Friday, May 16, 2008

The Nonfiction Author-Illustrator Relationship

It’s an exciting day. I’m getting ready to leave for the International Reading Association conference in Atlanta. Even more exciting, I just learned that two pieces of art from my new book WINGS (Charlesbridge), are winging their way to my home. This is only the second time I’ve been able to buy original art from one of my books, and these pieces are particularly stunning. Robin Brickman has been my favorite artist I’ve worked with. Her dazzling 3-dimensional cut-paper collages just pop off of the page, eliciting oohs and ahs from everyone who sees them. Thinking about the many talented artists who have illustrated my books, however, I thought it might be interesting to share something about the nonfiction author-illustrator relationship.

Not long ago if someone had asked me about this relationship, I would have answered, “It’s simple. The author and illustrator don’t have a relationship.” After all, authors and artists rarely meet each other and almost never have direct correspondence with each other during a project. For a variety of reasons—some valid, some silly—publishers like to keep authors and artists apart. Our titanic egos probably have something to do with it! Still, I’ve found that in nonfiction, I do get the opportunity to interact with artists more than a typical fiction author might.

One reason for that is because nonfiction art not only has to be beautiful, it has to be accurate. I often get to see art at the sketch stage as well as once or twice in the final stages. This is critical in catching mistakes or misinterpretations. As editors have learned that I’m not going to be a complete jerk to my artist colleagues, however, I’ve also had a few chances to correspond directly with them during a project. Recently, for instance, I and Andrew Plant, who illustrated my new book REIGN OF THE SEA DRAGONS (Charlesbridge Publishing), got to trade some information about giant ancient marine reptiles. This was helpful to both of us and helped to clarify some information in the book.

Robin Brickman and I have also swapped info a number of times. One reason she is my favorite artist to work with is we’ve had a chance to do three books together. I just have fun talking to her and seeing what amazing things she’s going to come up with next. She is also one of only three artists I’ve gotten to present with at a conference. I hope we get to do this again.

Not long ago, another one of “my” artists, Joanna Yardley, who lives here in Montana, took an especially daring step. She decided to include me in part of the fun of the artistic process. While working on our book SHEP—OUR MOST LOYAL DOG (Sleeping Bear Press), she called me up and said, “Sneed, I need a model.” I went over with my dog Mattie and we got to pose for the illustrations of Shep with his master. Of course, my character ends up dead in that book, but I try not to take that too personally!

Artists have extended me other kindnesses as well. When my book ANIMALS ASLEEP (Houghton Mifflin) came out, the artist, Anik McGrory, made up a little board-book version of the book to send. The timing was perfect as my son Braden had just been born. It was one of the most touching experiences I’ve had in my career.

All of this aside, authors and artists do not interact much. Of the fifteen or so artists I’ve worked with, I’ve probably only met about half of them, and usually briefly. Although I understand why editors like to keep us apart, part of me feels sad about that. It’s not a situation that’s likely to change, however. Meanwhile, I try to appreciate the interactions we do have—and look forward to having many, many talented people work on my future books.


Linda Salzman said...

My son saw the cover of REIGN OF THE SEA DRAGONS and said, "That's just the kind of book I was talking about. Can we get that?" I remember our recent visit to the Museum of Natural History where he lingered in the exhibit hall saying he wished there was more information. Great topic that clearly has a waiting audience.

Elaine Magliaro said...

I, too, love Robin Brickman's sculpted paper collages. I became an admirer of her art when I got A LOG's LIFE. Last year I had an opportunity to see some of Robin's original illustrations for WINGS and ONE NIGHT IN THE CORAL SEA. Absolutely gorgeous! I hope the two of you will do more books together in the future.

Padma Venkatraman said...

Sneed, That was such an interesting post! I was just thinking about how important it is for the author to have some input on occasion, especially with nonfiction. The cover of CLIMBING THE STAIRS is gorgeous and absolutely splendid and wonderful, but the first time I saw it, the heroine's head was veiled - which wasn't accurate - and I could easily see how the talented artist had made that error (it's historical fiction, of course, not nonfiction, but it does show the importance of checking with the author for accuracy, even in the case of fiction). Your post also made me think of an author friend, Mitali Perkins (who writes fiction) but who spoke about what a wonderful and close relationship she has with the illustrator of one of her books.

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