On the first leg of my flight to Kenya, I sat next to a 76-year-old psychotherapist-turned-art dealer. We started talking about our respective work, and I eventually pulled out an early copy of NEIGHBORHOOD SHARKS for him to look at. He quietly flipped through each of the pages, carefully studying the art, then put it down and took a deep breath.
He said he’d never seen anything like my drawings before. “But,” he insisted, “you must find a writer to work with. And you need to find someone, someone who knows and understands illustration, to guide you in finding the right person to write for your drawings.” He brought it up over and over again, with growing agitation, and was still stewing about it when we finally got off the plane.
Now, to be clear, this man did not read my shark book. Which I… ahem… you know… wrote. But his praise and rather patronizing comments aside, I think the encounter represents what many readers outside of publishing completely overlook: we illustrators write with our drawings, even when we’re not writing with words. The reason this man could even understand my book is because I wrote the drawings, too.
In fact, I wrote them first.
Writing with drawings is how I got started on SHARKS. I read a huge number of science journal articles and watched all the documentaries I could get my hands on, and as I read, I made little doodles in my sketchbook to explain the information back to myself again. These doodles became sketches. I hung the sketches on the wall, and I rearranged and flipped and fussed week after week to organize the visual flow and pacing into an outline for the story.
I don’t know how many illustrators use an actual wall—it’s a habit I picked up from years of visiting David Macaulay’s studio—but I think starting with the visuals first is true for most illustrators-turned-authors. I think in images. I think in composition. I think in color, in emotion, in mood.
When it comes to nonfiction, I also think in visual accuracy. Teaching shark or elephant science doesn’t just happen in the words; the drawings need to be accurate too! So, on-location research is an essential part of my visual writing process. Thanks to my days out at the Farallones and my weeks in Kenya, I can draw from (ha!) those hands-on and eyewitness experiences to accurately write what I learned into each and every image. If you can flip through my drawings and learn something about these animals, then I’ve done my job as a writer, not just as an illustrator.
Now that I’m back from Kenya—with my jet lag gone, my 6,000+ photos and videos (not kidding!) downloaded, and my former seatmate (hopefully) worrying about something else—it’s time to dig into writing the story of HOW TO BE AN ELEPHANT.
How do you turn a two-and-a-half-week research trip and the hundreds of elephant science articles into a 48-page picture book for kids?
As always, it starts with the drawings.