In a way I feel like I have been following the #picturesmeanbusiness campaign since the beginning, because the first time I was surprised by the credit on a book’s cover was when I bought a copy of the young fiction title Oliver and the Seawigs in 2013. What struck me as unusual was the wording.
I was intrigued by this seemingly minor rejig. ‘By Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre’ rather than ‘by Philip Reeve, illustrated by Sarah McIntyre,’ or any similar variation you usually see, which implies that the illustrator’s job is secondary to the writer’s.
It might sound like a finicky distinction to make but it’s actually quite an important one.
If I’m honest, one of my first questions to myself was, ‘does that wording slightly undermine the role of the writer as he has probably not physically contributed to the drawing of the pictures?’ But as I’ve thought more about it and followed the #picturesmeanbusiness campaign with interest, it’s become more clear.
As McIntyre says, it’s often more appropriate to call both parties ‘authors’ or ‘co-authors’ because they are both inventing the world and characters, with one person writing the words and the other drawing the pictures. On reading Oliver and the Seawigs, it is apparent that this curious world of seawigs, sea monkeys and short-sighted mermaids was the creation of writer and illustrator working collaboratively.
Of course the levels of collaboration vary and sometimes it’s more appropriate to credit the illustrator for the illustrations only. Many writers and illustrators still work separately from each other, but we are seeing more and more successful duos working together in this organic way where the ‘author’ lines are blurred: besides Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre there’s also Viviane Schwarz and Alexis Deacon and more recently Elissa Elwick and Philip Ardagh, who have just signed a four book deal with Walker Books for Little Adventurers.
Ardagh says of their working relationship: ‘Elissa and I are very much a team. I don’t just care about the words. I care very much but about the whole look and design of the books, and Elissa’s involved in all the editorial meetings too. There’s no clear author/illustrator divide.’
In picturebooks where illustrators are acting as storytellers in their own right, it goes without saying that they should be properly credited on covers, but what about the greyer areas of chapter books, young fiction and illustrated middle grade novels? I would argue that the role of illustrator is very often underplayed here. I’m so often struck by a compelling chapter book or young fiction cover I see on social media or Amazon where only the writer’s name is mentioned and I’m always surprised by how much rooting around it takes before you can find out who has done the illustrations.
There are too many examples to cite them all here, and as the #picturesmeanbusiness campaign has been gathering steam on Twitter it’s becoming all the more noticeable. But to take just one: the fiction series Ellie May by Marianne Levy is illustrated quite heavily throughout with wonderful drawings by Ali Pye. The vibrant, funny artwork unquestionably complements and gives life to Ellie May’s character, attracts readers and contributes significantly to sales, so I can’t really see why she hasn’t been credited on the covers. Besides there being nothing for anyone to lose, crediting both contributors helps to raise a child’s awareness about the different skillsets that are involved in making a book, as well as giving them another person to be curious about or inspired by.
I don’t mean to demonise publishers and I know that until now there have been (slightly flimsy) in-house reasons for this tendency to omit illustrators from some covers e.g. desire to promote the book as a single ‘brand’ and maybe for the sake of a tidier-looking package.
There is a reluctance among illustrators to speak out and rock the boat or seem prickly to publishers in a competitive market where talented illustrators are ten a penny. Generally being a modest and self-effacing bunch, illustrators would also rather not be seen attempting to hog the limelight from writers and take more credit than they are due. This is where it gets quite confusing for illustrators of books with fewer illustrations than say, a picture book. It’s tricky for them to feel entitled to promote that book as ‘their book’ or even ‘their work’ when you take into account that sometimes their name might not even be on the cover.
On a personal note, I’ve been generously credited for books I have illustrated for other authors, but since the campaign I have definitely given more thought to my own attitude towards illustration. For a novelty book I recently illustrated, I was almost at pains to explain on social media that ‘I only drew the pictures’ as if it were the lesser job somehow, when the drawings took much longer than the words did and I was also not giving myself credit for shaping and ‘co-authoring’ all of the characters and their world. Why was I so quick to give precedence to the words and denigrate my own contribution?
There’s definitely something in the idea that the written word is revered in the UK and Ireland above picture-making. On the contintent and in the US, picturebooks are marketed up to the ages of 7 or 8, whereas here we seem to be in a big hurry to have children ‘advancing’ and reading books with fewer and fewer pictures. This misconception that pictures are somehow preventing children from using their own imaginations when reading text is misguided and as McIntyre points out: ‘…people draw their imaginative pictures from images they’ve already seen. When we give them an illustration, it teaches their mind something new; they have to move beyond what they already know and they gain a new way of imagining something, they can picture a new world. Unusual illustrations can stretch the mind and make the words of a story conjure images that are much more unique to the pictures the readers might have had in their minds with plain text.’
The notion that you are ‘too old’ for certain books means that peer approval then becomes an issue among children. Chris Priestley’s wonderful Gothic fiction series Tales of Terror was first published with haunting illustrations by the extraordinarily gifted (and underrated, or at least under-awarded) David Roberts. Those covers invited you on an unpredictable journey. You climbed through a window into a dangerous, eerie world where anything could happen. The pictures were an excellent complement to the text and although the books weren’t picture-heavy, the drawings that were there allowed you to flesh out the rest of Priestley’s sinister world in your imagination in the style of David Roberts. But it was decided in-house that the covers made the books look too young and in an attempt to attract older children, the illustrated editions have been discontinued in favour of text-only books with photographic covers. Priestley says: ‘I think David Roberts did a great job on those illustrations and I think they were a big part of the books’ initial success … but I showed the original book to some 13-year-olds recently and asked if they’d have picked it up. Most said no.’ It seems a shame that a child of 13 would be put off by an illustrated book cover, even a sophisticated one, and it raises the question of how much a disapproving stance on books with pictures can trickle down and influence children.
I would argue that, particularly in Ireland, a snobbery also exists towards illustration from the art world. Maybe things are changing, but when I was studying fine art in the early noughties I was frequently undermined by tutors for my ‘illustrative style,’ which was not something to be proud of. Drawing was not valued or encouraged in the same way that conceptual art was. Coupled with this the fact that the audience illustrators create for is often children, then the work is afforded less value again, although the international success of Irish author/illustrators such as Oliver Jeffers, Yasmeen Ismail, Chris Judge and Chris Haughton is now lending illustration some well-deserved caché.
The time for change is now and I think that this perfectly-timed campaign can be an excellent way to help publishers, writers and readers credit, promote and celebrate illustration, and encourage the industry to think of it as a way to further incentivise people to read and buy books, which is what we all want anyway.
There is still much ground to cover but it’s heartening to see a big player like Sarah McIntyre sticking her neck out and using her influence to be a voice for her peers and elevate the status of illustration in children’s books.
Hats, (wigs and glasses) off to her.