This is my 900th blog and I’m going to use it — I hope — to change one crucial way in which people judge middle grade and YA NF. There is one defining characteristic for NF K-12. The books we craft for each and every one of our readers, from concept and board books through the most complext and serious YA effort, are illustrated. Indeed that is the wrong word. “Illustrated” suggests that whenever the author writes “apple” someone — could be the author, a staff person, a hired hand, an intern, has hunted down some clip art of an “apple” to match it — eye candy. While that indeed may be the case in some packaged or series books, it is not true at all in the individual author books we write.
First, we have to find the images — that is a whole second job of research above and beyond researching the text. It would be nice if reviewers credited us with that extra effort, but perhaps they don’t pay attention to the credit lines or source notes, so the labor is not evident. Or perhaps they think — we don’t review effort, we evaluate results. Fair enough. But for us finding the images is only step one. Publishers ask us to place them — in effect to design the book. This may begin as noting in the margin of the manuscript “image 1 goes here” but that is just the start. Because of course while the picture of a tall redwood might look very nice in margin near where you talk about redwoods in the text, once the book goes from manuscript to galley, page turns enter the picture. The word “redwood” may be the last on one page or the first on the next, or just before or after a subheading. Now the author really becomes a designer, figuring out how to juggle text and image in the most effective ways — and doing that over and over as new passes create new design challenges. I never see reviewers crediting authors for their part not merely in finding images but placing them.
Why do we use images? Because we want our books to be immersive experiences, they are not just text. And that is third facet of our books reviewers seldom notice: the ways our use of images, or captions with images, train readers in visual literacy, what we give readers the opportunity to notice, to see, in the images: the slant, the propaganda in the image, the second stories the image tells.
We write many books: researched text that needs to engage readers; researched images appropriate to the text; designed text and images crafted to create immersive experiences; opportunities for readers to use their eyes to see inside images. And yet, overwhelmingly, reviewers review our books as if they were novels — or novels that do or do not have splashy color images. I sometimes think we do the work of all the the artists involved in a picture book: author, illustrator, editor, designer, and get credit only for writing. Why?