Guest Post by Rebecca Gardyn Levington
When I first started writing picture books, I was FLABBERGASTED to learn that authors don’t choose the illustrators of their books! And I was GOBSMACKED to learn that, more often than not, they don’t talk to the illustrator at all. But wait, I thought, if I can’t talk to the illustrator, how will they know what I want my story to look like?!
Of course, I very quickly learned that it doesn’t matter what “I want” and that the best picture books develop as a result of a masterful collaboration between not only the author and illustrator, but also the editor, jacket designer, marketing team, and so many others. But still, I didn’t fully understand why it was important to keep the author and illustrator at arms-length until I sold a couple of books.
Obviously every publisher works differently, but I will share some of my experiences so far.
When I wrote BRAINSTORM!, which began as a poem about a child being swept up in a literal storm of ideas, I didn’t have a clue as to how my text might be illustrated (which is kind of ridiculous since it’s a picture book.)
BUT, thank goodness my editor, Sarah Rockett at Sleeping Bear, and illustrator Kate Kronreif did have a clue! LOTS of clues. I never could have imagined the creativity, vibrancy, and movement Kate brought to my text. And I 100% believe the book turned out as amazing as it did because I gave her zero input as to what “I wanted.”
That said, at some point in her process, Kate reached out to our editor for some assistance. The text mentions nouns, verbs, ‘funny phrases,’ themes, topics, characters, titles, etc. flying around, but because she isn’t a writer, Kate wanted some help figuring out which nouns, verbs, ‘funny phrases,’ etc. to use. I sent Kate (through our editor) an eight-page document containing examples I hoped would inspire her artwork, but I never told Kate what to use from this list. And because she had the freedom to draw what she wanted, Kate was able to create an incredible storm of possibilities for our main character to stomp around in! I think, had Kate and I talked about it directly, it might have felt to her like she had to take my suggestions. But, by keeping our collaboration at arms-length, we both were able to bring our best ideas to the table without pressuring each other. And that’s how fabulous spreads like this one came to be:
Similarly, with my upcoming picture book WHATEVER COMES TOMORROW (Barefoot Books, March 7, 2023) the illustrator Mariona Cabassa and I never once spoke, but our collaboration was extremely powerful.
When I first saw the initial sketches of Mariona’s work, I was blown away! I loved her color choices and overall vibe, which meshed so perfectly with my lyrical text that aims to help kids manage their worried feelings. I was so grateful to have Lisa Rosinsky as my editor because she truly “got”what this book was meant to be.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. During the creation of the book, there were a few spreads where Mariona and I didn’t agree about the direction or depiction. In those cases, having an arms-length collaboration was the best thing because I felt like my concerns were being heard, without me feeling like I was “directing” Mariona’s art. Ultimately, with incredible respect and understanding for each others’ point of view, Mariona and I were able to bend for each other— I changed some text, she changed some art — and the book is SO much stronger as a result.
Here’s another example from our collaboration that gives me goosebumps every time I think about it.
As you’ve undoubtedly noticed, the cover of WHATEVER COMES TOMORROW is very dramatic, with children riding on the backs of colorful butterflies. If you look closely at the interiors, you’ll also see that there is at least one butterfly (sometimes hidden!) on each spread of the book. But this butterfly theme was not at all planned.
In one of Mariona’s very first set of sketches, she’d depicted a caterpillar turning into a butterfly to go with the stanza: “Tomorrow may bring changes that confuse or make you mad/Tomorrow may bring confidence you never knew you had.” Both Lisa and I loved the concept, but we worried the symbolism might be lost on younger children, so Lisa asked Mariona to develop more concrete imagery.
(This spread is also an example where the text was altered to better match Mariona’s image!)
Fast forward a few months when I received Mariona’s sketch of the final spread, which depicts a similar scene to the current cover — children all riding on the backs of butterflies. I absolutely LOVED that she brought her butterfly idea back into this final spread. (At this point, this was the only one that included butterflies).
Then, I had an “AHA!” moment. I’m not sure if it was intentional (you’ll have to ask Mariona!) but I suddenly saw this gorgeous metaphor of butterflies AS worries (all those “butterflies” we feel in our belly when we’re nervous). To me, the kids riding on the backs of their butterflies represents how they have finally learned a way to manage their worried feelings.
I mentioned this to Lisa and asked if we could lean into this metaphor more. She LOVED the idea and asked Mariona to incorporate at least one butterfly into every spread. In the end, the butterflies (and the little caterpillar from her initial sketch) even made it onto the cover. (FYI, this wasn’t the initial cover! It was changed at the very last minute!) I ended up rewriting my Author’s Note to dive deeper into this butterfly metaphor as well.
So, as you can see, talking to the illustrator is totally overrated! When both parties step aside and allow their creative minds the space and freedom to play, MAGIC results!
Rebecca Gardyn Levington is a children’s book author, poet, and journalist with a particular penchant for penning both playful and poignant picture books and poems – primarily in rhyme. Her debut picture book BRAINSTORM! (Sleeping Bear Press, 2022) hit bookstores last summer. She has seven more rhyming picture books on the way, including WHATEVER COMES TOMORROW (Barefoot Books, March 2023), AFIKOMAN, WHERE’D YOU GO? A Passover Hide-and-Seek Adventure (Penguin Random House/Rocky Pond Books, 2024), and I WILL ALWAYS BE… (HarperCollins, 2024). Rebecca’s award-winning poems and articles have appeared in numerous anthologies, newspapers, and magazines. She lives in the New Jersey with her family. Find out more about Rebecca and sign up for her newsletter, filled with tons of tips and tricks for writers, at www.RebeccaGardynLevington.com.
Follow Rebecca on Twitter at @WriterRebeccaGL and on Instagram at @RebeccaGardynLevington
To buy or pre-order Rebecca’s book and/or download FREE Teacher’s Guides and Activity Pages, visit:
BRAINSTORM!: https://rebeccagardynlevington.com/books/brainstorm/ .
WHATEVER COMES TOMORROW: https://rebeccagardynlevington.com/books/whatever-comes-tomorrow/
Signed and/or personalized copies are available from Rebecca’s local indie or purchase anywhere books are sold and she’ll happily send you a signed bookplate! (Contact her via the website with your info!)
It’s magical, the way words and pictures enhance and strengthen each other, to create an entirely unique whole. Teamwork is everything! Thanks for sharing some of the process that went into your beautiful books, Rebecca!
The teamwork approach really does allow a book to evolve in a beautiful way! Thanks for sharing some backstory for your newest collaboration!
Thank you for tje examplrs of positive intetaction between artist and writer.
Both of these books are gorgeous, the writing and illustrations!
What an amazing collaboration story! I love the way this beautiful book came to be.
Very cool, Rebecca! I absolutely love the butterfly metaphor and how that became a thematic element in the illustrations!
I absolutely love the cover! It’s gorgeous! Congratulations! Now, I’m off to add your book to my To Be Read list. 🙂
The tale of your journey collaborating at arm’s length inspires hopeful anticipation in me as I become part of a team bringing my debut picture book into the world next year. Thank-you!
I love to see what the illustrator “sees” from my words – I am always surprised!
Great post, Rebecca! I loved your examples of how writer + illustrator becomes greater than the sum of its parts.