Picture books: A dance of words and pictures

Picture Book writer is residence Rashmi Sirdeshpande

June 2022

Picture books (other than the wordless wonders!) are a dance of words and pictures and very often, it’s a dance in the dark. As all picture book writers know, a special kind of magic happens somewhere in the space in between. And as all clumsy dancers know, ‘space’ is key on so many levels. If you’ve ever crashed into other dancers or stepped on your partner’s toes with a disconcerting CRUNCH, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

As writers, we consciously leave space for the illustrator. At the drafting stage, we won’t know who they are or whether this story will even be picked up by a publisher. But we anticipate them and leave space for them. Space meaning: 1) physical space on the page by keeping our word counts nice and tight; and 2) creative space. We resist the urge to set out every little detail and we limit art notes to the absolute essentials – the things that are critical to the story. 

Remember that the words are just one piece of a bigger whole. You write the best book you can. Then you let go. The next bit’s a journey from ‘MY BOOK’ to ‘OUR BOOK’.  

Further down the line, when a book is acquired and you’re paired with an illustrator, you can write with them in mind. I do this with books I write for the brilliant Diane Ewen. I know she loves vignettes so I write in some spreads that lend themselves to vignettes and some that work well for her fantastic full page or double spread explosions of colour. I know she’ll bring exuberance and fun and comic detail beyond the words so I write in a way that gives her the space to do all that. With very sparse art notes. We’ve found a rhythm too. It’s two-way. She knows me and I love that. 

I know some authors and illustrators collaborate very closely (I’m picturing happy huddles and brainstorming with lots of cake). For me, it’s always been a dance in the dark. The creators I’ve worked with like it that way too. We give each other space, bring our own moves and music to the piece, and the end result – thanks to our editors and art directors – is pretty amazing. 

Now I’m writing new stories that haven’t had the blessings of the publishing gods yet. But I still leave space for the illustrator – opportunities hidden away in the words and beyond the words. Space for creativity to blossom, space to be surprised and wowed and taken in new directions. It’s one of the best bits of writing picture books. I get to make something that’s way bigger than me, way better than anything I could have dreamed up. Because I don’t do it alone. 

Writing for pleasure is dancing alone and I love it. I really do. But to see the words and pictures come to life in an actual book, dancing together on the page…that’s something else altogether. 

Want to learn more from Rashmi?

Rashmi is 2022 Picture Book Writer-in-Residence for the Hub, WriteMentor’s community learning platform that connects like-minded storytellers and provides all the tools they need for writing success.

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