I always say that writing a picture book is a much different exercise from writing a novel. First of all you have to think of telling the story visually. In a novel, the story is internal, between you and the reader, and is limited only by your imaginations. With a picture book, you have to write it in a way that gives another artist the ability to tell the story in pictures.
A picture book (or as I like to call them word books!) is a collaboration much different from a novel. While you work with an editor on a novel to revise, craft and shape your story, with an illustrated book, you give your words over to an artist. Unless you are talented enough to do the illustrations yourself, which is not possible in my case as I cannot draw a straight line.
I’ve been very fortunate in my picture book career. Talented artists have taken my stories and turned them into stunning images that together with the words make something greater than the whole. My publisher at Walker & Company chose Layne Johnson to illustrate Off Like the Wind! When I heard the news, I was thrilled. I had admired his work from afar for many years. And when I learned they had selected Layne I was doubly delighted for another specific reason. You see, I’ve found that some illustrators have a little difficulty when it comes to rendering horses on the page. And since this was a book about the Pony Express, horses were an essential part of the story. But I knew Layne would draw beautiful horses as I was already a fan of his beautiful book Where Horses Run Free. Guy knows his nags.
I often tell students that artists working on a picture book, especially one with a historical setting, will do as much research as the writer. It was certainly true in Layne’s case. He was a wonder, digging into the history of the Pony, asking me lots of questions, requesting materials and photos I had taken from my visits to St. Joseph and so on. One of the big challenges in researching this book is that so much of the source material is missing or questionable in veracity. The actual locations of stations, the true identities of men who did and didn’t ride for the service were just some of the obstacles we had to overcome. And Layne proved to be a meticulous researcher even finding a couple of sources and confirmations of details I hadn’t been able to uncover.
But for me the best part of working with an illustrator is when you get the chance to meet them and get to know them a little bit. And last year at the Texas Library Association I got to meet Layne in person and actually watch him work on a painting right on the convention floor! Unbelievable! I can’t write with the slightest little distraction and here he was painting away in the middle of a major convention. Amazing. Not only did he prove to be a talented artist, he’s also a darn nice guy. And after spending some time with him, I feel like a made a lifelong friend.
I call that a win, win.