Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Artists of Nonfiction

Here’s where the goodies are. In the fine print. Beneath the Library of Congress catalog stuff that most readers skip.

“The artist used up to forty layers of colored pencil over watercolor wash on 140-pound watercolor paper to create the illustrations for this book.”

---from Rick Chrustowski’s book, Army Ant Parade (Holt, 2001) That’s right. Rick’s book. Okay, so my husband and I stood in army ant swarms and slogged through five muddy days in Panama to see antbirds and yes, I wrote the text. But Rick put up to FORTY LAYERS on some of those hopping frogs and ants and birdies. It’s his book, too.

Chrustowski has this crisp, modern, graphic style that still can give a sense of perspective and landscape. You are in the forest, with the ants, in the thick of the swarm. His art makes the action pop, larger than life, without making the details muddy. Well, you’ll just have to look at it and see. Chrustowski has also written many of his own books, such as Big Brown Bat and Bright Beetle, both from Holt. See more about him at

Oct 21-24, 2010 Chrustowski is teaching an in-depth course on bird collage and illustration for grownups. It’s in Minnesota. I’ll be traveling; otherwise I’d be there for sure. It would be a great chance to meet Rick.

Now, I’m off to investigate more notes.

“Illustrations done in watercolor, gouache, and pastel on Arches paper.

Display type set in Ogre, designed by Wayne Thompson and text type set in Weiss

Designed by Susan Mallory Sherman.”

Turtle, Turtle, Watch Out! by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Annie Patterson.

These notes reflect the secret artists, the secret work force. There’s an entire layer of work being done on books that is rarely recognized: all that goes into the art and the choice of type and overall book design. What Annie and Susan and Wayne all did made a huge difference in Turtle, Turtle, Watch Out. I give my thanks to them and all the others along the way that have made my words and ideas flock, fly, and swim.


CC said...

I don't agree that the Illustrator is secretive or hidden. In a childrens' picture book from the cover through all the spreads
(usually 32 pages) the Illustrator's work
is the first and lasting look of the book.
And it all begins with blank white paper (or
canvas) and the Author's words. And there is an enormous amount of research required by the artist as well.
But I appreciate your focusing attention on your Illustrators' work which now I can't wait to see for myself.

Unknown said...

One of the battles I fought years ago was to create a series of books with Alaskan artist, Barbara Lavallee. In effect, it was a "packaging" arrangement. A number of publishers turned it down because photographs were the norm for nonfiction. The Imagine Living Here series (This Place is Cold, Wet, Dry, High, Lonely, Crowded and Wild) was finally published and won numerous awards. One of the key elements of each book was the art from these far away places. Barbara studied the art, made it her own and created borders for the pages. She captured the appearance and motion of the people and the animals. In short, we saw these places the way she saw them, adding an immeasurable dimension to the books.

April Pulley Sayre said...

Actually, I agree that illustrators in general receive plenty of attention from the book community. (Can you say Caldecott?) But folks who read my books don't always appreciate what a fine nonfiction illustrator does to lift the content of a book.

What I was trying to get at, and hope to address in some future post is what book designers and type designers do. It's been crucial to the success of my books. They really are only credited in those notes, and sometimes, not even there.

BethMooreSchool said...

This post is a great reminder of something that adults often appreciate about books, but either forget or lack the resources to help children understand. It's hard for kids to appreciate the kind of work that goes into the art if they haven't had many opportunities to explore art themselves. The layers of watercolor, or what it means for a font to be specially designed, etc. are something that kids need support in understanding and appreciating-- and tends to be sorely lacking in the general conversation about teaching nonfiction reading for kids. (Though I agree that the illustrators get plenty of attention from adults in the Kid Lit and publishing world)

Unknown said...

What few people other than picture book illustrators know is that the artist often designs the book mostly... choosing the page size, deciding how to split up the manuscript page by page, choosing which moments to emphasize and how, and figuring out where the text will go (i.e. leaving space for it in the art). The art director oversees this, and typically comments on the dummy (as may the editor). In many cases the designer at the publisher adds the type at the end.

I started doing my own typesetting years ago in order to know exactly how much space the type would take and to choose the font(s) in consultation with the publisher... to ensure that the art and text would harmonize in my often complex layouts.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

I'm delighted to see the artists and their work discussed here! As one of those people who writes and illustrates her own books, here are a couple of random thoughts:

1) No matter whether there are 300 words or 22,000 words in my manuscripts, the artwork always takes longer to do than the writing.

2) Nonfiction artwork is much more than eye candy; besides inviting readers in, it adds information that couldn't be included in any other way. Two tiny examples - It allows readers to see the world the way it looked hundreds--or millions--of years ago. And it lets readers watch famous people from history while they do the actual deeds that made them famous in the first place.

This list could go on forever, but you get the gist...