Illustrating Beyond The Manuscript

For the past year, my critique group, The Broad Strokes has set aside the first half hour of every meeting to share our favorite new picture books. We fawn over stunning illustrations and beautiful prose, marvel at hilarious new concepts, and dissect each illustrator’s process and media. As we pore over these books, there is one question we often come back to: Do the illustrators merely illustrate the text or do they take the work to the next level?

Let me preface this by saying that effectively illustrating an author’s text alone is quite a feat. Putting pictures to someone else’s words involves a careful analysis of the emotion conveyed by the words, incorporating setting details that may not be explicitly stated, and a vivid imagining of the characters involved; however, we occasionally read books in which we recognize that the illustrator has somehow transcended the words given by the author. What does it mean to illustrate more than the story? What does it mean to go to the next level?

I ponder this often, as I work to illustrate my own books and books by other authors. It’s easier when I have my own words. I know what doesn’t need to be said, what elements of a story I can reveal through the pictures alone. I find it much more difficult when the full manuscript is in hand. I understand that authors struggle mightily with using an economy of words and wonder how many, if any illustration notes, should be included. (Hardly any! And you’ll soon see why.) Writers always talk about showing rather than telling. However, I find there are often so many things shown verbally that could be, well… really… shown. So how do we illustrate beyond the manuscript?

Sometimes, an illustrator transcends the manuscript in ways that are difficult to identify. You know it’s happened, you just don’t know how. I’ve discovered, however, a few methods and examples I find truly transformative and aspire to include in my own work.


Illustrations can take you deeply into a story’s setting and reveal so much more than place and date. Thoughtfully executed illustrations can reveal time period, socioeconomic status, political climate, and community dynamics. A skilled illustrator can immerse you in the jazz era in one book and transport you to the Stone Age in the next.

Rachel Sisson does a marvelous job of illustrating the setting in Spring After Spring: How Rachel Carson Inspired the Environmental Movement. Sisson reveals so much about Carson’s childhood while being incredibly spare with words. In the spread below, we can glean the time period in which Carson lived from the rustic stove, the relative remoteness of her pastoral home, her freedom to explore, and her love for animals and nature. The only text on the spread: “Rachel didn’t want to miss a note.” This single sentence combined with these illustrations feels more distinctive than a lengthy narrative about her childhood.

Emotion and Mood

Illustrators take clues from the authors’ texts to determine the characters’ emotion and overall mood in the spreads. We craft their facial expressions and body language to reveal what we think they’re feeling inside. Skilled illustrators take emotion and mood to a cerebral level by altering the scenery and surrounding objects to further engage the reader.

In Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downe’s book Rescue & Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship, Scott Magoon drives home the intensity of Jessica’s feelings and the extremes of her hope and despair in a way that words never could. When Jessica, an amputee and survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing, meets a friend’s service dog for the first time, “Jessica saw how a smart dog like Currahee could help her.” But Magoon’s illustration, depicting the silhouette of a hospital door on a sun-soaked, lush, green landscape demonstrates the hope this realization brings her. The transition from drab colors on the left to the vivid scene on the right foreshadows Jessica’s path to independence.

Tiny Stories Untold

The little white mouse in the corner of each page, the cat getting into mischief in the background, the little brother constantly toddling behind the protagonist—these are the characters never mentioned in the text, but whose own stories unfurl with each page turn. Sometimes, they are a humorous foil to the main character. Other times, their stories mimic or enhances the main character’s story. And these secondary storylines, while sometimes overlooked by adults, are always noticed and beloved by children.

My favorite example of this technique is cleverly portrayed in Have You Seen Elephant? by David Borrow. A child plays hide-and-seek in his house with an elephant. He looks high and low for the elephant, but the only ones who ever seem to know his location are the reader and the boy’s small dog, who is never even mentioned in the text. In every spread, the elephant becomes increasingly noticeable and the dog, slightly more incredulous.

Research shows that children are sophisticated readers of visual text, picking up far more through colors, body language, framing, and visual metaphors and jokes. For illustrators, these young readers present an opportunity. Careful consideration and manipulation of the setting, emotion, and secondary storylines are just a few ways to take a manuscript to a more contemplative place through illustration. Certainly, there are multiple facets of illustration that can and should be reexamined. And as more exemplary picture books continue to be published, I know my critique group and I will keep working to put our finger on just what it means to illustrate beyond the manuscript.

About the author:

Ellie Peterson is a picture book author, illustrator, and science educator living in the Seattle area. Her work is inspired by her experience teaching STEM, her upbringing as a biracial army brat, and her adventures in parenting. Ellie has illustrated three books, the most recent being an award-winning book titled It's A Round, Round World, by Kane Press. When she's not writing and illustrating, Ellie is the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion coordinator for the Western Washington chapter of SCBWI and a member of The Broadstrokes, an all-female illustration critique group. For more, visit Ellie online at or find her on Twitter: @elliepeterson.

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