By Soyeon Kim
Growing up, I don’t recall reading a lot of nonfiction picture books. Most of the books that I came across were photo-based with science facts. It was informative, but I feel it was very different compared to today’s nonfiction picture books. Nonfiction picture books today are more than just photos and facts. Some may have a character going through a journey to depict a migration, or some may be written poetically, encouraging readers to ask questions rather than providing answers. Inspired by manuscripts, texts are illustrated through photos, paintings, collage, sculptures and many more!
As a children’s picture book illustrator, I have illustrated five nonfiction picture books: You Are Stardust, Wild Ideas, You Are Never Alone, A Last Goodbye, and Is This Panama? Today, I am going to discuss about the process of illustrating nonfiction picture books while focusing on these four books:
Written by Elin Kelsey, an award-winning author and a leading spokesperson for hope and the environment, I had an opportunity to work on these four nonfiction picture books. In each book, Elin writes about the wonders of nature using poetic and lyrical words. She connects with readers by presenting a big idea, where they can learn about themselves and how they are connected to nature and encouraged to ask further questions about a big idea.
When I receive a manuscript, the author and editors also share the research that was done. This research comes in many different forms such as articles, videos and photos. Looking back at my illustration process based on the four books, I remember doing thumbnail sketches before I delve into the research. This really helped me to be more creative and visualize the main message of the book in my own perspective. After the first thumbnail sketch, I go back to the manuscript, referencing each research to learn science behind the message. Sometimes more research is required, and I try my best to review with editors that I am looking at the reliable sources. When in doubt, it is always best to ask and confirm (especially when working on a nonfiction picture book)!
Once the thumbnails are done, I start on rough sketches. I like to work on rough sketches with lots of details. Since diorama art is a three-dimensional form, it helps editors and publishers to visualize what the final art would look like. It also gives an opportunity for them to ensure that I am representing correct references.
Here is an example of a rough sketch from You Are Never Alone:
I love working with diorama art as it opens up endless possibilities! First it starts with building a wooden frame in the woodshop. I stretch fabric on top and bottom, so that I can hang cutouts. I mainly work with pen and ink, and watercolor. I use Japanese papers for different textures or even dried flowers or leaves. When all of the pieces are cut and ready, I assemble them in a diorama using fishing wire and glue.
Here is a photo of what a finished diorama looks like:
Whether you are working with drawing, painting or sculpting, there are so many ways to interpret a nonfiction picture book. No matter what mediums you use, you can create an illustration full of wonders and curiosity. Yes, it is important that you are illustrating and cross referencing to correct resources, but this should not limit your creativity. Build on your research and be inspired by what you have discovered to create your world.
ABOUT THE ACTIVITY
If you are looking to try illustrating a nonfiction picture book, I would encourage you to watch a documentary. A documentary is a great way to start, since it already has a main message and supporting facts. Inspired by a documentary, I am curious about what and how you will illustrate!
ABOUT THE ARTIST
As a children’s picture book illustrator, she has published: You Are Stardust, Wild Ideas, Is This Panama? Sukaq and the Raven, You Are Never Alone, A Last Goodbye, and Once Upon an Hour. She has participated in TD Book Week 2018, visiting schools and libraries in Northern British Columbia. In 2017, she was invited to the Adelaide Writers’ Week (Australia) for the Kids’ Weekend, where she collaborated with kids and families to create a collaborative mural based on You Are Stardust. She is also a recipient of Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator’s Award.