You may have heard that using illustration notes in your picture book manuscript is a big no no. Why? Illustration notes can get a bad rap when writers are too heavy handed and try to dictate illustrations. The thing is, picture books are a visual medium. While it is best to use none or as few illustration notes as possible there can definitely be things conveyed in your story by the illustrations that aren’t part of the text. Sometimes, as writers, we have to give a clue as to what is happening in the story when it can’t be taken from the words. So when is it okay to use illustration notes?
When something critical to the storyline happens that is not evident in the text. This means that if an agent, editor, or illustrator is reading your manuscript that the image your words will bring to mind is different or even opposite of what you have said.
For example: You’re text says, “Meredith put the book back nicely onto the shelf.” But really, Meredith does not put the book onto the shelf nicely at all because there’s going to be a catastrophic book pile up that comes crashing down and it is all Meredith’s fault. Perhaps this scenario could use an illustration note.
Or maybe Jake put his very best clothes on because he has something important to do, but yikes! In the illustration he has put on two different colored socks and is going to be very embarrassed when he sits down for his recital and people start to laugh. He doesn’t know that his socks are two different colors, so the text doesn’t say it. This might be a good place for a note, depending on how the story unfolds, of course.
I used an illustration note in my manuscript for Bedtime Monster because Dad being a bit of a monster himself wasn't evident in the text. At all. Would the editor and illustrator have known that (spoiler alert!) dad had a tail at the end of the story? Definitely not. I put in a very simple, straight to the point note: (Illustration note: Dad has a tail.)
Some of my picture book manuscripts have a lot going on visually that is not hinted to in the text so, yes, they are a bit illustration note heavy. This has been fine with my agent and with editors. They need to see a complete story and sometimes I need illustration notes to make the story complete. Others of my manuscripts have no illustration notes at all. The story doesn't need them. Each manuscript is different. You have to choose what is right for each one. (Hint: Let the manuscript with notes rest. Read it through without the notes. Do you still see places you need them? If not then take them out. Read the manuscript with the notes. Are they 100% necessary? If not, cut them. Be brutal!)
No matter what, I work just as hard on my illustration notes as I do the rest of my manuscript. I revise and edit them, putting them to the same rigorous test as I do the rest of my words. You should too.