Interestingly, I have discovered that readers tend to assume authors and illustrators work together on children’s books, though this is often not the case. In fact, there are good reasons for keeping authors and illustrators apart, as disagreements can get in the way of a successful completion. A couple of exceptions are when the author and illustrator are either the same person, or already a team, as my wife, Cris Arbo, and I are.
Our first collaboration writing and illustrating for children was The Dandelion Seed. I had written the rough story out and given it to Cris to look over, giving her only one illustration suggestion, the child blowing the seed at the end. She always provides a careful critique and honest feedback, so when she got excited about the story I knew that was a good sign. She got a bunch of illustration ideas right away and sketched them out, and one of these she turned into a painting. She added some pages to flesh out the seed’s journey, then we sent the package to Dawn. It was fortunate for me that Cris was there to improve and illustrate the simple story or it might never have materialized.
I remember one of the first comments coming from the art director when the paintings were being done was that they looked rather bland. This was because the story started out in winter, the first page reading “It was winter in the garden.” The reason was that I wanted the reality of the death of the little seed’s parent plant to be the harshest it could be. It took Cris’ convincing for me to change the season to autumn and allow her to put more color in the paintings. At first I thought the story would be compromised by even such a subtle change, but of course not only the illustrations are better but the story was improved as well.
Other examples of our collaboration are from the creation of In A Nutshell. Even the title needed work, as you can see from the very first draft (below). Cris always weighs in on the title. We burn wood for heat in our house, and this page was barely rescued from the wood stove when we realized what it was! Also, beyond the writing aspect, Cris needed a scale model cabin built so that she could photograph it from different angles. She researched eighteenth century cabins and came up with the dimensions for me, and I was able to build the model.