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Laura Bontje

Editing Picture Books without the Pictures

Illustration of a book lying open. A mountain landscape bursts from the pages as a rocket takes off, launching from the book into a cloud of letters and symbols.
Illustration of a book lying open. A mountain landscape bursts from the pages as a rocket takes off, launching from the book into a cloud of letters and symbols.
Copyright: macrovector

Picture books: the artwork is so integral that it’s part of the name. But unless you’re working with an author/illustrator, editing a picture book usually means analyzing a text-only manuscript.

For contemporary picture books, the illustrations are more than adornments; they’re a critical part of the storytelling. At the manuscript stage, it’s a balancing act: an author has to have a strong enough vision to craft a cohesive narrative while also leaving room for the illustrator’s articulation of the visual story. It takes creativity and a lot of trust.

So how can an editor help an author hold space for the illustrations?

Understand the role of illustrations

A page from the alphabet picture book "T. Rexes Can't Tie Their Shoes" (Anna Lazowski and Steph Laberis). The text reads, "Narwhals can't eat nachos," and the illustration shows a narwhal with a stack of nachos stuck on its tusk.
Copyright: Random House Kids

What does it mean to say that the text only tells part of the story? Consider the following examples:

  • In T. Rexes Can’t Tie their Shoes, by Anna Lazowski, one page reads, “Narwhals can’t eat nachos.” The whimsical text invites imagination — but it doesn’t answer the question of why narwhals struggle. For that, illustrator Steph Laberis fills in the blanks (nachos get stuck on their tusks!).
  • Edwina Wyatt’s Sometimes Cake is a celebration of little celebrations. When Lion has an ordinary day, Audrey needs time to think. The next line reads, “Lion found Audrey.” There’s little transition in the text. But in between those lines, illustrator Tamsin Ainslie provides a full-spread, wordless illustration of Audrey preparing for a celebration.

Imagine that you were the editor and neither of the manuscripts above included any illustration notes. What query, if any, would you have left for the authors?

My own answer would differ for each book.

  • T. Rexes Can’t Tie their Shoes features a different animal for each letter of the alphabet. The illustrator’s creative interpretation of why narwhals can’t eat nachos wouldn’t change the plot, so if the author hadn’t added an illustration note, I wouldn’t prompt one.
  • In Sometimes Cake, Audrey’s party prep is part of the plot. If it weren’t mentioned in the manuscript, I would query the author to suggest expanding on Audrey’s plan through either the text itself or an illustration note.

The scenarios above are hypothetical, but Anna Lazowski confirmed that she did not include illustration notes: “Seeing Steph Laberis’s interpretations was so fun because they brought so much more to the story.”

I do not know how much guidance Edwina Wyatt provided to Tamsin Ainslie, but I love the choices the team made!

Consider visual details

As an editor, you can help readers identify where visual details enrich the text and where they might be conveyed more effectively through the illustrations alone.

When the text duplicates details from the illustrations, it can cause the reader to assume that the information is crucial enough to highlight twice.

For example, imagine a manuscript that starts like this: Anne was a young girl with long red hair.

If Anne’s hair colour will be evident from the artwork, does the reader need to be told about it in the opening line? Probably not, if the book is about a girl who loves carpentry and her hair isn’t part of the story. You might suggest exploring a more illuminating aspect of characterization in the first line.

But what if it’s a picture book adaptation of Anne of Green Gables? In that case, the author may have chosen to draw extra attention to the hair colour since it becomes a plot point later.

Picture the book

When you’re editing a novel, the pagination is less important than the flow from word to word — after all, the layout will shift after typesetting. But for a picture book, pagination is an integral part of the reading experience. Whether it’s a teacher reading to an eager class or a little hand reaching out from their parent’s lap, the act of turning the page is as much a part of reading as the recitation of the words themselves.

Turning the page can provide an instant scene change: new page, new picture! Keep an eye out for areas where your client could pare down extraneous transitions in the text and allow the page turn to do the work.

Turning the page can also build suspense or reveal a surprise.

In 48 Grasshopper Estates (Sara de Waal and Erika Medina), we learn that the main character, Sicily, makes creations that can do anything she imagines. Then we turn the page: “Well, sort of.” The first time, it’s unexpected. One page sets up the vision, then the next page reveals the reality. After that, the “sort of” isn’t separated by a page turn. It doesn’t need to be — the reader already anticipates it.

As an editor, you can help your clients look for opportunities where the physical structure of the book can support the pacing of the narrative.

Note: 48 Grasshopper Estates also offers a wonderful study of how art can tell a story. There’s a delightful visual subplot with a young boy who doesn’t interact with Sicily until later in the story. At the manuscript stage, a story arc like this may appear through illustration notes, which the editor could review for pacing relative to the text.

Be flexible

Occasionally, a self-publishing author may have their book illustrated before they have it edited. That can make editing more challenging, but you can apply the same principles to the degree that the existing illustrations allow. I also encourage anyone who works with already illustrated picture books to read Christine Ma’s Conscious Style Guide article “Picture Book Images and Unconscious Bias.”

As with other forms of literature, there’s no single right way to write a picture book, so there’s no single editing philosophy that can apply to all manuscripts. If the author chooses to subvert a trend, or if their book builds on a different storytelling tradition, your editorial guidance may differ — but your aim of helping their vision connect with their young readers will remain the same.

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Previous post from Laura Bontje: On Editing an Editor: Margaret Kingsbury and Laura Bontje in Conversation

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About the author

Laura Bontje

Laura Bontje is a freelance editor in London, Ontario. She specializes in fiction editing, with a particular focus on children’s literature. Laura also provides editing and content writing services for businesses and nonprofits. She is the author of the palindrome-packed picture book Was It a Cat I Saw? (Amicus Ink, 2024) and the forthcoming story When the Air Sang (Annick Press, 2025).

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