Seeing the big picture

Do children’s picture book illustrators get the recognition (and the respect) they deserve?

Richard Rudnicki-Susan Tooke
Artists and children’s book illustrators Richard Rudnicki and Susan Tooke at home in their Halifax studio. Photo: Joseph Muise

Susan Tooke and Richard Rudnicki are established visual artists who live in Halifax. Among the married couple’s many areas of specialization is illustrating picture books—something they both consider as valuable as their other types of work. But they say that not everybody is on the same page.

“Richard and I have noticed that very often illustration is marginalized,” says Tooke. She points to proposed changes to the Governor General’s Literary Awards (GGs) for Children’s Literature. The changes have illustrators talking.

These proposed changes (which, as Atlantic Books Today goes to press, are still in the community consultation phase) would potentially replace the two existing award categories for children’s literature—one for illustration and one for text—with “Best Picture Book” (which would be shared between illustrator and writer) and “Best Text” (for writers of non-illustrated children’s and young adult books). In other words, there would no longer be a GG that specifically honours illustrators.

In Atlantic Canada, there do exist illustrator-specific awards: the Lillian Shepherd Memorial Award, presented at the Atlantic Book Awards, and the Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Book Illustration—last awarded by the Halifax Regional Municipality in 2011—which Tooke and Rudnicki have both won.

Susan Tooke children's book illustrator
Susan Tooke working on an illustration. Photo: Joseph Muise

Nationally, there are also children’s illustration awards, such as the Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver Award from the International Board on Books for Young People, and the Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator’s Award from the Canadian Library Association.

But overall, there are more awards that honour writers, so the prospect of removing one of the few nationally recognized illustration awards frustrates Tooke and Rudnicki.

They point out that the failure to recognize illustrators is not just about awards; illustrators are often excluded from promotional events; they are sometimes overlooked in book reviews that only briefly mention an illustrator’s contribution; and they are frequently given unclear accreditation on book covers.

“A picture book’s cover should never say, ‘by Author, Illustrated by Illustrator’,” says Rudnicki. “That makes it look like we’re just illustrating the words when we actually illustrate the story. …It’s by both the author and the illustrator. We tell the story in pictures and the writer tells it in words, and together it creates this magical thing called a children’s picture book.”

Tooke adds that there are often limited funding opportunities for illustrators. “Some illustrators have been successful in getting grants or funding,” she says. “But there is also that bias within the visual arts community that illustration is a lesser art form.”

“I’m not sure people realize how much work goes into one page of a children’s art book,” says celebrated children’s author Sheree Fitch. “It is an amazing thing how artists interpret the words and illustrate with a lot of thought, feeling, colour and energy. …That is a high art form as far as I’m concerned!”

Richard Rudnicki
Richard Rudnicki applies the final touches to his current piece. Photo: Joseph Muise

Fitch has always valued the role of artists as illustrators, and she loves it when illustrators join her on book tours. In fact, she and Sydney Smith (who illustrated the 25th anniversary edition of Fitch’s Toes in my Nose) recently went to Bhutan together to lead children’s picture book workshops. “I said to the organizers, I can work with the writers all you want, but if you want good picture books, it’s the artists that you need to nurture.”

Brenda Jones can attest to the amount of work that goes into her craft. In preparing to illustrate I is for Island (written by Hugh MacDonald, published by Sleeping Bear Press), for which she won the 2013 Lillian Shepherd Award, she spent about six months travelling back and forth across Prince Edward Island, taking countless photographs. Jones says she feels appreciated by her colleagues. “Through the 25 years I’ve been illustrating, I’ve always had very positive experiences with publishers and writers,” she says. “I’ve never really felt that I was less recognized than the writers.”

Tooke and Rudnicki are not blaming writers or others in the industry for what they perceive as illustrators being marginalized—they each have a great deal of respect for their fellow literary professionals. They are more concerned with the deeper, more systemic issue: a decline in visual literacy.

“Children today become very proud when they begin reading chapter books that don’t have pictures anymore,” says Tooke. “This is supposed to be advan­cement, but actually they’re losing so much. Think about how much is included in a visual image that can’t possibly be described in words.”

Written By

Kim Hart Macneill is a journalist and magazine editor whose work has appeared in This Magazine, Canadian Business, and East Coast Living. She divides her time between Halifax and Moncton.

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