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Guest Post: The Illustrated Children’s Book, by Frank Newfeld

Frank Newfeld states the case for children’s book illustrators

The time has come, with some relief for a number of our publishers and authors, that I am no longer considered part of the Canadian army of illustrators; nor have I any ambition or the strength to do battle as such. This affords me the opportunity to react to a number of the limitations and taboos at times put upon the visual commission.

    Strangely, it was easier working with authors of the adult book which called for illustrations. They seemed to have few, if any, preconceptions of what their book should look like. If they did, I cannot remember a single instance where I was told what was wanted. {Of course, my supposed fiery reputation may have had something to do with that!  Though I heard later, much, much later, that a couple of authors hated my blotches.}

   It has been in some specific areas of  Kid Lit., especially that of poetry for young readers, that disputes or [to put it charitably] misunderstanding of the visual function can at times pervade its appropriate role ~ to the short-changing of reader, editor and the visual contribution. It is for the young reader’s benefit that a scrupulous examination of  intent and content of both text and illustration should be called for by the publisher, with   author and illustrator together from the very beginning.

{By ‘illustrator’ read ‘professional’; not just anyone who can draw a bit.}

 For now, let me concentrate on the sadly vanishing poetry book for the young.

 The areas at times causing questions of visual direction are:

                1. The textbook of celebrated poems;

                2. The book of the epic poem for the younger reader.

                3. The book of [boisterous] verse for the younger reader.


Probably the first rationale to be established is the raison d’etre for even the inclusion of  any artwork.   Who needs it? 

   The poet?

   The publisher?

   The owner, or reader?

   The text?

   The package?


   The next thing to be established is why the visual material is even needed.

   Is it to instruct?

   Is it to clarify?

   Is it to entertain?

   Is it to protect the publishing bottom line?

   Is it to justify [amplify] the product’s acquisition or its cost?


  And lastly, what would make the most important and best  contribution toward achieving the most successful book? Its Lineage or its final Contents?

                                                              *   *   *   *                                                    

 (There is an old worn poem: “Mary, Mary, quite contrary /  How does your garden grow? / etc. etc.  As is well known, the origin of the verse was an outcry aimed at ‘Bloody (Queen) Mary’s penchant for chopping off Protestant heads. With time, it has become a popular nursery rhyme. But what should one draw? The garden? The Tower of London? The block? Nothing? Perhaps any truthful communication originating between author and reader in this case might best be left alone, whatever the behest.)

                                                             *   *   *   *

The most complex of the ‘Three Groups’ ~ and often the most contentious ~ is probably ‘Book no.3. And though its travails are at times shared with those others listed, certain authors within this group can bring very fixed ideas regarding the visual role in, and contribution to, their work. I would like to focus on no. 3 alone, since it often appeared to be the area of most conflicting opinions.

   Whatever the reason for a publishing decision to incorporate illustration, it is best to establish its rationale at the beginning of the creative process. Examining the structure of four such books, and taking a typical and very successful Canadian children’s poetry book of 64 pages, this first example required 40 illustrations, including illustrated prelims, with the poet providing 37 poems [Dennis Lee’s ‘Alligator Pie’]. Another 64 page book called for 45 illustrations over 42 poems [Dennis Lee’s ‘Garbage Delight’]. The third book, which had 48 pages, divided into three major parts, required 31 illustrations, [ Peter Desbarats’ ‘The Night the City Sang’]. Finally, a typical poetry text for schools, with 75 poems, had 65 illustrations [W.J. Gage’s ‘Your Poetry Book 1, 2, 3 etc.]. It is obvious that the publishers of the above books  ~ and many others ~ realized that the role of artwork in these divers kinds of poetry books was equally as significant to the total package as the text, as far as the needs of the book was concerned.

  {Of course one factor that must be borne in mind is the publishing intent ~ target and ambition ~ of the venture. Was the intent to beguile just like ‘Fantasia’ or assail as though it were ‘Frankenstein’?}

   And if it is reasonable to have a professional editor [not simply a proof-reader] to vet the text, even when that text has been provided by a noted professional author, should it not seem reasonable to have a professional art director or editor to liaise with the illustrator, especially when the illustrator is a practicing professional?

   That sounds like an awful lot of ‘professionals’; but a measure of awareness of the intricate matter of the player-mix might at least protect against personal ego or fancy.

                                                          *  *  *  *

To add to the conundrum are the different ways an illustrator might be brought into the creative mix.

           A: The hiring of the illustrator by the publisher. Usually an illustrator already

                familiar to the publisher.             

           B: The request by the author for a specific illustrator.

           C: The demand by the author for a specific illustrator. 

           D: The author and illustrator coming to the publishing house as a team.

           E: The illustrator being asked to participate on a Royalty basis.                    

            [For whatever reason, such as cost, reputation, experience or even risk.]


A: is routine, with a fixed remuneration upon completion of the work regardless of quantity of  books [to be] sold.

B: would certainly be considered, especially if the illustrator considered was of high repute, and within budget.

C: if even agreed to, only with great trepidation. [Certainly, both editor and art director would fear, at the very least, resentment of their counsel, and at worst, rejection of this counsel. As well as the poet’s artist having as ‘last resort’ his or her patron.]

D: {Canada’s best known and successful coupling of author and illustrator is that of  Tim Wynn-Jones and Ken Nutt. They may well be the exception to the rule, since they seem always to speak as one voice.}

E: Whereas usually an author [say, poet] comes to the publisher and persuades the house to take a publishing risk, at times also an illustrator has been invited to participate on a Royalty basis. This invitation  to participate in the risk changes the relationship simply by the fact that the illustrator now becomes   ~ whether everyone likes it or not ~ a member of the publishing group, by being asked not just to provide talent and expertise, but to participate in the [hoped for] success of the venture. And thus would be expected to want a  significant measure of control of the visual content and its style; as well as being  expected to protect his/ her ensuing investment and reputation.


 An unprejudiced examination of the ‘E. Category Book’ for younger readers will find that there is little need for ‘instructive’ illustration. (What does an angel look like?) What then, is the illustration here for? Decoration? Space filler? An exact visual representation as the author had imagined ~ with little, if any, chance of deviation? An added fillip? If so, must any such odyssey emanate strictly from within the confines of the poet’s choice of flight-of-fancy, even in the face of illustrative relevance?  

    Frankly, with a young audience, there is a fair possibility of reader’s tedium if the visual image is always so close to the poetic notion as to become repetitive. There, we face the risk that the repetition might well breed a lack of stimulation or interest in just a

re-represented visual. Another factor is that each and every illustration in a ‘new book’ is usually looked at way before the written word is sampled and can easily become a coat of old paint, if its only function appears to be one of filling space. Whereas the oblique visual additive might assist in letting the author surprise and catch the reader pleasantly unawares, when coming to read the text.

   Of course, the visual should never be a rival of the [originating] manuscript. Nor undermine or compete! But neither should the visual be asked to be subservient, and know its place! That could just make the visual observation superfluous. If simply to justify its existence, the visual really ought to be expected to contribute beyond being a repetitious space eater. The published children’s book is also better not seen as another textbook by its new owner. Nor should the illustration become purely a side show.

 Just as paper, typeface, binding or case should always be sought with the greatest  empathy for the text by the publisher, so should editorial’s objectivity hold final sway over all the components of any new title. Nor should any creative team consider this demeaning; regardless of reputation and mastery ~ or lack thereof.

   What should be remembered is that quite different sensory receptors are brought into play as far as the two disciplines~visual and verbal ~ are concerned. Without overlap! And that the response can well differ dynamically from one member of the [young] audience to the next. In fact, giving distinctive roles for each creative partner to play, will not even be seen as competition by the young reader. In any case, trying to decipher who had motivated the young  reader’s imagination really becomes superfluous as far as the young owner is concerned.

   It has happened to me that occasionally an author, with preconceived notions regarding the visual, has come to the editor, or even the publisher, ‘wrapped in a callous hide of suffering’, complaining of the visual trespassing on, and in abuse of, the author’s ‘baby’. Unless the visual contradicts the written intent, it should be expected that the illustrative solution need not always religiously match the author’s preconception; as long as the visual interpretation worked effectively for the reader, without contradiction.

{Many, many years ago a well-known author told me that Rackham drawings were what he wanted. When I replied that, as far as I knew, Rackham was quite deceased; and that I really didn’t know how to draw ‘Rackham-ish’, we both happily parted ways.}

Admittedly, such [anxious] authors are few and far between. But a few do exist.

For some reason there doesn’t seem any great concentration on any new Canadian poetry for today’s young reader. Still, just in case: one fact remains in regards to the young reader’s book: though the intended target of the two forms of penmanship ~ written or drawn ~ are still identical, both aim and weaponry may need to, at times, differ in style and exact concept, without gainsaying the author’s originating intent.

    [I almost said vision!] 

When the illustrator is used simply as a pair of talented hands, and for the artwork any personal reaction proscribed, then both book and reader may well be stuck with a visual notion stemming from some previous, quite possibly unrelated, recollection. The ability to draw well is only one facet of the art of illustration. The Publisher ~ or Editor or Art Director ~ generally aims to commission a specific illustrator because of a number of additional skills. Such as prior in-house experience, style, feel, perception, literacy and personal empathy, as it related to earlier projects.

Just as the ‘Art of Writing’ must go beyond mere spelling as a profession, so the ‘Art of Illustration’ needs go beyond mere drawing when a professional designation is claimed. Every significant book has always had its own rationale; its own personal moment; its own path; identity and visual personality. All of which affect the choice made for the selection of this team member. Sadly, accepting illustration as a serious profession seems often diffficult. At times, even to the point of perceiving the art of drawing as simply a [born with] gift; whilst the art of writing is commonly seen as earned by studious study and enquiry, aided by personal intelligence.                                                                 

Often forgotten is the fact that the greatest number of young readers come with a well honed creative sense, as well as a natural flair for the abstract ~ in every sense of the word ~ when confronting both reality or their own imagination. And are well able to detect any sugar-coated or mollycoddled fare, whether oral, verbal or visual.                 

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{Once upon a time, a successful author of children’s verse ~ who viewed the illustrator as really just a pair of his, the poet’s, talented hands ~ demanded veto-powers over all visual contents of future illustrative works for, as he proclaimed them, MY BOOKS!.

   The publisher demurred, on the grounds that though the text would most certainly always be only his, the only person the publisher needed to proudly claim a new publication as ‘MY BOOK’ was another new owner of  the poet’s latest work.

  The author perhaps forgot that in the publishing world it was the burden of the editorial group to ensure that all components of a new book were fitting in all regards.}

                                                  *   *   *   *

Beyond just enjoyment, the skilful Children’s Book should engender the most personal and private pursuits, of  both verbal and visual natures, to magically become the readers’ own personal fabrication. Perhaps, even motivate them to compose their own verse, or contribute their own illustrations. And then ~ for our young reader ~ the gifted work would quickly turn into MY BOOK; without its owner ever caring about ‘Who Did What’!


FRANK NEWFELD FGDC is a book designer, illustrator, art director and educator. During his long career Newfeld designed more than 650 books, 170 of which won national or international awards. He is a former Vice-President of Publishing at McClelland & Stewart, Head of the Illustration Program at Sheridan College and Co-founder/President of the Society of Typographic Designers of Canada (now the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada – GDC). He is also a Fellow of the GDC, and a member of the Royal Canadian Academy.  In 2008 his memoir ‘Drawing on Type‘ was published by Porcupine’s Quill. In 2012 Harper-Collins re-issued Alligator Pie, probably Newfeld’s best known children’s illustated book.

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