Children’s book illustration & design

At the Vancouver ceremony for the 2014 Alcuin Awards, one of this year’s judges, Robin Mitchell Cranfield, moderated a lively panel discussion about the unique considerations in children’s picture book publishing. On the panel were:

Nugent began with a bit of background about children’s picture books—a timeless form that’s actually not all that old, emerging in the Victorian era as toy books meant as novelties to entertain children. According to Barbara Bader, a scholar in the field of children’s literature, “A picturebook is text, illustrations, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historic document; and foremost, an experience for a child.” Nugent explained that whereas a storybook can be completely understood without images, a picture book’s narrative results from the interaction of words and pictures. Reading a picture book is not a linear process; children will flip the pages backward and forward as they try to make sense of the story.

A picture book’s words and images interact in three ways, said Nugent:

  • enhancement, where they complement one another and are not redundant—the words and pictures fill in different details;
  • alternation, where words and pictures take turns telling the story—seen most often when the author is also the illustrator; and
  • contradiction, where the words and pictures do not agree—a tension that creates humour or irony.

Nugent aspires to this contradictory symbiosis of words and images, because “teaching humour is an essential life skill.” Contradiction can reveal an unreliable or naive narrator and thus playfully empowers readers with knowledge that the narrator doesn’t have.

Children may be the readers of picture books, said Mitchell Cranfield, but who are the buyers? And how do they affect the way picture books are marketed? Gillingham replied that the interesting thing about a children’s book as a product is that there are gatekeepers: parents, teachers, and librarians choose which books to put into kids’ hands. The book must appeal to both the children and the people giving the book to the children.

The cover is the primary marketing tool, said Gillingham. “It can be a bit icky to think of the book as a product or to think about its cover as packaging, but we do want books to get into the hands of readers.” Children’s book authors and illustrators can expect their publisher’s marketing department to become involved in cover design because it is a sales tool. But unless the book can be tied to a holiday—say Mother’s Day or Father’s Day—the publisher typically won’t have the budget to do much marketing, and authors and illustrators are often expected to market their own books.

“How do we reach and represent the full community of children?” Mitchell Cranfield asked Flett. “Are there communities being underserved?”

“There are so many communities being underserved,” said Flett, including people who are LGBTQIA, people of colour, people with disabilities, and people from ethnic or cultural minorities. Published demographic data are hard to come by in Canada, but the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison releases statistics about children’s literature in the U.S., and it last reported that, in a sample of 5,000 books:

  • 180 were written or illustrated by African Americans,
  • 38 were by aboriginal authors or illustrators,
  • 112 were by authors or illustrators of Asia-Pacific ancestry, and
  • 66 were by Latinos.

For more representative diversity, said Flett, “we need more books written by the community member, not on behalf of that community member. We need these books in schools, homes, and communities.” Picture books that feature diversity are often what Flett considers “tourist books,” which may focus on holidays, for instance. There is much less about everyday life. Flett would like to see books that are now shelved in the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit section of the bookstore also in other sections, because “ultimately they are, like the majority of books, about humanity. And if we do not include diverse books, we’re implicitly exclusive.” She recalled an interaction she had with a young reader—a foster child—who was excited to discover that the main character of The Moccasins was also a foster child. Flett made the case for diverse books in all genres so that children with all sorts of backgrounds and experiences have characters they can relate to.

Mitchell Cranfield asked Morstad what children’s books mean to her. As a parent who loves art and design, Morstad replied, she’s interested in books that appeal to both children and adults—“books that tackle big subjects and that don’t underestimate children’s understanding of big subjects” like the emotions that come with death or sex or depression, for example. She enjoys books that are “deceptively simple but have philosophical or more complex components.”

“Kids have questions, and some are hard to answer,” Morstad said. “A book can be a great place for those conversations to happen.”

Mitchell Cranfield talked about her own work adapting a book for a TV show and remarked that when you’re reading with a child, “content gets presented to children in a filtered way.” Children can let you know when it’s too much for them. With a TV show, she had to be more careful about making sure the content would be “safe” to a broad group of viewers.

Flett likes the idea of empowering children in books. In Dolphin SOS (winner of the 2015 Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Prize), for example, the youth are themselves involved with the rescue in the story. Flett also mentioned Simon Ortiz’s The People Shall Continue, recently featured on the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog. Ortiz’s storytelling presents the history of Indigenous peoples, including treaties and reservations, in a matter-of-fact way, never once using the word “plight.” The book reflected how people simply tell each other stories: “These are the stories; these are the songs.”

Mitchell Cranfield asked Gillingham how changes in production have changed book illustration, design, and content. “What does the future of children’s book design look like?”

Gillingham said that digital art in children’s books “used to look a lot more digital.”

“I appreciate illustrators who continue to use their hands but use digital tools to make the process of making a book easier,” she said. “I love when there’s still evidence of the hand.”

Gillingham recalled when, not that long ago, illustrators had to send, nervously, their original artwork via courier, when there was always a possibility of loss or damage. “I love that we don’t have to worry about those things now,” she said.

As for the future of children’s book design, “I see it getting less compartmentalized,” she said. Traditionally, authors and illustrators were kept separate, but “I see that breaking down. Authors and illustrators are finding each other.”

“I see illustrators becoming more design savvy,” she added, speculating that the change might be tool driven, as more illustrators work in the digital realm. They’re more conscientious about page composition and the interaction between type and illustrations.

Nugent agreed that the process is much more collaborative. She said that she felt editorial pressure to create a sleepy-time ending to one of her books, When Cats Go Wrong. “With cuts to libraries and schools,” she said, book publishers have refocused their marketing toward parents, and in North America, “a picture book is used to separate parent from child at the end of the day”—a function that books in other countries don’t have to have.

Nugent had to rework the last spread of her book, which had depicted an active scene, to create a more calm ending. She admits to resenting the request at first but came to realize that inspiration was bottomless: she could find it regardless of the constraints she faced. “People don’t like to think about marketing considerations, but we have to respect that people are putting money into producing the book.” she said. She ended by encouraging everyone to check out the IBBY Silent Books Exhibit featuring wordless picture books from around the world on at the Italian Cultural Centre until October 22.

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