Continuing Education

Words and Pictures: How Creators Tell Children's Stories

Some storytellers make it look so easy, particularly writers and illustrators of children’s storybooks. Their product is often deceptively simple thanks to a storytelling style designed to be straightforward, without a lot of complex Imagephilosophy, dense plotlines or epic narratives. That is not to say these stories lack their own style of complexity nor is their creation anything less than intricate. CE Writing for Children and Young Adult Audiences instructor Katherine Grace Bond and Children’s Book Illustration instructor Craig Orback took some time out of their busy schedules to share their insights into their particular fortes: the words and the pictures.

While there are a few famous storytellers like Dr. Seuss and Anna Dewdney (Llama Llama Red Pajama) who were both writer and illustrator of their creations, most children’s books are created by a writer and illustrator and seldom done as a collaborative effort. “If you plan to publish traditionally, you don’t usually collaborate with an illustrator unless you are the illustrator," says Bond. "And if you are an author/illustrator be sure you are completely confident in both the text and the illustrations, because the book could be comprehensively rejected on either one—even if the editor likes one and not the other. An exception may be if you partner with a well-known illustrator and present the project together. Ordinarily, though, you don’t see the illustrations until the book is done.”

“I am hired directly by the publisher,” says Orback. “(I’m) given a finished manuscript and begin researching the material and start work on sketches that I eventually send to the publisher for approval. Sometimes the publisher will run the sketches by the author to make sure the…details are correct. That's about the extent of my working relationship with the author.”

When creating a children’s story, Bond says first and foremost her goal is to entertain. “I picture a gathering of listeners spellbound with the telling of a tale,” says Bond. “It has to start there. But the modern connotations of that Imageword imply a superficiality that is beyond me, the same way ‘small talk’ sometimes is. I write to grok my world, whether I am writing for children, teens, or adults.’”

Though education is a frequently a key element to children’s storytelling, Bond says she can’t bank on a particular message or moral being the ultimate takeaway. “The story may educate. I hope it does,” she says. “I hope it provides cultural understanding, as well. I am passionate about education and about what we now call ‘diversity’, which is simply human beings learning to listen to one another—to both honor someone’s ‘otherness,’ and dismantle the mental walls we build against it. So I don’t impose those things as an angle, but allow them to grow naturally out of my story—my own search for enlightenment.” 

As an illustrator, Orback says when he starts composing a story’s imagery he strives to look through a young person’s lens on the world—albeit a viewpoint frequently more colorful and dynamic than that of an adult.  “When illustrating for kids I try to emphasize the emotions of the characters and make sure they are clear to young viewers and when illustrating multiple images for a picture book I try to change up my perspective and view point to make it more interesting to look at. I don't want the images to look too repetitive or static as that can be boring to the viewer.”

In surveying the current output of stories for young people, Bond says she’s pleased with the current trend toward telling stories devoted to multicultural perspectives. “It’s exciting to see the ‘We Need Diverse Books’ movement beginning to have an impact,” she says. “There’s a heightened interest in books by authors of color, for example, and books whose characters are a more authentic reflection of the American cultural landscape. Well-written historical fiction seems to be having a resurgence, and picture books are back!”

However, Bond recommends mindfulness when it comes to monitoring storytelling trends. “Don’t write a book just to follow a trend, though. By the time it’s finished, and you’ve acquired an agent, sold it and released it, so much time will have gone by that the trend may be over. Only write what you are completely jazzed about. And write a book only you could write.”

Which leads one to ask, what kinds of stories do young people need to hear, and what kinds of stories do they want to hear? “There’s a difference sometimes between what kids think they want to read, and what will nourish them,” Imagesays Bond. “Young people desperately need books that are redemptive—that lead them to value the beauty in themselves and others, that confront them with their own frailties, that challenge them to overcome, and that show them the reverberation of a simple act of courage.”

Orback’s perspective closely resonates with Bond’s, “I would say that stories that deal with empathy and compassion for others are very valuable especially with the societal issues kids are facing today.”

For a creative process that does not involve a one-on-one collaboration, it is heartening to note storytellers like Bond and Orback share a vision for the stories they look to tell.

Explore Katherine Grace Bond's stories and Craig Orback's illustrations by visiting their websites.

Learn more about Writing for Children and Young Adult Audiences and Children’s Book Illustration.

Photo credit #1: Elmer Medalla_cc_2.0
Photo credit #2: Eric Scheppers_cc_2.0
Photo credit #3: United Way of Greater Philadelphia and NJ_cc_2.0