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21 February 2010 ·

The Author – Illustrator partnership in picture books

A few months ago I said I’d think about the author-illustrator relationship in picture books – well, I’ve thought about it a lot, and now am finally ready to write about it. Of course I’m talking about how it’s worked in picture books I’ve wrtitten, and am especially thinking about the Princess and her Panther, simply because we’ve only just finished it, but I imagine this is roughly true for most picture book creators.

Picture books are different from even highly illustrated chapter books, because even though I create the story and write it with my own vision of the pictures that will fill each page, I rarely give instructions as to what I envisage, unless there’s something pivotal to the story that I don’t want to say in the text. In Arabella, I asked that we not see Matthew’s wheelchair until the last page. Kim Gamble, rethought this with an artist’s eye, and placed the wheelchair in nearly every picture, in such a way that readers almost never see it, or if they do see it, refuse to see it as the child’s. What I suggested could have been, in the wrong hands, a surprise trick; Kim’s art delivers the surprise, but subtly points out how far our preconceptions have led us in reading the text: infinitely better.

One of the main points about a picture book is in its name: it’s the pictures that we see first, and that hold a child’s attention. The illustrator is an artist in their own right, so they need to enter into the story and bring something of themselves to it: that’s what we respond to in art!

So when the editor first showed me Lauren Stringer’s art for the Princess and her Panther, in which the panther had become a younger sister instead of the cat I had imagined, I was thrilled. It’s brought a whole new layer of richness and depth to the story; I can still see the simple little story that was in my head, twenty years ago (!) when I started drafting this story, but I’d be very disappointed if it were the book that’s coming out now.

And – although this text didn’t need it – would I change words if they didn’t fit with the pictures? Yes, if the pictures were telling the story and the words no longer matched. More often, once the art is done, some of the text may become redundant. It’s not easy letting favourite phrases go, all those lovely words that I’ve played with, replaced and rehearsed…. but if they don’t add to the story, they need to go. Let the pictures do their work.


  1. katswhiskers What a lovely summing-up, Wendy. You are obviously a delight to work with!
    February 22, 2010 at 8:03 am · Reply
  2. Karen Collum Beautiful post, Wendy. Thanks so much for sharing your insight into the process. I love the cover of "The Princess & Her Panther" and can't wait to have a peek inside, especially now I know some of the backstory.
    February 22, 2010 at 8:03 am · Reply
  3. Katrina Germein So true about illustrators adding extra depth to stories. It's always exciting to see how an illustrator interprets a text and then creates an extra dimension. All part of the fun of picture books.
    February 22, 2010 at 8:04 am · Reply
  4. Wendy I don't suppose I'm always a delight to work with! But I do like being open to editors' and illustrators' views, because I've learned from experience they may see another dimension to my first view.

    As for backstory... this ain't the half of it!

    Actually it might be interesting to share some of the dramatically different drafts for this book - I'll get back to that.

    Thanks for all the enthusiasm!
    February 22, 2010 at 8:10 am · Reply
  5. Sheryl Gwyther Thanks for this post, Wendy and those little insights into the creativity of the illustrator's interpretation of the text. Fascinating!
    February 22, 2010 at 8:53 am · Reply
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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