Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate
Written by Claire Saxby Illustrated by Judith Rossell
Published by Windy Hollow

Today I am talking with Claire Saxby about Picture Books and the role illustrations play. I’ve heard the role of the illustrator described in terms of creating a companion story inspired by the author’s text but reaching beyond what is actually written.
Author and SCBWI President Stephen Mooser, president of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and an author of more than 60 books, defines a picture book as: ‘One in which the pictures and the text play equal roles.’

Welcome Claire!
I'd like to begin by asking you about the integration of text and illustrations in a Picture Book and comment on the extent to which they require a particular style of writing.
Picture books are a category all of their own. The story has to work on its own, but then the illustrations have to add another story. The author has to leave enough 'room' for the illustrator to move. I seldom include any illustration notes unless it's to convey something that's not directly in the text but that is integral to the story. It's a tricky balance to include enough details but not to hog-tie the illustrator.
Could you briefly outline the distinctive roles played by illustrations in a Picture Book compared to a Picture Story Book or early reader?
I'm not quite sure what you mean by the distinction between Picture Book and Picture Story Book as I use the terms interchangeably. But if you mean PSB to be a longer story with fewer illustration, then the balance changes between text and illustration. As with early readers, the illustrations then tend to illuminate the text rather that carry their own story.
As an author, although not responsible for the illustrations, do you create a story board or find yourself visualising pictures to accompany the text as you write?
No. I seldom have any idea what my characters look like and only very vague ideas about the appearance of the setting. I look through my characters eyes out into their world, and my focus is on their behaviours and personality. I'm always surprised by how someone interprets my's one of the magic surprises when I see the first images.
I'm wondering whether you have ever found it difficult to let go of your ideas for the illustration and trust the illustrator and publisher to bring the final product together?
No, for the reasons mentioned above. The only time I've really had a discussion about how something has been illustrated was in 'Deepwater Blues' a chapter book. The main character overcomes a fear of really deep water (and what's in it) when his mate says he should take a look at an octopus he's found. The illustrator drew a 'giant of the deep' octopus, several times bigger than the boy! No swimmer in their right mind WOULDN'T be scared of something that big! I'd imagined a tiny little octopus, looking almost too small to be real. Not only did the illustration remain, the image was reproduced on the front cover!
On looking at some of your picture books, I note you have been matched up with various illustrators. What do you think you have you learned from having a number of different illustrators illustrate your picture books?
What talented people illustrators are! Of course I was already aware of that, but seeing them bring my story to life while bringing their own ideas to the project is awe-inspiring. It's also interesting having the same person work on two projects and seeing how different their work can be.
In creating the text for a picture book one writer suggested it was a matter of deciding what to leave in (plot) and what to leave out (description)! In ‘Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Goat’ can you offer an example or two of what the illustrations tell the reader that the text does not?
Picture book writing is definitely about what to leave out! When you have so few words to play with, there is no room for any word that's not pulling its weight. In my first picture book, 'Ebi's Boat' I met with illustrator Anne Spudvilas and we talked about what to leave out. 'Ebi's Boat' was already short, but when Anne showed me how she could illustrate a certain part without the words, I slashed more, until the final text has just under 300 words. In 'Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate', I had used more description than I usually do, perhaps as a way to explain each animal and their physical relationship to each other. I wanted their movements to be logical. But they didn't belong in the final version and many of them are now gone. Judith Rossell, the illustrator has positioned both Sheep and Goat beautifully.
During workshops and critique groups I have encountered a number of writers who express reluctance to submit a Picture Book manuscript to a publisher because they don’t want to ‘let go’ of their own ideas about the illustrations. What comments/reassurances can you offer?
More, perhaps, than any other writing form, picture books are a collaboration. The writer brings the story, the editor/publisher sees the potential and the place in the market, and the illustrator brings the story off the page. Each brings their own special magic to a project. Sometimes three brains aren't better than one, but in the case of a picture book, they certainly are! I couldn't possibly have the same understanding of all the different aspects of picture book production, and it's wonderful to have professionals on board who are experts in their own field.
There appears to be a popular misconception among beginning children’s writers that Picture Books are easier to write than other forms of children’s books. I am reminded of a quote from Mark Twain “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
How could I argue with Mark Twain? My mother asked me why I didn't write poems in her birthday cards. I said it was because I'm usually writing the card on the day of her birthday and have no time to draft. To write poetry and picture books, there are so many elements that have to be contained in the few words. Plot, character, setting, all the things that belong in any story. But in picture books, there's no time to drop in little bits here and there that build up over chapters. Everything has to happen in less than 32 pages. That means drafting, redrafting and then redrafting again, until every word is working properly. No waffle, no ambiguity, nothing but distilled story. It's hard, but very rewarding.
And rewarding, Claire has been this visit. I look foward with great interest to joining the rest of your tour as I hope will other readers. So, from me, happy touring!

Thanks Mabel, some very thought-provoking questions!

The Tour Schedule:
Monday 17August: Dee White
Tuesday 18 August: Rebecca Newman
Wednesday 19 August: Mabel Kaplan:
Thursday 20 August: Sandy Fussell:
Friday 21 August Dale: Harcombe
Saturday 22 August: Sally Murphy
Sunday 23 August: Robyn Opie
Monday 24 August: Sally Odgers:


  1. Thanks Mabel for hosting me. It's nice touring the country like this!

  2. great interview guys. I am enjoying your tour, Claire, and look forward to having you on my blog.

  3. Thanks Claire and Mabel for giving us great insight into the 'art' of creating picture books.

  4. I was interested to read about the further word slashing with the illustrator. Picture books are such a different journey - from beginning to end. I amazes me how much thought goes into every word. I guess with 200 words they all have to be perfect but with 40,000 it's okay to sneak in a dud one or two *grin*

  5. I haven’t read this book so for me it is a brand new experience but for my son's fellow friends they got it very interesting. Cover page is also looking impressive. I think i should pick "Sheep, Goat and the Creaking Gate" for my son. Thanks for posting the blog!