Thursday, May 27, 2010

My Better Halves: the Illustrators (Part 1)

Critical to a quality nonfiction book is not just word but illustration. I think of the partnership of author and illustrator as an ice dance. (Everything, for me, has an ice metaphor. As young girls, my sisters and I spent hours at the rink and competed in ice skating competitions. As a teen, I taught ice skating. I still ice skate, though my jumps are rusty.)

Why ice dance? The curve and the swing, the energy of the dance propels each partner at times. One suggests a direction; the other mirrors, enhances, completes the curve. Let go at the wrong moment and either partner can land in the lap of the audience. So it is with my illustrators and me—even if we have never met. It happens on the page.

I've been lucky to partner with some terrific illustrators. In my last INK post, I discussed the re-imagining of Turtle, Turtle, Watch Out! by illustrator Annie Patterson. So, in this post I'd like to shine the light on some more illustrators so that those studying nonfiction might see their work, as well. Because the diversity of approaches is astounding. You can see the beauty of illustration by INKers such as Roz Schanzer( and Steve Jenkins (

My first dance partner was S.D. Schindler, who illustrated If You Should Hear a Honey Guide, published by Houghton Mifflin, back in 1995. His muted colors on lovely brown backgrounds evoked the Kenyan savanna in all its dusty glory. That was the first time I understood the joyful games an illustrator could provide for his reader. Kids searched each illustration for the tiny honey guide. S.D. Schindler has done plenty of nonfiction: books about bees, Thoreau, castles—you name it. Yet he's not a nonfiction illustrator, per se. Many of his books are whimsical and some fictional. Just do a Google search of images and you'll find his book covers provide a peek at a talent that can play and produce in many styles. You can find out a bit about him here:

My next picture book, Home At Last: a Song of Migration (Holt, 1997) was illustrated

by Alix Berenzy. What fascinated me about her work was her medium. She began with black paper and covered the pages with soft pastel so that the black just peeked through the illustrations. Kids love to explore this technique, this covering of dark with light instead of the conventional covering white with dark. She captures the mood of the caribou on their difficult migration. The paper glows with light as they emerge onto a rise, a meadow rich with food. The perspectives in her illustrations are wonderful. You feel the movement of the birds migrating at night, the fish leaping up streams, and especially, that river of antlers, those caribou.

Her work launched my own study of illustrations, particularly those in my own books. Yet part of the story is not with the illustrators, alone. Art directors, page designers, and type designers and editors are on the team and it's often hard for me to know what each one contributed to the whole. They find opportunities where sometimes I did not see them. The pacing of a book and flow of text can make text sing—or change its rhythm entirely. So I've been lucky to work with people who cared to make these books work. I hope to highlight some of the other 24 illustrators I've partnered with in future posts for INK.

I am a photographer. I have 40,000 or so photos, stretching back twenty years and covering dozens of countries and mostly wild places. So I could, and do, use those to illustrate some books. But I could never replace the beauty of what these illustrators do, particularly for young narrative nonfiction. In case you don't believe me, here is the sum total of what I can draw.

As I tell children on school visits, be glad I'm not doing the drawings for my own books. Be very, very glad.


Melissa Stewart said...

Great post, April! One of the great things about illustrations as opposed to photos in books about animals and nature is that paintings make it possible to show both a large landscape and a small creature in the same image with both in focus. Hooray for the hardworking artists who add a whole new dimension to our words!

Gretchen Woelfle said...

I, too, am in awe of what illustrators have done with my words. It's one of the many joys of writing for children.