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Authors & Illustrators: The Mystery of Collaboration

Illustrator Jennifer A. Bell richly imagines the costume shop in TOE SHOE MOUSE by Jan Carr

I’ve been thinking a lot about collaboration lately because my newest picture book, Toe Shoe Mouse , illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell, is about to arrive in the warehouses. And every day I’ve been sneaking looks at my advance copy and marveling at the art. Jennifer and I created the book together. Or did we? Well, that depends on your definition of the word "together." When I think about collaboration, an image springs to mind: Rodgers and Hammerstein, composer and lyricist, with Rodgers at the piano, and Hammerstein leaning photogenically near. The result? “Some Enchanted Evening” or other arresting standard.

But authors and illustrators of picture books don’t work that way, or at least mostly they don’t. Blessed are the children’s book authors who are both writers and illustrators. For they shall inherit the shelf space. Author/Illustrators might be considered the Cole Porters of children’s books, with words and pictures (in place of music & lyric) working together seamlessly, expressing one artistic vision.

Of course there are author/illustrator teams who do get to work closely – the occasional husband-wife team or other intimates, or perhaps people who are lucky enough to collaborate on more than one book. But that isn’t the usual model.

The traditional model for picture books is that the author and illustrator never actually communicate during the development of the book. The author sends the manuscript to the editor, who then communicates with the illustrator. Authors are discouraged from contacting the illustrator directly – or even writing extensive art notes – and this has advantages for the illustrator. It ensures that the author isn’t dictating or interfering with his or her half of the creative process. The internet has tempered this – authors can now search out illustrators without having to query the publishing house, hat in hand, for contact information. And we no longer have to rely on chance meetings at conferences, and exchanges of phone numbers that often felt furtive, even illicit.

Of course, with picture books, there does end up being some collaborative back-and-forth; it’s just mediated. When art comes in that doesn’t jibe with the text, the writer may have to revise. Sometimes there’s urgency. Get me rewrite! “The book is about to go to print – but we just noticed that the text says ‘cat’ and the illustrator painted a dog!” Writers are familiar with urgency; they know it’s a critical element in crafting drama. They also know that it lights a fire under their butts and they’d better revise quickly.

Many editors are kind enough to share sketches with the author, and this benefits the book. Authors can help catch inconsistencies earlier rather than later. Still, whenever the art comes in, it’s a surprise.

But I’m happy to report that most of the time the surprise is a happy one. What will the illustrator do? How will he or she conceive the character? How will the world be imagined? What will the detail look like? These anxious questions are answered when the author first gets a glimpse of the art.

Now that our book Toe Shoe Mouse has been printed, Jennifer A. Bell and I are communicating. She sent me the jpeg of the illustration that tops this blog post. I asked her for it because I love it – the little mouse dwarfed by the large costume shop, pictured actively, as he snips a piece of ribbon in the dark of night.

I love that costume shop! It reminds me of the costume shop at New York City Ballet, which I visited one lucky day when I was interviewing Holly Hynes, then Director of Costumes, for an article I was writing. That day, I got to touch the tulle. And I got to talk to the seamstresses who, in their heavy Russian accents, offered up juicy, gossipy tidbits about the various ballerinas they’d outfitted.

And in this book, in Jennifer’s art, it’s all there – the racks of costumes, the stacks of trim, the line of sewing machines. Though the shop is pictured after-hours, the bustling busyness is implied. But how did Jennifer capture that? I’m not sure. Because this is a picture book, I had to “sketch” that costume shop with very little text; in picture books, less text is considered more. And so I wasn’t able to write out a description of the shop – which made Jennifer’s process even more removed from mine. But the book, the product, is, in the end, nonetheless a collaboration of our two sensibilities.

And that, to me, seems as mysterious as art itself.

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