Follow This Blog: RSS feed
A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Should Authors and Illustrators Be Allowed to Collaborate?

harry-and-horsieThis past Saturday I held a Children’s Literary Salon here in Evanston on the topic of writing children’s books, common mistakes made by newcomers, where to go for advice, etc. (you can view the talk in its entirety here).  At one point I asked my panel to say one piece of advice they might offer to people who want to write children’s books.  And in time, one person mentioned (as I had hoped that they would) that it is always a mistake to send in a manuscript with an illustrator already in place.

Now this a commonly held belief in the world of children’s book publishing, and it’s true.  Editors would much rather pair your manuscript with an illustrator than have you walk in with one.  The sole time I recall seeing an exception, when it came to a debut author and a debut illustrator, was when David Letterman’s nanny wrote a picture book and a buddy of hers illustrated it (Harry and Horsie, in case you’re curious).

It goes above and beyond merely submitting your book, though.  Once a manuscript has been accepted the author is not to have direct contact with the artist as they illustrate the book.  There are a lot of good reasons for this, of course.  The last thing an editor needs is an insecure author badgering an illustrator who already knows their stuff.

The flip side of this is that the author has no idea what they may get in terms of their art.  Naturally the recent conversations surrounding A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington come to mind.  In both cases the authors and artists were kept separate.  This may explain too why in both cases the authors made public statements alone and without their illustrators.  They didn’t feel that they were in this together, because they never had been together.  They were purposefully kept apart from the beginning.

Exceptions always exist, of course.  I heard a rumor that Last Stop on Market Street was partially inspired by Christian Robinson telling Matt de la Pena this story from his youth. Regardless of whether or not it’s true, I do believe the two had a fair amount of contact during the creation of the book.  Other author/illustrator pairs have worked in much the same way.  Mac Barnett, for example, appears to be buddies with every single one of his illustrators, to say nothing of his co-writers.

But by and large, if you write a book, you do not really have contact with your artist.  Them’s the rules.  It leads one to wonder if we would have a stronger body of picture book literature if more collaboration occurred.  How many Caldecott winners consist of author/illustrator pairs where the two were collaborating?  I suppose it helps if the author is married to the illustrator (I’m looking at you, Steads).  What are the benefits and do they outweigh the potential problems?

Food for thought.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Right off the top of my head, I can think of several “in-the-family” collaborators: Leo & Diane Dillon, David Small & Sarah Stewart, Walter Dean Myers & Christopher Myers, Brian & Andrea Davis Pinkney…then when I looked at the Caldecott Medal & Honors list, I spotted Maud & Miska Petersham, Ingri & Edgar D’Aulaire, Ed & Barbara Emberley, and Alice & Martin Provensen. That’s a lot of examples of collaboration winning one of the top honors in children’s lit.

    Interestingly, the type of book that most often wins a Caldecott or Honor medal is the result of the tightest possible kind of collaboration: one person doing both the writing and the illustration. Seems to me like an argument for greater communication between writer and artist.

  2. This is a very interesting discussion! When I read your title, I immediately thought of Mac Barnett (who you mentioned) and Jon Klassen’s collaboration to create Sam & Dave Dig a Hole. Their collaboration from concept to print made a book that I adore on many levels.

    Also, thank you for including the link to your Children’s Literary Salon! I will be checking it out. 🙂

  3. ” You mean you never meet the author ?” – I get this all the time from new talent, teachers, librarians, etc…and when you mention art directors people think they tell the illustrator what to draw. Having illustrated 70+ books I’ve always approached the story as the inspiration for the pictures and with a responsibility to let the reader know what I now know by using my visual story telling skill. A well written manuscript will trigger images immediately and bring memories of related experiences to mind. I use those internal images to create my illustrations, so I don’t need any input from the author. In my mind she/he has already done their best job by writing the story so now it’s up to me to do my best work. If an author started giving their thoughts on what the character should look like or what the setting should be, then I’d develop my sketches trying to think like the author…” How would she picture this?” or “What would he be thinking here?” Then the illustrator is just another tool to get the job done. In cases where the entire project is developed and refined by the two, then there should be equal input from the outset utilizing the strengths of each individual, with feedback and adjustments made so that each person is comfortable with the result knowing their own talent has not been compromised for a quick solution. I’m illustrating a re-telling of The Gingerbread Man now – while reading the simple manuscript I was taken back to my grandmother’s kitchen, she was a good baker so she inspired the character and the setting is where many cookies have been made and many of the animals featured have been cared for. So, I can bring an original vision to an old story without any visual direction because I’m able to see the story. Good illustrators do this successfully and thus honor the words entrusted to them.

  4. It’s so true that it’s a common misconception. It’s definitely one of my top-asked questions, something along the lines of, “How did you find your illustrator” (not my job!) or “I wrote a book and how do I find an illustrator?” (not your job!). I also think it’s important for the author to stay far out of the illustrator’s way.

    HOWEVER. I am lucky to have been allowed to be in contact with my illustrator, perhaps because I was very vocal about wanting to stay out of his way but also wanting to cheer him on and send him brownies when he was on deadline. I’m awfully glad it worked out this way. I had no part in his illustration process, but I think being friends has inspired us both. And I’m glad to tell you that the secret illustration of the narrator under the jacket of my book is modeled on my own work space. That’s the kind of thing that can’t happen if there’s no contact at all.

    Mostly I think that the children’s book community is such a lovely and supportive place, that if everyone is clear about what their job is (and isn’t) then we should be allowed to be friends and be in contact and cheer each other on. I have only had a very happy experience from being pals with my illustrator.

  5. I heard Florence Parry Heide tell of meeting Edward Gorey after he had illustrated The Shrinking of Treehorn. The publisher wanted a sequel. When she told him her idea for the story, he said she’d have to change it because Treehorn’s house doesn’t have a porch.

  6. I think we’re talking about two different things here.

    One is a collaborative book, where the writer and illustrator conceive of and work on a book together. One writes and one draws, but they’re in on it like Butch and Sundance. Klassen/Barnett come to mind, as well as, I think, Robinson/de la Peña. Nothing wrong with this, but Betsy is totally spot on mentioning that this is not a desirable thing to submit to publishers unless you’re, I don’t know, Klassen/Barnett or Robinson/de la Peña. I too find myself telling writers quite often that they don’t need to hire an illustrator before submitting their book. Usually they’re relieved by this nugget of news. Sometimes, they’re horrified at the idea of not being able to control the process. In these cases, I usually think (but don’t often say) that maybe picture books isn’t your medium. Editors are good at their jobs, and so are illustrators. The finished book is a collaboration among many. Let go, and go write another book!

    The other thing here is the more typical script-first, illustrations-second approach. But even here there isn’t really a “rule” that I know of. I can’t think of a single book I’ve illustrated where the author didn’t see sketches and have suggestions. Sure, part of this is because I’ve worked with some pretty hot-shot writers. But actually, I want some feedback at times. I trust my writers to know a thing or two about their intent. Now, even in these cases, I don’t really get phone calls or emails from the writers. It’s still collaborative, but they go through the editor.
    There are exceptions. Jon Scieszka and I talk all the time about hilarious and nutty ideas for Frank Einstein. He’s the writer, totally, but after I read a new script, or even while he’s writing one, if I think of some idea that I want to draw, he’s always game. Sometimes he includes them. Sometimes he doesn’t.
    Recently, I had a conference call with Julie Segal Walters and our editor about a script that Julie wrote and I’m illustrating. I was running into some issues with the script that could only have come up as I was working on sketches. This was unusual, but because of the nature of the book, where the whole book is about the nature of the illustrator/author collaboration, it was the best way to go. Julie and I get along great, and we both love our editor, so work was done and the book will be better for it.

    Again, editors are good at their jobs. To this point, I’m usually pretty happy for what separation there is, whether imposed by rules, tradition, or some other reason. Writers are close to their children. It’s hard to let go and have others influence how they turn out in life.

  7. Naseem Hrab says:

    Great discussion starter! I think it can work if you have some amazing collaborators on your hands.
    I believe Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri are another exception. 🙂

  8. And I’ve heard many picture book authors praise the illustrations as being better than anything they could have imagined and especially being happy when there are more story elements involved in the illustrations that aren’t even in the original text. There may be some that don’t like that but I’ve never heard from them. I have heard more complaints from the novelists about their covers than picture book illustrators about their illustrations, but not always. I remember meeting Lynne Reid Banks and her going off on the cover of One More River. She hated that thing was more than happy to tell you all the reasons why it was wrong. Heh heh.

  9. On a loosely related note: how come there are almost never pictures of the author/illustror in the back of children’s books?

  10. First, let me say that my deal breaker to meeting a partner/mate was that he was not in the book business; I just cannot imagine living and working together 24/7. Second, the internet has broken down the us/them barriers and everyone knows each other these days. However, I certainly do not want an author breathing down my neck while I paint. But, I’ve happily received author suggestions for visuals in the manuscript, some suggestions were sparse and some detailed (SUPERMARKET). True professionals leave an illustrator alone to create their vision of the text or even transcend the text. I’m still scratching my head about the birthday cake book. Where was the art director? Weren’t there any protests during the sketch and dummy stages? Those smiles did not just show up on the final art as a surprise.

  11. I agree that this is true of debut authors, but as one keeps advancing in their career this rule isn’t as important, things start to blur. Also husband/wife teams and even siblings have often collaborated. Trisha and I sold Punk Skunks together but this was after Trisha wrote 40 books for Capstone and I had 2 trade books that I wrote and illustrated. Many agents today are pairing their writers and illustrators together. I’ve even heard of agents asking their writers to write a story about an illustration by one of their illustrators. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the amount input many writer friends of mine have when choosing an illustrator.

  12. Here’s another exception to the “rule” of authors and illustrators not collaborating. All of the editors for my nonfiction illustrated books have asked for my input regarding preliminary sketches. As a primarily nonfiction writer, I am very grateful for the opportunity. In three different books, I caught illustration errors–major inaccuracies–that the artist would not have realized were incorrect for the topic. They were all happy to correct and/or modify the illustrations in question.

  13. Ellen Dibble says:

    I can well imagine wanting out of a contract if the illustrations somehow aren’t right — in my opinion. It’s a major reason for not submitting stories, now that I think of it.


  1. […] Fuse 8 blog had a great post two weeks about the relationship between book authors and illustrators.   In general, they […]