Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Art Part: Drawing Readers In

We rarely focus on the artwork in our picture books, but I admit it; for me, this part of the job is the most fun. And whether my story has 500 words or 12,500 words, it’s also the most painstakingly researched and by far the most time consuming element of every nonfiction book I write. The right pictures work like magnets to draw readers in, and they often tell more about a story than words could ever do. Today I thought I'd explore some of the reasons why.

In the first place, artwork can show you all kinds of things you could never see any other way. Take illustrations about history for example. Even if you were to travel to every historical site on the planet, you could never see the action that made those places famous back in the day. Case in point: In my book HOW WE CROSSED THE WEST; THE ADVENTURES OF LEWIS AND CLARK, I got to paint the landscapes the way they really looked in 1804; populated by leaping pronghorn antelopes, black with buffalo as far as the eye could see, and dotted with lively Indian villages of every description. And the people! I could depict each explorer smack dab in the middle of his or her real adventures and I could show the same Indians Lewis and Clark wrote about in their journals too. Here are some details from a couple of bigger paintings:

York plays with Arikara kids; Mandans out hunting

Pictures can also enliven any book of nonfiction by adding humor, whimsy, drama, action, and enormous amounts of extra content. They can introduce a mood. They can include colorful illuminated maps that show all the people and plants and animals and ships in a tale of exploration. And they can clarify complex concepts that are difficult to remember any other way.
With labels this shows how Colonial Government worked
Click on picture to see larger version

It’s hard (but fun) to figure out exactly what people wore at different times in the past, what a famous person looked like at a certain age, how a specific sailing vessel was rigged, what kind of saddle and bridle a horse wore in, say, Colonial America or Eastern Europe, or what medieval Paris used to look like. But we're talking about nonfiction here, so the artwork has to be just as accurate as the text.

Medieval Paris maze; click on picture to make it big

If we do our research right, boys will know at a glance that if they had been around during certain historic eras, they would have had to wear ruffles and silk tights, and girls would know that in certain societies they would have had to shave the top part of their heads or tattoo blue goatees on their faces. Kids would find out instantly what it was like to slog through mud and hail in a covered wagon or what kinds of strange contraptions miners used to find gold. In other words, each illustration can become your own private magic carpet that transports you directly into the pages in a picture book and lets you fly straight through some very real and truly amazing scenery.


Unknown said...

Very important for readers to know, Roz. I've been around long enough to have been in fights with editors to have high quality, full-color, well-reasearched yet engaging art included in nonfiction books. It's time to acknowledge the contibution of great art to nonfiction. No one could have said it better!

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Thanks for presenting the enlargements of your marvelous paintings!

Susan E. Goodman said...

I think that we rarely talk that much about illustrations in kids nonfiction because most of us are just writers, not writer illustrators. But I've loved the entries that concern illustration or the mix between. Sometime I hope one of you two-fer guys can write about how you think about dividing the information between words and image--and how you think the end product differs from when the writer and the illustrator are two separate people.

Carol Hinz said...

Great topic! As an editor, choosing an illustrator for a nonfiction book is a real balancing act. You want an illustrator whose art is colorful, lively, and engaging (especially for the younger grades), but you also need someone who likes research and values accuracy. Rosalyn, I'd love to hear more about whether you finish your text before starting on the art or whether you are working on both simultaneously.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Thanks everybody! Carol, to answer your question, I do all of the writing first before I get serious about the illustrations (though they're in the back of my mind all the time as I write). The reason for writing first and drawing later is purely practical; I need to know exactly how much room is left on a page or spread once the type is finally set. That being said, I always make sure that my written material will be fun and easy to illustrate, and sometimes I leave a lot of info out of the text specifically because I can say certain things better with pictures.

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