Thursday, October 18, 2012

Emilie P. Bush on Finding a Great Illustrator for Your Picture Book

Celebrating the release of her adorable rhyming picture book, Steamduck Learns to Fly (yes, it's steampunk for kids!), Emilie P. Bush stops by to share her thoughts on teaming up with the right artist. She was lucky enough to find William Kevin Petty to collaborate with.

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Getting your hands on a GOOD illustrator. 

If you would have asked me as little as two years ago if I ever thought I would have written not one but TWO bestselling children's books, I would have laughed. LAUGHED! at the notion of me writing a children's book AT ALL. But there they are - two hit stories: Her Majesty's Explorer: a Steampunk bedtime story and Steamduck Learns to FLY. And I am truly delighted with how they turned out, and I know that it has VERY little to do with ME - the author. It has more to do with the pictures. Dr. Seuss's words are just silly without the equally goofy pictures, the detail Margot Apple puts into the Sheep books keeps Nancy E. Shaw's tale visually interesting, and Shel Silverstein's poetry is clearly enhanced by the dramatic illustrations. 

By far, the question I am most often asked about the creation of our books is, "How did you find an illustrator?" In the most peculiar way ever is the short answer to how William Kevin Petty and I came to be a team, but more on that later. The matter at hand is how can a children's book writer find someone to add images to as tory. In this modern day, breaking into the kid-lit scene - especially juvenile fiction - is nearly impossible. Syndicated radio consumer advocate Clark Howard got a call recently from a writer who wanted to know how to get his children's book published. Clark's advice: find an illustrator and do it ALL yourself. I assure you, self-pub is not the easy way. This is by FAR the hardest way. BUT - it may be the ONLY way for many who have  a story they want to tell. WRITE! and then work on making the best book you can. If you are a real writer - you MUST scale every obstacle. Often finding an illustrator is the challenge

Here is my advice. 
  1. Recognize of how little importance the author is to the children's book. The words are few in a children's book, so they must be chosen carefully. A good illustrator will ENHANCE the words written, to the point of telling more of the story through images. Choose an illustrator with IDEAS. I do more writing for the children's books is in the form of press releases, promotion and blog posts (like this one!). Fear not, pen monkeys, there is more to writing than telling stories. Lean to love promotion and marketing copy.
  2. Look at what the standard is for a good children's books. Look through valid award winners - specifically The American Library Association's Caldicott Award for illustrations and awards specific to genre books - like the Golden Duck Award for Children's Science Fiction. These are the best, newest and most innovative books and illustrations. For our first book, Her Majesty's Explorer, we looked at many books to help us make decisions on format, size, layout and color scheme. To tell a Family Secret - Neil Gaiman's Instructions was highly influential. My illustrator and I shared several books back and forth in the creation of our book. Pictures are worth thousands of words.
  3. Artists can be flaky. Budget for this time wise, but choose an illustrator that has finished ANYTHING - not necessarily other books, but do they have product they have produced and sold (posters, postcards, gallery shows, etc.). *One of the reasons I decided to work with Kevin is that he had the discipline of a soldier and the talent of an illustrator. BOTH were important to me.
  4. You get what you pay for. And artists need to be paid. Very few can eat "good exposure" or pay rent with a pat on the back. Usually, an illustrator is paid out in advance of the book being published. Artists for hire is what they are. They draw or paint, then they go on their merry way. Where to find these folks? recommendations from other writers, or websites like - but these are PROS - who get paid like PROS. This will not be cheap. But it is worth looking at. 
  5. Deadlines are more important than ideas. So says Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo. And it is true. With my novels - especially the first - I was under no obligation to finish by any certain date. Not so with the children's book team. Set deadlines and then meet them - tweet them - Facebook them - cheer lead everyone through. OR... you will never finish. Shepherd your work to the end. Push. Push. Push.
  6. Good artists may not be good layout designers. Our third member of the Bush-Petty Duo is Theresa Curtis - our layout designer. She ups our game. She is an exceptional colorist and does great layout. Of MOST use to Kevin and I, is that she was a step removed from our artistic process. She sees the forest when illustrator and writers only could see the gnarled maple in front of us. She is worth EVERY penny. Beyond that, Kevin could focus on drawing - and that was so important as our drop dead deadlines grew ever closer. 
  7. Leave the door open for fate. Looking for an artist? Invite the Universe to send one your way. Put it out there with friends and tweets that you are looking for a good illustrator. Let is be known you have a plan, a deadline, a budget. Show you are serious and ready, and let fate happen. 
Which brings me to how I found William Kevin Petty - or more specifically - how he found me. While deployed to Kuwait, Kevin read my first novel and sent a bit of fan art - a drawing of the airship. He asked for some feedback - which I gave, and which is usually the point where I don't hear from an artist again. But the next morning a new ship appeared in my inbox, to which I said to myself, Okay, soldier, you now have my attention. We corresponded over Facebook chat, he sent some of his printed postcards, one of which was the basis of the idea that became Her Majesty's Explorer, and we formed a partnership and a company. All done by Facebook chat without ever having met in person or talked on the phone (well- there was one hour at the Atlanta airport - but we'd already story boarded half the book at that point, I think.) 
Our approach is not standard for the writer - illustrator partnership, but I think it works for us. We handle ALL aspects of our business (bookings and appearances, publishing, ordering books and managing the finances) together. And we live more than 500 miles apart! Not the easiest, but we get it done. Because we must. We see eye to eye on one thing: we have stories to tell, and we won't let ANYTHING stop us. 

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You can learn more about Emilie P. Bush on Twitter @coalcitysteam or on the Coal City Steam website.

And you can view the book trailer for Steam Duck Learns to Fly. Purchase the book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

[Love to see your comments, but please don't be alarmed if they don't show up right away. I have to moderate because of spam troubles. -AJ]


  1. Good advice for the self-published. But it's important to emphasize for all who (like me) are traditionally published, there is no "choosing" of the illustrator. The best you can hope is that the publisher asks for your opinion. Even that is given to very few.
    Also, this post equates ‘children’s books’ only with the illustrated ones. Most novels for middle grades are not illustrated at all, and the writers’ tool of words are as important as in adult books. It would have been more accurate to call the books Ms. Bush refers to “Picture Books,” not “Children’s.”
    I like her note to the writers (of picture books) that the art is more important. We writers struggle to jockey for our place by saying we are co-creators and just as important. But the honest truth is that picture books are an artist’s media.

    1. Mirka - yes - good points all - but a trend to illustrations as chapter headers in YA - see Harry Potter as an example - is an interesting trend as well. I think also of the Little House books, and Other classic chapter books. I think that in commercial publishing - in middle grade years especially - illustrations are looked at as a luxury, one that is cut for cost reasons more often than not, and it hurts the transition to more advanced chapter books for 2nd and 3rd graders. Just a random addendum.

  2. Very interesting. Thanks for the posting. And I utterly adore the illustrations. What medium was used? Pen and watercolor? Or something else entirely? Whatever it is, I loves it muchly.

  3. Very interesting! Thanks Emilie and Anne!

  4. Stories about how authors and illustrators come together are so fun to read (unless of course their meeting was decided by an editor of a traditional house). I loved how Kevin sent a drawing in, asked for feedback and drew another piece. Great artistic spirit here!