Monday, March 18, 2013

Guest Post: Monica Brown on Where Art Meets Text: Reflections on the Author-Illustrator Relationship

Peek into Rafael's process in creating the book.
By Monica Brown
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Conventional wisdom states that authors and illustrators should have as little contact as possible, especially during the creation of a picture book.

Conventional wisdom is right in the sense that illustrators need to be free to create without interference from authors, guided by conscientious feedback from talented editors and art directors.

I would, however, like to share a writer’s perspective on the confluence of words and art that creates the children’s picture book.

On the one hand, artists tell stories with pictures, but on another, passionate picture book writers infuse their words with art—images, symbols, movement, and action (not to mention rhythm and music, but that’s another topic).

When I write, it’s not in an artless vacuum. On each page, I think about illustratable action, and the ways a gifted illustrator might take my words and fly with them.

Let me take as an example two of my picture book biographies, the first—My Name is Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/Me llamo Celia: La Vida de Celia Cruz (Luna Rising), was published almost ten years ago with illustrator Rafael López; and the second, our new book together, Tito Puente, Mambo King/Rey del Mambo (Rayo/HarperCollins, 2013), which arrived March 5.

When I write, I do so for myself of course and for my imagined audience of children. But I also write for illustrators.

In the case of Celia Cruz and Tito Puente, any biography of their lives would have many musical scenes, but the illustration of these scenes would have to be varied and interesting and filled with action.

I tried to do this on the first page of My Name is Celia, when I wrote:

“Sugar! My voice is strong, smooth, and sweet. I will make you feel like dancing. Close your eyes and listen. My voice feels like feet skipping on cool wet sand, like running under a waterfall, like rolling down a hill. My voice climbs and rocks and dips and flips with the sounds of congas beating and trumpets blaring. Boom, boom, boom! beat the congas. Clap, clap, clap! go the hands. Shake, shake, shake! go the hips. I am the Queen of Salsa, and I invite you to come dance with me.”


With Tito Puente, King of Mambo I wrote:

“When the Tito Puente Orchestra played, the tambourines sounded like rain on metal roofs. The horns blew high and loud and strong and low. The claves smacked clackity clackity clack clack, and everyone’s feet went tappity tap. Best of all, Tito played the timbales . . .Tum Tica! Tac Tic! Tum Tic Tom Tom!” 

When I turned in the manuscript, I couldn’t wait to see what Rafael would come up with, and I wasn’t disappointed!


As a writer, I’ve been very fortunate (and, perhaps, unusual) in that I’ve had editors who have allowed me to be involved in each part of the process, staring with the selection of the illustrator, through notes on the first rounds of sketches, to final art (though obviously, with these talented artists, notes on final art involve expressions of gratitude and glee!).

With certain books, I’ve give feedback on candidates presented as potential illustrators, and when possible, I’ve suggested illustrators who I think will work with my manuscript.

In this way, I’ve gotten to work more than once with the same artist. My two books with Rafael López are one joyful example. Another is my two collaborations with John Parra.


Our second book together, the Christopher Award-winning Waiting for the Biblioburro (Random House, 2011) was released last year. I specifically requested John for this project because I knew he would be perfect for it, with his sweet characters and delightful depiction of animalitos.


The author/illustrator relationship can be amazing, and I’ve loved the opportunity to reunite with illustrators as we grow in parallel and non-parallel ways as writers and artists.

Monica & Rafael

In the case of John Parra and Rafael López, we’ve also found occasion to present together in various venues across the country—from academic conferences to literacy nights to school visits. This is especially rewarding as it affirms why we do this in the first place—to support literacy, put smiles on the faces of children and encourage them to find their own voices and make themselves heard.

1 comment:

Martina at Adventures in YA Publishing said...

This is wonderful information, and it sounds like a wonderful author experience. So often, authors aren't involved in the whole editorial process and their experience stops short of being involved in the illustration side at all.

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