Picture a Story – An author’s story about letting go

by Anna McQuinn from Alanna Books

One of the hardest things you do, as a writer, is to hand over your story to be illustrated by someone else. Likely you’ve been working on it for months and already have a picture of the story in your head. Likely you have a very definite idea of how the main characters look – even if they are mice or sheep!

Then you hand your precious story over to be imagined by someone else – someone with amazing skills in imagination and artistry, but someone else…

When I’m working as the editor or publisher of another author’s text, I am hyper aware of how difficult this part of the process is. And when I send out the first set of roughs I always tell authors that I don’t want to hear from them for three days. I know from experience that it will take at very least 24 hours for the images in the author’s head to dissolve and another two days for the artist’s roughs to begin to take the imaginative space where the author’s original vision was. By the end of day three (if I’ve done my work right and found the perfect artist for the story) the author will begin to love the artist’s vision for the story. Often, the author is also surprised and delighted when the artist brings out other dimensions in the story that they had not envisaged and, the biggest thrill of all, when the artist bring out things that the author felt but had not written – that’s magical.

With many of the picture books I’ve written, I’ve been in the hands of other editors and art directors who commission the art for my stories. Sometimes I go on to form close friendships with the artists and dream of doing other projects with them; sometimes I never meet them – yet they are artistic partners and co-visionaries of my story.

I’m in the unusual position with the Lulu and the Zeki series to also be the Publisher of the books, so I am much more involved with the two illustrators, Ros Beardshaw and Ruth Hearson, than would usually be the case. I love the relationship I have with them – they are two of the most talented and most lovely people I have ever had the privilege of working with. Many authors think this would be a dream scenario, but I feel it is very dangerous! It is extremely tempting for me to tell them exactly what is in my head and try to get them to replicate it – using them as the artistic arms I don’t have. But this would sell my story short – for, while it would utilise their artistic skills, it would deny their imaginative and creative contribution – for which the resulting picture book is far the richer.

So, I try my best to hold back and allow space for their creative interpretation – only adding ‘art notes’ to cover particular points which need to be made. I do, of course, outline my vision for the story (trying my best to do that as the editor versus as the author) and make some general points. One of the things that was important for me from the start was picturing as much of the story as possible from Lulu’s point of view. I was always small for my age, and I remember so much of the world being out of reach (visually as well as physically) for me. I really wanted to capture that and when Ros’s first roughs came in…

I asked her to draw them from Lulu’s height/point of view whenever possible. And we’ve maintained that throughout the series.


















To give an example of a more directive input that I feel was appropriate, in Lulu Reads to Zeki, Lulu’s family are preparing her for the arrival of a new baby. As Dad works to put up new shelves, he suggests that Lulu choose some of her old baby books to give to the new baby (and some to keep). The text says,

Daddy makes new shelves for the baby’s things and Lulu sorts her books.

Some are for keeping…and some are for the new baby.

But I wanted to indicate Lulu’s struggle, and have her only choose one or two for baby, keeping a huge pile for herself, so in this instance, since it was not obvious from the text, I spelled my vision for this scene out to Ros. The result is wonderful and is especially something I think which will give parents reading the story a little giggle.

The rest of the time, I work really hard to strike a balance between explaining what is necessary for the story and allowing as much creative space as possible for the artist to make her/his own of it. And I am rewarded time and again with wonderful surprise scenes that I would never in a million years have thought of. In that same story I didn’t suggest anything at all for the opening spread and this is what Ros came up with – what could be more perfect?

So, when you next share a story – take a moment to think about how difficult it was for the author to let the illustrator picture her story!








National Share a Story Month ideas

To encourage youngsters of all ages to draw, illustrate, sketch and tell a story –

Ideas based on My Friend Jamal

Working with children, I often notice that around ages 8/9, they can become very self-conscious about, and unwilling, to draw. I feel that this reluctance often coincides with their developing visual skills as they beginning to see that what they’ve drawn on the page is not really the same as what they envisaged in their heads (something that doesn’t bother younger children in the least).

I’ve used My Friend Jamal very successfully with such children – who are inspired to take photos and print them out on ordinary paper (not any kind of shiny paper) and then paint on top. It can be liberating and lead back to a confidence and interest in drawing and painting again.


These are the originals I took (right) and the final artwork in the book (below).



Below, see the original photos for the playing basketball action shot and the boys pretending to drive an SUV (which was later drawn by the artist).









Look how much fun they had setting up a ‘flying’ shot!















National Share a Story Month ideas:

To celebrate the power of illustrations, particularly in picture books, for all ages and to encourage sharing of picture books – ideas based on Lulu

In Lulu Loves Flowers, she is inspired by reading Mary Mary Quite Contrary in a book of Garden poems, and goes on to make her own garden (and, while she is waiting for flowers to grow, to make a ‘Mary Mary’ doll; a flower book and some cupcakes). There are instructions on the Alanna Books website so children can make a Mary Mary doll of their own.

When choosing the flowers to plant, Lulu thinks about the line in the poem ‘and pretty maids all in a row’ and tried to pick ‘girl’ flowers: Rose, Iris, Daisy… so the web pages have a section about flower names, their history and some interesting information on flower names from other countries.





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