In the new program, the first of its kind at any university, students who aspire to write children’s picture books may see their manuscripts enhanced by art students in the Illustration program.
In the great green roomThere was a telephoneAnd a red balloonAnd a picture ofThe cow jumping over the moonThese are the opening lines of the beloved picture book, “Goodnight Moon,” by Margaret Wise Brown. Her poetic phrases have lulled generations of children to sleep, comforted by the gentle rhymes and soothing words. Yet when people think of this classic book, they recall not only the text, they visualize Clement Hurd’s childlike illustrations, which are inseparably linked to Brown’s text.
The most memorable picture books marry words and images in just such indelible ways, with the text and pictures complementing one another. But developing a manuscript or set of illustrations for a children’s book is hardly child’s play. In most cases, the publishing process involves two separate tracks—first the author produces a text and refines it with the help of an editor, then the editor and art director select an illustrator to create the pictures.
Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd were fortunate to have been collaborators, but today’s writers and illustrators rarely have that luxury; in fact, they may never meet. So how do writers and illustrators approach their respective tasks? How do writers learn to use language that evokes imagery to inspire an illustrator, and how do illustrators learn to carry the spirit of the story into their pictures?
The Picture Book Project, an innovative partnership between Lesley University’s MFA in Creative Writing program and Illustration program, provides an opportunity for aspiring writers and illustrators to gain the skills necessary for developing a picture book in today’s publishing world. Students in the MFA in Creative Writing program can choose a concentration in writing for young people, where they will train with award-winning published children’s authors to craft their texts and then apply a critical eye to pare back the words to the barest essence. Artists in the Illustration program work with experienced faculty to develop a set of illustrations that respond to an edited manuscript.
The Picture Book Project provides students with the opportunity to think outside their disciplines and “create something together that neither could have created alone,” says Peggy Hogan, who teaches illustration.
“It takes students a long time to realize that a picture book is a marriage of two parts,” says Susan E. Goodman, children’s book author and a member of the Writing for Young People faculty. “Writers need to learn to write in an immediate, visual way, but it takes great skill to mold text in such a way that enables illustrators to shine in their medium.”
Writers also learn to give up preconceived ideas of how the setting or characters should look, even if they’ve visualized these elements throughout the writing process. “The illustrator may come up with an idea beyond anything they’ve imagined,” Goodman says.
Illustrators for their part learn to trust their own emotional and visual response to the story, and not follow the descriptions in the story too literally when creating pictures. “It’s a parallel track,” says Diane Bigda, who co-teaches the Illustration course with Hogan, “The words and images each have their own narrative, their own presence.”
Picture books play a vital role in children’s development, especially at the pre-literate stage, says Hogan. Students in the Picture Book Project have the added advantage of taking Lesley courses in education and child development, to help tune them in to the developmental stages of their young audiences. For example, she says, books for babies often deal with themes around attachment and security, while those for toddlers provide examples of mastering skills and venturing out into the world beyond their parent’s arms.
The appeal of picture books remains evergreen. “This is a great time for children’s books in general, and picture books in particular,” says Bigda. Each year, Americans spend $3 billion annually on children’s books. “People love the tangible quality, they like to cozy up with their kids at bedtime.”
With the demand for picture books comes the publishing industry’s need for well-trained writers and illustrators. “When I talk with editors, they say finding good authors for picture books is their most difficult task,” says Hogan. With the Picture Book Project, “Lesley has the ability to do something no one else is doing” to prepare authors and illustrators for the rigors of picture book publishing.
The landscape of children’s book publishing may have changed since the time of Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd, but beautifully illustrated stories for children are still very much in demand. Like “Goodnight Moon,” successful picture books capture a child’s imagination by blending an evocative text with fresh, appealing images. Words and pictures, working in tandem, create memorable stories that children will want to read many times over.
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