor, or the art director may have a better idea for a scene. We all want to make the best book possible.
Did you get any feedback from your illustrator?
Nope. Joanne and I chat online sometimes, mostly about marketing, and I’d love to meet her someday. But we never talk about the work in progress.
Clear as mud still? Think of it this way, write your story, just write it. When you revise, work on making your text as beautiful/humorous/tight as you can then go through and mark the places where the art fills in part of the story that is not in the text but is essential to the mood, feel, direction, understanding of the story. Get it critiqued. Ask your critiquers for feedback on the art notes, or if you like, leave them all out and note where your critiquers are confused. Then, see if you need to rework the text to clarify. If the art is the best medium to tell that part of the story, then add in a short art note.
I appreciated what Rachel Noble had to say on our Kidlit 411 chat:
An editor recently told me illustration notes are necessary but instead of writing them for an illustrator (who may not need them), write them for sales and marketing so they can visualize the text at acquisitions.
In other words, if you need a note to clarify a point in your story so the reader isn’t lost as to what is going on, then put it in!
To wrap it up, write, revise, get critiques and where you truly feel you need an art note, put it in. Trust in your ability to craft good stories, and submit them. The chances of you getting rejected because of an art note are far less than never risking it at all. Oh, and one more note–if you still don’t know what to do, storyboard your text and see what it looks like visually. That just might help you decide to add a note or not.
This post will likely take on a life of its own, and I hope it does. I’m looking for a lively discussion in the comments on this subject, so please, do chime in if you have questions or experience with this topic. Thank you!
Extra resources on art notes:
Other fantastic resources with art note advice:
Kidlit 411: http://www.kidlit411.com