Why aren’t they letting you illustrate your book?

My debut picture book, It Jes’ Happened, is finally on target to publish next spring. I will be the author,  R. Gregory Christie will be the illustrator. This raises questions for some. And a few eyebrows, too.  “Why aren’t they letting you illustrate your own book?” some ask. Usually the question is asked in an accusatory tone, as though I did something wrong. I understand the confusion. I’m an illustrator of more than 40 books. Wouldn’t I be the top candidate to illustrate a book that I wrote? Not necessarily. Here’s the story:

When I wrote It Jes’ Happened seven years ago, I didn’t see myself as the illustrator. My goal was to write a story. I wrote the Bill Traylor story specifically to enter into Lee & Low Books New Voices contest. A contest for writers. I submitted the manuscript stating that I was open to having another artist create the art, should they decide to acquire. I wanted my book to be published, and I didn’t want subjective art tastes to interfere with Bill’s story getting published.

I entered the manuscript into the New Voices contest, and I was thrilled when it won the honor award in 2005. Two years later, after two rounds of revisions, Lee & Low acquired the manuscript. That’s when the conversation about illustrations began. Initially I was told that I would be the illustrator. But then somewhere along the way it was decided that a more “edgy” look would be desirable. I was a little disappointed, but overall I was fine. I gave my editor the names of a few artists I hoped would consider illustrating my story, and I was thankful my editor was open to letting me have that say.

I knew my editor liked my artwork, I’d already illustrated two books for this publisher. Both books were reviewed well in journals. Both received a few awards and recognition, including a best book honor from Bank Street College. Reviewers made wonderful comments about the art. Summer Sun Risin’ even got a bit of New York Times love.

Picture book making is a process of many spurts and lulls in time. After several months, I learned that no illustrator had been approached, and that I was being considered once again. I did a test piece that turned out pretty awful (pictured above). I was trying to be “edgy” instead of just being myself. The plan changed. But then it changed again. I was back on. And then off. And then on and off. And then . . . well, by that time I had solid offers to illustrate books for two other publishers. That kinda cinched it for me, someone else would illustrate the Bill Traylor story.

The process of selecting an illustrator was so much fun. One by one, my editor approached the illustrators of my choice, and sent email reports of who was available, who wasn’t and when. Greg Christie was one of my top choices, and I was very happy when he signed on to illustrate the project. Greg’s art is the epitome of edgy, and a perfect match for the subject. The fact that he was a three-time Coretta Scott King Honor recipient sure didn’t hurt either. I’ve seen Greg’s art for the book, and I couldn’t be happier with how it has turned out.




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