What’s so special about picture books?

There’s picture books and there’s illustrated books.

To first have a text, then commission an illustrator to illustrate it, and then put it all together maybe using a graphic designer is a way to make an illustrated book. I know this is how a lot of publishers work, and their expertise lies especially in finding the right illustrator to match a specific text or a specific writer. But to make a picture book like that?

I attended a seminar in Tampere, Finland on November 18th by the Finnish Institute for Children’s Literature. It focused on the illustration in children’s books. For me the seminar only crystallized the specialty of a picture book, an artform of story, illustration and words. Hence the idea of words coming to life and being revised to perfection before an illustrator even comes along puzzles me. In that case is it more of an illustrated book, a picture-book-lookalike? How much is it a picture book if words are the ones running the show? If the pictures are left with the role of a decorative element, something you turn your eyes to after reading the text? Counter-intuitive, wouldn’t you say, if it’s a picture book?

Text first, pictures second

We live in a crazily visual culture with the never-stopping image feed of social media and daily communication through emojis and memes. Yet we strongly hold onto words as a source of real and serious information. The idea of words coming first, pictures second is so usual we don’t even stop to think could it be the other way around. The illustrators and other visual designers know this, but if it’s only the illustrator raising their voice in wanting to start working earlier in the process it is rarely heard. Or it may be misunderstood: “The illustrator is just so eager to start selecting the right pencils…”

With data visualizations the presence of a visual designer on the starting line is perhaps even more obvious. In the Data Visualization Handbook the authors Juuso Koponen, Jonatan Hildén and Tapio Vapaasalo (2016, the original Finnish version) go through work processes of information design. Below I’m freely summarizing a few ideas why they think the visual designer needs to be aboard when the project starts.

The best ideas typically are born out of interaction between people with different skill sets. A good visual designer knows the presentations of data generally better than the content experts. Defining the target audience and its needs are decisions of the early stage where the input of visual designer is helpful: a lot of later decisions depend heavily on the needs of the target audience. Also, a good information designer understands the type of data that is needed to construct visualizations usually better than the content experts. It can be very time-consuming to start proceeding with the wrong type of data that is challenging to bend into visual shape – desired or any.

Not just eager to sharpen pencils

I don’t mean to exaggerate. Stellar picture books born out of a brilliant text do exist. The illustrator’s take on the text influences and changes it, and could lead to a properly equal cooperation of a kick-ass author-illustrator match.

Picture books can tell about something small and light and leave the reader delighted and entertained. Or they can tell about things big and heavy, and leave the reader touched and transformed. Non-fiction picture books can take a real and serious idea and make it even more real and serious – even so serious that adults pay attention! Illustrators are the ones deepest invested in the soul of a picture book, and they need to be involved every step of the way. They need to be there when selecting the topic and collecting data, and when the needs of target audience are decided.

Otherwise the book might end up an illustrated book, where the reader reads the text first and glimpses at the decorating pictures second. Counter-intuitive, wouldn’t you say, if it’s a picture book?