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27 September 2009 ·

The Author – Illustrator relationship

The other question I’ve been asked recently is on working with illustrators. I’ve been lucky enough to work with many wonderful artists – and I think I was particularly lucky that I loved Gillian Campbell’s images in my first book, “Amanda’s Dinosaur. Like most novice authors I’d thought of the book as purely mine, and imagined the pictures that were in my mind as I wrote the story. Of course, they were not exactly the same: they were much, much better, adding elements I hadn’t considered. I remember looking at them for the first time with a strange mixture of déjà vu and delight that allowed me to realise that this was Gillian’s book too.
Even in chapter books with very few illustrations, the pictures enhance or add another interpretation to the author’s words. People often ask how I feel about pictures that aren’t the way I imagine the characters, but the answer is simple: if I haven’t described it, the artist is free to use their own imagination – they certainly can’t be expected to tap directly into my head! The story in a chapter book, however, tends to belong very much to the author.
Of course there’s interaction, whether directly or through the editor. Sometimes the artist needs something clarified – which might mean the reader will too, and that it needs rewriting – or it might mean that it’s a useful place for a picture to show something not easily described. Occasionally a page will need a few words removed to fit the picture in. And occasionally the artist makes a mistake. By the time it’s discovered it’s usually easier to ask the author to change the text to fit in. If it makes no difference to the story I agree – a couple of times I’ve had an illustrator’s mistake that I thought was an improvement on what I’d written. If it changes something important, and a few times it has, I fight hard to get the image altered to fit the story.

When I think of the hundreds of illustrations scattered throughout my books, it seems amazing how few of these sorts of problems there have been – and equally amazing how much richness they’ve added to my stories. For the reader, the artist’s portrayal becomes the character that enters their own imagination, an indissoluble part of the whole.

But picture books, even though the original story still comes from the author, are truly a joint creation – which I’ll talk about more in my next blog.

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Wendy Orr is a Canadian-born Australian writer. Her books for children and adults have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Nim’s Island and Nim at Sea have also become feature films, starring Jodie Foster and Abigail Breslin (Nim’s Island) and Bindi Irwin (Return to Nim’s Island.) Her latest book is Cuckoo’s Flight, a companion to the highly acclaimed Bronze Age novels Dragonfly Song and Swallow’s Dance. Read full bio