Friday, December 28, 2012

Q&A: What About Art Notes?

Dear Jeebies – What about art notes? When and how do you use them?

When it comes to art notes, I try to use them only when I need to convey information that is not readily available in the text but still necessary to the understanding of the story. For instance, in my book Princess in Training, a dragon shows up near the book's end. I didn't just want to have the dragon come out of nowhere, so, earlier in the story, I foreshadowed it's existence in an art note.

[ Unbeknownst to the princesses, a hungry dragon is in the area.]

I've been using a lot more art notes since PBJeebies started, because I saw you guys using them. I think it makes for a better ms. If I'm too generous about it, Jennifer gently suggests a few removals, then off it goes.

I may not be the best example for how to do art notes! While I try not to include extraneous information and direction, I have some manuscripts where the text and image work together in a way that makes it necessary to include notes, and some that are almost wordless (one has seven words). In cases like these, I either do the notes in italics and brackets to the right of the text or in italics and brackets within the text (especially if the note is for a wordless spread). Either way, I try not to overuse them – I love to let the art director and illustrator take the text and run with it!

Since I'm generally planning to illustrate my own work, my art notes are often more notes to myself than anyone else. I'm always grateful when the Jeebies point out an area where the manuscript doesn't make sense without an art note because it reinforces (and often improves) my ideas for the illustration. I set my art notes in brackets and italicize the text which I also set in a light blue. I like the blue because it allows the reader to easily skip the art notes if they're just reading the text to see how it paces and flows. The italics make it very easy to strip the art notes out of the manuscript with the search and replace feature in Word.

We also have an honorary Jeebie today – Ame Dyckman!

I LOVE art notes. (Shows notebook cover: “Ame + art notes.”) Art notes let me communicate what my short text sometimes doesn’t.

But I also LOVE illustrators. (Reveals heart-shaped tattoo: “Illustrators.”) And I want my future illustrator to have fun with our story, too.

So in my manuscripts, I only use art notes when they’re necessary to show a plot point or character action that isn’t conveyed in my text. And I keep my art notes short too, like this: 
It wasn’t their cat. (Hungry crocodile.)

Not this:
It wasn’t their cat. (Enormous bright-green crocodile holding a knife and fork and grinning and wearing a bib that says, “Bring on the Grub!” And there’s a bit of drool on his chin to show he’s really, really hungry.)

Now if you’ll please excuse me, I need to go find my cat. 
And maybe make art notes a mix tape. (Winks.)

Ame is the author of Boy+BOT, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino and the forthcoming Tea Party Rules, illustrated by K.G. Campbell and coming in 2013 from Viking. You can catch up with Ame on her website ( and keep up with her on Twitter (@AmeDyckman).


  1. Thank you for your post! I have been trying to find out if there is a definitive answer to that question. Between the five of you, I'm feeling confident in how to use them.

  2. Yay, Jill! We're glad you stopped by.

  3. Oh, and Jessica, I've been meaning to ask you how you do that art-note-over-on-the-right thing. I'm kind of stupid in MSWord. I always put my art notes, bracketed and in italics, directly under the text is modifies, but I like your way better. It looks neat and makes it easier to read the text without distraction.

  4. Hey, Kim! Not sure if it's a good thing or not, but I use text boxes when the notes are on the right. Otherwise, I just italicize and bracket within the text.

  5. I think one important question is ‘Who are you sending this work to?’.

    If it’s being sent first to your agent and then directly to an editor, you will probably keep the notes shorter than if you are just sending the work to a publisher where it will be added to the slush pile. Stories in that pile could be first analysed by a ‘Reader’, and your initial aim is then to have the Reader sufficiently understand the story’s theme and love its direction, and then pass it to the editor for more serious consideration. Amongst my friends there’s a generally held belief that Readers may not have the same level of vision that an experienced editor/art director is likely to have, and so it may be worthwhile explaining possibilities with illo suggestions to a larger extent – never overdone, of course, but perhaps pointing out that whereas the words say ‘Beware the shark!’ it’s envisaged that the children could be in bed, the sheets are rippling water and the family dog (shark) is under the sheets and licking their toes.’

    Agents should know the degree to which individual editors like illo suggestions, and ask you to consider modification as necessary. This information is also important to know when submitting to the slush pile, and it can be discovered by networking, having work appraised at Conferences and reading blogs. A different ms version is sent to different people.

    And just because you or your agent sends it with suggestions, that doesn’t mean that’s how it will be sent from an editor to an illustrator. Again, the editor/art director will know the extent to which particular illustrators appreciate hints. A friend of mine had a picture book accepted by a publisher and inadvertently the editor left in a single illo suggestion when sending it to XXXX - ‘everybody’s dream illustrator of world renown’ - who turned it down on this ground alone.

    Love your blog - many thanks.

    Happy New Year


  6. Already in love with the format of the blog. Keep it coming!

  7. Thanks, Lauri! And Peter, thank you for your ideas on art notes, too. It's good to keep these conversations going about process!