by Charlotte Firbank-King
Storytelling is a passion, even obsession. It is deeply satisfying to captivate an audience with drama, pathos, violence, tranquility or fantasy—to be the master of imaginary characters. Above all, writers aim to please their readers (after listening to editors’ suggestions and working with them to succeed).
Unfortunately, this is not always true concerning book illustrations. Many authors seem to think that once the story is written, that’s it. They adopt a careless attitude, choosing an art style that only suits them. Art is subjective, so beware of falling into this mold.
Kids love color, yet we see illustrations in children’s books executed in quick pencil sketches. Why is that? The usual reason is simple. It’s cheaper to commission an artist to do pencil sketches rather than a complex work in acrylic, oils, pastel or gouache. Watercolors are also beautiful, especially when combined with ink. But with children, I want to stress that illustrations must have impact and instant appeal. Kids form a huge section of the reading audience. Even toddlers will roam bookshelves and choose what they want. It’s critically important to make sure the illustrations in your book stand out among millions of others.
Simplicity has its place, but as with brevity of words, the drawing must be brilliant in its economy. One does not get brilliant when the artist is paid little and required to dash off a dozen pictures. I urge writers of this genre to spend the extra money—or have fewer illustrations. Don’t sacrifice quality for quantity. A children’s book may be well written, but if the illustrations are mediocre or slapdash, the book will NOT sell well. In fact, illustrations are the “hook,” and then the story captivates, but the two must marry
Adults or young adults generally don’t want illustrations of what heroes or villains look like. They want to form their own picture. Small children, however, want to know what characters look like. Their imagination skills are still developing. But be very aware when deciding how the characters will be portrayed. Violence or overt evil should not be illustrated. Kids may have nightmares if that is the last thing they see before going to sleep. In short, be sensitive to young minds.
Here’s something else to think about. When a parent reads to a child, the child typically sits next to him or her, on the left or right. If the illustrations are sometimes on the left and sometimes on the right, the child is jumping up and down, running or crawling from one side to the other. But if the illustrations are always on the left or always on the right, the child gets to enjoy the illustrations without running back and forth.
When it’s impossible to pay the price for quality color illustrations, consider having the artist illustrate the story in pen (not a pencil sketch). The child can then color the pictures so he can choose how he wants his imaginary world to look. Coloring in is an abiding pleasure for kids and gives free-rein to their imaginations.
And finally, always test illustrations by showing them to kids before publishing—they will be your best and most honest critics.
(c) 2013 Charlotte Firbank-King. All Rights Reserved.
Charlotte Firbank-King is a writer, editor, and artist. Her paintings have been sold and exhibited throughout the world and have been commissioned by the Johannesburg Zoo, the Witwatersrand National Botancial Gardens and the Zulu Schools Trust, among others.