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Should You Include Illustration Notes in Your Picture Book?

November 17, 2010 in Writing | 28 comments

Sorry for the absence on Monday! I was in Chicago with my new MacBook Air and they didn’t have wifi at the hotel (what the French?!), only an ethernet connection. The problem is…the MacBook Air has no ethernet port (there’s a USB attachment, but I didn’t have it and wasn’t close to an Apple store)! Sure, I could’ve updated from my iPhone, but I have almost no patience for typing anything on that tiny keyboard. I let my Twitter and Facebook know but didn’t update it on here.

This easily answered question comes from longtime reader Siski (or is it Franz these days?):

I’ve got a story that absolutely requires them but I feel amateurish including them because I’ve read you shouldn’t. Should I try to rewrite the story without them?

Just so we’re immediately clear, I’ll talk a little bit about picture book manuscript formatting. When you write a picture book manuscript, you’ll typically have your text on the page, with line breaks or white space to indicate page breaks as you envision them. Like this:

I am writing a picture book story.
I think it’s very fun.

I’ll include a page break in it,
So the lines don’t start to run.

You can even dictate page breaks in parentheses, like this:

(Page 1)

I am writing a picture book story.
I think it’s very fun.

(Page 2)

I’ll include a page break in it,
So the lines don’t start to run.

Well, when you’re writing and you want to convey something about how you see the page illustrated, you include an illustration note, usually in parentheses and italics. This is what we’re talking about when we say illustration note:

I am writing a picture book story.
I think it’s very fun.

(Illo: Mary cradling her new MacBook Air, beating out the meter of her story with her fingers.)

If you write picture books, you’ll hear a lot of opinions about illustration notes. Some people say they’re a no-no, others say to add them in. I’m in the middle of the debate on this one. The reason so many people advise against illustration notes is this: too many writers use illustration notes to micromanage.

For example, you’ll see illustration notes like:

(Illo: Sally has brown hair, glasses, and a blue skirt. She is skipping down the street with a red backpack in one hand, a lunch sack in the other, by a house with a green mailbox, while her braid swings to the left.)

Or the note will be too detailed in other ways. Or the writer will include an illustration note for every page. The list of illustration note misuses goes on and on.

The point of an illustration note isn’t to jot down every single thing that’s in your imagination. It’s also not to micromanage the potential illustrator. The point of an illustration note is to convey something to the manuscript reader that is not obvious from the text.

Only use illustration notes in your picture book manuscript if there is something integral to the plot that you want the illustrations to convey, but it’s not described or alluded to anywhere in the text. In other words, if I will be blind to something from just reading the text, use an illustration note to describe it, but really do keep them simple, spare, and few in number. The average picture book text will only need one or two, tops. An example of an effective picture book note:

I am writing a picture book story.
I think it’s very fun.

(Illo: Mary typing, blithely unaware that a monster is sneaking up behind her, claws bared.)

Tags: Formatting, Picturebook


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    Priscilla Mizell on November 17, 2010 at 7:11 am

    I am very glad that you have internet again and I am thrilled to see another picture book post. As always, your advice is incredibly helpful. Thanks, Mary!

    If somebody is proposing a wordless picture book, would the advice be different? Or would you recommend that debut author/illustrators leave that kind of project for later, after they’re published and established in the writing world?

    Thanks again.

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    Alison Stevens on November 17, 2010 at 7:16 am

    This is really timely! I was critiquing a PB ms last night and wondered if the illustration suggestions might be more than were necessary. I’ve passed this post along to the author. Thanks, Mary!

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    Heather Kephart on November 17, 2010 at 7:19 am

    Oh, thank you! Mary, this may well end up being one of the best-received blog posts of the YEAR. I appreciate you clearing this up for us picture book peeps.

    *(Illo: Said from atop a tree, arms spread to the Heavens.)*

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    Thomas on November 17, 2010 at 7:27 am

    I write picture books and use illustration notes. I certainly agree that they should be brief and to the point, and only used to explain a visual element that is key to the story, but at the same time, since picture books rely on pictures so heavily to tell the story, it would surprise me to find a text that didn’t need at least one illustration note.

    I think pb writers who don’t illustrate themselves sometimes forget that they don’t have to do everything. If a text is getting too long, there’s often scope to reduce it by passing some more of the story-telling over to the illustrator.

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    Megan K. Bickel on November 17, 2010 at 7:29 am

    Very interesting, Mary! Thank you! I love your picture book posts because it seems like there is so little information out there geared toward PB submissions. Interesting also to see your advocacy of the page breaks. I read sometimes that folks want them and sometimes they don’t. Nice to know your opinion on the matter!

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    Kristin Gray on November 17, 2010 at 7:47 am

    Thanks, Mary!

    [Illo: Smacks self b/c has never used breaks.]

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    MaryZ on November 17, 2010 at 7:51 am

    I have one PB story that has no illustration notes. I would be thrilled to see where an illustrator would take it.

    I have another PB that has one sentence per spread and would definitely need illustration notes, because the words are an unexpected description of the pictures. But since I’m illustrating it myself, I won’t need the notes. My dummy will speak for itself.

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    Kristen Hilty on November 17, 2010 at 8:10 am

    Thank you so much for the helpful blog post. This is a huge matter of debate, so it helps to get your input. I found that once I started putting in illustration notes, some of my unnecessary text fell away. Also good suggestion to put in the breaks. I’ve heard differing opinions on that one too, but I think breaks make sense. It shows that you have thought about the spreads.

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    Julie Hedlund on November 17, 2010 at 8:18 am

    Thank you for clarifying this issue. I am a writer, and not a visual artist. Therefore, I try to steer clear of illo notes altogether. However, lately I’ve been working with more word-play concepts that would require notes here and there. I’m glad to see some definitive advice. Thanks!

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    Catherine Johnson on November 17, 2010 at 9:06 am

    Thank you very much for clearing this up. Great post Mary!

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    Franziska Green on November 17, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    You’re back! Phew, was worried you’d gone the way of Editorial Anonymous, wherever that is.

    Thanks for this. I feel far happier and less amateurish including the illo notes now.

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    Jean on November 17, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    I am so glad you posted this! The only experience that I have had with “proper formatting” was when I was hired for a specific job, and given a specific format to follow, which to my surprise included using illustration notes, so I thought that was the way it was always done! This could save me some headaches. Thank you.

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    Jean on November 17, 2010 at 7:11 pm


    A very clear explanation.


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    Niki on November 17, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    I have a PB manuscript similar in style to David Shannon’s NO DAVID books where the words don’t always convey everything that is going on. Because I am not an illustrator I have been struggling with how to get my point across. Your post has helped me tremendously. Thank you!

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    Sherry White on November 17, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    Very good post on PB. Again, so many different views on formatting on what agents want to see. Thank you Mary for your input. By the way. I have a MacBook Pro. Can’t live without it. Windows was driving me nuts.

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    Jean Reidy on November 17, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    Great post! I use illustrator notes quite a bit — but they are always, as you say above, crucial to understanding the plot. I also format my PB manuscripts almost as you would format a poem, rather than a run-on narrative.

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    Cara on November 17, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Thanks, Mary. I always get nailed from my critique group about the illustration notes thing, but I recently went to a conference where the very-in-demand author said the sweet spot for PB word count is now around 500 (wow!) and that because of that, you almost have to use illustration notes. I also sat next to an editor from Scholastic and she said that notes (where needed) don’t bother her at all.


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    Shannon on November 18, 2010 at 5:53 am

    Thank you SO MUCH for this one. I co-authored a picture book that includes illustration notes because the humor of the story relies on visual irony (what is said and what the picture shows are… different). There’s no way to convey this in manuscript form without adding illustration notes, but I had qualms about including them anyway out of fear we’d be dismissed as amateurs right off the bat. Glad to know they are acceptable where they make sense, and thank you for the formatting tip!

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    Elizabeth Varadan on November 18, 2010 at 10:32 am

    This comes at a good time for me. I have two picture books that I want to send out, and one of them actually does seem to require a note or two in parentheses. I also found the tip about page breaks helpful. Thanks for this post!

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    SidniM on November 19, 2010 at 10:21 am

    Thanks for this great post. I agree that illustration notes are important if your story requires visual irony. But illustrators deserve not to have their creativity squelched. We have to remember that picture books are a unique art medium where the pictures are as important as the text. If we’re not illustrators, we really need to stick with what we know . . .words!

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    Ishta on November 19, 2010 at 11:10 am

    Oh, THANK YOU! This is EXACTLY what I needed for my manuscripts. And it is so nice to have someone address this question based on the assumption that the reader is a competent writer who can do a professional job, and not under the assumption that the reader is a wingnut who will not only over-do, but enclose glitter and photos of her dog as well.

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    Janet Johnson on November 22, 2010 at 10:49 am

    Very helpful! So many opinions on this one, but what you say makes perfect sense.

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    Meryl Danziger on January 13, 2011 at 8:04 am

    Thanks to everyone for these comments. Unbelievably helpful. My “young non-fiction” book was originally a play performed by children. So in the manuscript, the play’s narration becomes the text, and I see the stage action becoming illustrations with talk bubbles. It seems as though indicating these indented in caps would make that clear. Is this too micro-managing, and if so, is there a better way? Thanks!

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    Christina S. Vrba on June 28, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    Thank you SO much for this – my current hopeful submission is a picture book set up in graphic novel format; I didn’t want to do a full comic book script for it, since panel-by-panel notes would certainly be off-putting, but spare notes will definitely help. Would you suggest that I address the format in the cover letter? Would the “grid format” manuscript I’ve seen be too much?

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