Between the lines: children's picture books
You may not know Deirdre McDermott, but you will know Where's Wally?, Hooray for Fish!, Owl Babies, and Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!. Although McDermott didn't write or illustrate any of these books, she and her colleagues at Walker Books have been instrumental in creating these and many other well-loved books for more than 30 years.
A quick scan of the title pages of picture books in our home revealed that many are published by Walker Books, the leading independent publisher of children's books in Britain, or Candlewick Press, its equally successful sister company in the United States. The extensive stable of artists includes the wonderful Mo Willems, timeless illustrator Helen Oxenbury, latest sensation Jon Klassen and teen fiction writer Anthony Horowitz.
I didn't appreciate the role of publishers in the creation of a picture book until I attended a forum on the subject at the Taipei International Book Exhibition. McDermott spoke, along with a French book publisher and literary agents from Turkey and Spain.
Children's books are works of art, so I had always imagined writers and illustrators together presenting their final masterpieces to the publisher. In the way that an artist might take his paintings to a gallery and leave it to the gallery to promote them, I expected a children's book publisher's role in the creative process to be limited to cover art and font type.
It turns out that publishing houses do a vast amount more than simply print books and distribute them to booksellers. They lead the creative process from a very early stage. In McDermott's case, when she finds a proposed story that she likes, she will contact an illustrator whose style she believes will best suit the text. Unless the story is presented by an authorial illustrator who will do both the writing and the illustrating, it seems that writers and illustrators almost never sit down together to collaborate on a picture book. With the text and illustrations at hand, McDermott will then work with her team of in-house editors and designers to develop the important elements of placement, graphic emphasis and flow.
What is surprising to me is the reality that, with editors overseeing the text and designers overseeing the visual elements, creating a picture book is not necessarily a didactic experience. The process is so different from the image I always had in my mind: a writer and an artist working closely together in a sun-filled, bookshelf-lined room in a quaint country cottage.
It hadn't occurred to me that Julia Donaldson didn't have to discuss The Gruffalo with Axel Scheffler before he started to illustrate her story, or that Margaret Wise Brown's original manuscript for Goodnight Moon may have begun with: "A wee bunny by the moonlight / was ready to say good night / to his room which was green / and his painting with a funny scene."
The discussions at the forum were a first-hand account of the evolving children's picture book industry. They gave me a deeper understanding beyond what I had learned in my well-thumbed copy of Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles' Children's Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling, which begins by explaining: "Today's picture book is defined by its particular use of sequential imagery, usually in tandem with a small number of words, to convey meaning. In contrast to the illustrated book, where pictures enhance, decorate and amplify, in the picture book the visual text will often carry much of the narrative value."
As McDermott elaborated in the forum, in a good picture book, the text and pictures should not replicate each other, and it should leave a metaphorical space for the reader's imagination. Successful children's picture books transcend cultures and carry universal themes, such as a mother's love and encouragement helping children overcome a challenging situation.
Another panel member at the forum added: "A really good picture book just 'happens'. It cannot be fabricated because children can sense fabricated books and are turned off by them."
The right combination of writers, illustrators and publishers who meld words and images to create a successful picture book is truly magical.
Annie Ho is board chairwoman of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation dedicate to improving children's literacy by reading aloud to them. bringmeabook.org.hk