Hello and happy September! I’m delighted to be celebrating the release of The Derby Daredevils: Shelly Struggles to Shine this month! The Daredevils is an illustrated series with images by the lovely Sophie Escabasse, and Book 2—Shelly’s story—explores the world of art. Given this winning combination, I decided to delay my subplot talk for another month and focus the third craft post on illustrations in lower middle grade.
Now, as I am not the illustrator of the Daredevils series, you may be wondering what advice I could possibly give on illustration in middle grade. While I do like to draw, today’s post is focused on the writer side of the illustration equation. How should writers prepare their work for illustration? How do writers decide if their work needs illustration?
When writing lower middle grade fiction, it can be tempting to imagine how illustrations will bring your story to life. If you lean into this idea enough, you may find that it creeps into your writing process. You may forego a description of a location, knowing it will eventually be an image. You might not focus as much on character depictions. Or, if you are both the writer and the illustrator, you might find yourself writing to supplement a series of fun pictures, rather than the other way around.
The sticky and difficult truth of writing an illustrated manuscript is that no matter how you envision it—the words need to do the work of carrying the underlying foundation of the story on their own. This goes not only for illustrated middle grade, but for chapter books and many picture books as well. Illustrations aren’t a crutch for words, but rather serve their own specific purpose in the narrative.
As I’ve mentioned earlier in this craft series, the Daredevils began as a chapter book project. While writing the first draft of Book 1, I was aware that if published, the pages would eventually be illustrated. However, an important thing to note is that unless the writer is also their own illustrator, the writer has little to no say in which scenes become illustrations. And so they must assume that both everything and nothing will be sketched on the page.
You must assume that both everything and nothing will be sketched on the page.
Writing with this mindset allowed me to not cut corners on any of my tasks as the writer, and also to lean into dynamic and exciting scenes that would look great drawn out. I still wrote character and setting descriptions. I did my best to explain the action unfolding so someone could picture it in their mind’s eye. Meanwhile, I continued to highlight little moments in the narrative that would make great images alongside the text.
When the Daredevils moved into a middle grade project during the submission process, I rewrote the first book and gave up on the idea of accompanying illustrations. Yet when I first spoke with my editor over at Abrams during auction, she told me the group thought the Daredevils would make a perfect illustrated series. Even through a total rewrite and category shift, the story still invited illustration.
Here are some ways I recommend to “invite” illustration into your own work:
· Write a manuscript of appropriate length, from chapter book length (10k) to lower middle grade (25k).
· Include unusual or cinematic settings for characters to inhabit.
· Include unusual or cinematic actions for characters to undertake.
· Describe characters with unique traits or fashion senses.
· Introduce objects with unique or rare details.
· Weave abstract themes such as daydreams or imaginary creations into the narrative.
While researching craft for the Daredevils series, I read a lot of chapter books and middle grade books. But I also watched a lot of films and TV series on the types of dynamics I wanted to feature in Book 1. Much of the narrative is in constant motion with the girls running down sidewalks, hopping over sewer grates, pulling tricks on the rink, and slamming into each other on the track.
These scenes didn’t need images to work, but they were especially “illustration-friendly.” They provided opportunities for additional storytelling to occur outside the text, in accompanying pictures.
But how do you know if your work calls for illustration? There are many lower middle grade books that do not feature illustrations. One benefit to text-only lower middle grade is that the overall book is much thinner and more easily “digestible” to the reader. Another benefit is that the reader is afforded the space to imagine the narrative for themselves. So why and when is illustration needed in a manuscript?
Here are some questions to ask yourself to figure out if illustration should be a necessary part of your work:
· Will illustration help represent a diverse cast of multiple races and body types that I want made visible on the page?
· Will illustration provide an additional lens to this work—will readers learn some information from the words and more information from expressions on illustrated characters?
· Will illustration do more than merely support the text? Will the pictures at times subvert or complicate the original dialogue on the page?
· Will illustration help my readers understand specific details in setting or action alongside the text?
Will illustration help represent a diverse cast of multiple races and body types?
If you are not illustrating your own work, it may best to assume your lower middle grade manuscript will live in text-only form. But even if your book doesn’t ultimately feature illustrations, the story will still benefit from the focus on highly visual and cinematic scenes. And if you are set on working with an illustrator, you now have your points in advocating for one neatly laid out!
When my publishing team and I set out to find the right illustrator for the Daredevils, my main concern was making sure that the cast of characters would be presented in all their diverse glory, and with utmost respect for each character. Because I knew the images would be in grayscale, I needed to see the diversity not just in skin tones, but throughout the depictions in unique character features. In addition to the cultural diversity of the cast, also knew that a trans character would be depicted in Book 1, and later a non-binary character in Book 2, and I needed assurance that the art would not play into any harmful stereotypes. So often I’m asked what I think my greatest accomplishment is as a writer thus far, and I honestly believe it was getting Sophie on board as the Daredevils’ illustrator. She has been the other half of this series.
Ultimately, illustration is a gorgeous and complex form of narration in itself. It’s a powerful tool that can elevate an already good story into a great one. Illustrators deserve recognition as co-storytellers in the collaborative projects they take on, and that recognition must first come from the writer.
Join me next month as we dive into the role of subplots and supportive characters in lower middle grade fiction. And as always, if you find any of these tips useful, please subscribe to my newsletter where I include additional behind-the-scenes information on writing and publishing