On Facebook recently, a high school friend now teaching school in Japan passed along some questions from his second-graders:

  • Do you get to pick your illustrators?
  • Do you ever meet them in person?
  • Is a book written before the illustrator ever gets picked?
  • Here’s how I answered:

    My experiences have differed from book to book. Sometimes, I’m just flat-out told who the illustrator will be, sometimes I’m asked what I think of a candidate (or two) that the publisher has in mind, and sometimes I’m asked for suggestions. Generally, the text is “finished” before the illustrator gets to work, though there’s always room for adjusting the text if that will make for a better marriage with the art. Shark Vs. Train, though, involved LOTS of collaboration between illustrator Tom Lichtenheld and me. Some illustrators, I’ve known for years before they start working on my books, and some I still haven’t met in person even years after the book is published. Tell your second graders that they’re asking great questions!

    Their questions are also timely ones, as each of the illustrators that I’m currently — or about to be — working with has arrived at our collaboration by way of a unique path. Some were suggested by the publisher, some were suggested to the publisher by me, some were settled on by the publisher before I ever knew who they were considering, and one I passed my manuscript along to before any editors or even agents knew we were up to anything.

    A couple of them had sat my kitchen table before the topic of pairing up ever arose. A couple are brand-new to illustrating picture books. A couple are experienced picture book illustrators who so far are strangers to me.

    In each case, I try to strike a balance between a) making myself as available to them as they want me to be, and b) staying the heck out of their way. Making oneself available may come a lot more easily than lying low, but I believe both are important for authors of picture books who want illustrators to happily do great work that puts their own stamp on a project and makes a book into something more than the author alone ever could have envisioned. We have to trust them.

    I wish I could share with you the latest happymaking visual evidence suggesting that my approach seems to be working. You’ll have to trust me.