Guest Editor Stacy Innerst: The Risk of Illustration Notes in Picture Books Manuscripts


Stacy Innerst, today’s Guest Editor, is the award-winning illustrator of picture books including The Worm Family, M Is For Music, Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea, Lincoln Tells a Joke: How Laughter Saved the President (and the Country), and the upcoming The Beatles: They Were Fab and They Were Funny.

Dear Natasha…

An illustrator’s perspective: I prefer to have the opportunity to have an unencumbered first impression of the story, no matter how spare the text might be.  You’d be amazed at how easily an artist’s creative train can be derailed by having illustration notes, especially early in the process—it’s like a hair in your soup, you can’t forget about it.

The first reading of just words on a page, without preconceptions, is where the pictures start to germinate and the enthusiasm for the project takes hold. I can only assume that an editor would feel the same way.

I understand that with minimal text there is a temptation to sell the story by filling in the blanks, but I think if the root of the story is strong enough the pictures will come. A good illustrator will get what you’re trying to evoke without too much direction.

Best wishes to you,
Stacy Innerst


  1. Thank you, Stacy, for this insight into an illustrator’s reaction to a manuscript. Picture book authors don’t usually get direct contact with the illustrators of their books, so this peek into your creative process is valuable. It reminds me of the way the chorus of a pop song can loop in your head no matter how hard you try to silence it!

    As an editor of picture books, I can attest to the desire to sink into a text unencumbered. It should be enough that the author sets up the situation in the query letter accompanying the manuscript. If there is a moment in the story that absolutely requires explanation (as opposed to a suggestion or direction), then an italicized bracketed aside in a second copy of the manuscript is a safe solution for all.

    Readers, if you don’t know Stacy’s work, click on the links in my post and check it out. He’s amazing. I have all of his books (and enjoyed the privilege of working on several) and am eagerly awaiting March 2013’s The Beatles. It looks FABulous!

  2. Have you seen Shutta Crum’s MINE? The text is basically one word: Mine and the story is completely told through illustrations. Shutta is not the illustrator, though. Curious as to how they worked that out. Must have had illustrator notes.

    • I can imagine how that developed, but I don’t know for sure. I’ll try to find out. In the meantime, you can watch this brief video of Patrice Barton explaining how she developed the illustrations for MINE later in the process: I do know that when you’ve already got an editor, the discussions about a concept can happen when it’s just that—a concept. As in “Here’s my idea, and it all centers around the word ‘mine.'” That sort of thing. By contrast, I remember receiving Eve Bunting’s manuscript for HURRY! HURRY!, which has just a few words. There wasn’t a single illustration note on it. The read-aloud rhythm was enticing, as was the situation. Jeff Mack worked with the book’s editor (not me) and illustrated it with amazing energy. If you were to submit a text as incredibly spare as MINE, then your query letter will need to do lots of explaining about the concept while leaving the specific images to the illustrator to imagine. Believe me, most of the time the illustrator will pleasantly shock you with his/her clever visual storyline. It’s just how those visual people think!

  3. Shutta piping up here. MINE! has exactly 9 1/2 repetitions of one word. (And a Woof!) It was not a project outlined ahead of time with my editor. All she suggested was that I could “go younger” than an earlier book I had with them. (BRAVEST OF THE BRAVE) Obviously, I simply could not submit one page with the repeated word “Mine” down one side. No one would have any idea about what was to happen.

    In this case, the plot is played out in the illustrations. And I am not an illustrator. So I wrote it as though it were a play–with beats and action, and the one word said aloud. Meaning…I had to indicate what “actions” needed to happen in the illustrations. “Child drops toys in dog’s water dish.” I made a conscious effort never to indicate how those illustrations should look, what else should be/not be there, etc. I tried to stick with just describing the plot through the actions of the actors.

    Just thought you’d like to know. The ms was 2 1/2 pages long. I’ll be presenting about this with Patrice Barton, the illustrator, at the Austin SCBWI in Feb. 2013.


      • UPDATE, Feb 2013: SCBWI members can see Shutta’s article “Writing the Wordless, or Almost Wordless, Picture Book,” which shows a photo of the first page of her MINE manuscript, in the March/April 2013 edition of the Bulletin.

        • Thank you! I am running over to see this. I AM an illustrator, and write myself illo. notes, yet still trying to work out what to write and not write for submitting to agents.

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