Consolidating my reflections from my two trips to Sharjah for the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival in 2017 and in April of this year. The first time I attended the SCRF, I went as an illustrator and I participated in a panel discussion entitled “Illustrated Text: Illustrated Stories and Its Status”. This year, I went as a writer, to facilitate a workshop on picture book-making.
In my interactions with bookmakers from different countries, I was pleasantly surprised that we Filipino illustrators are not doing so badly as our Western counterparts — in terms of being recognized for our contributions to children’s books. We seem to have already started winning the battle. I had the chance to compare notes with international illustrators who were surprised to hear that publishers in a third-world country as ours have already diversified into digital platforms (I heard that UK publishers, for instance, are so conservative and skeptical of new technology) but more than that, because we have a very opinionated community of illustrators, haha, who are assertive and militant in pushing the cause both of visual literacy and the concept of authorship.
Several factors may have made the climate in the Philippines favorable for this development. In terms of experience, local illustrators get projects outsourced from companies like DC and Marvel in the US. Several local tech companies also provide BPO services both as hardware and software developers. In short, we are in sync with developments in the US book industry.
In terms of motivation, it helps that there is the National Children’s Book Award, that gives recognition to books and the synergistic relationship that produced it (the publisher, the writer, and the illustrator). Then, of course, there is our great ally, the Philippine Board on Books for Young People (PBBY), the multisectoral organization committed to the development of children’s literature in the Philippines which equally recognizes writers’ and illustrators’ contributions to books with its annual contests, the Salanga Prize for writers and the Alcala Prize for illustrators. Of course, credit also goes to Filipino children’s book publishers, the more enlightened of which (not all of them have seen the light yet, haha), give as much credit to their talented newbie illustrator as their award-winning, older and more experienced writer when they promote their books. The local children’s book industry is very small and tight-knit, and everybody knows everybody (especially because everybody is connected on Facebook!)–and we Filipino illustrators are blessed with the friendship of teachers, storytellers who make sure that our contributions do not go unrecognized.
For too many children’s books, the illustrator is the unsung hero. While the writer basks in the adulation of fans–parents, children, and teachers alike–whenever a new book is launched or celebrated, often they forget to acknowledge their partner illustrator. And this is sad, considering that it is the critical relationship between text and illustration that makes a book a picture book.
FROM TEXT-BASED LITERACY TO VISUAL LITERACY
In an ever-evolving digital world, there is, increasingly, a blurring of boundaries between disciplines, particularly in the creative and media industries. The constant emergence of new media and, consequently, new visual language, are continually providing the public with opportunities to read, not only books and magazines, but also film, internet content, apps, TV shows. To be able to respond to these critically, and understand their context and impact, the reader needs to develop visual literacy from a young age. The role of the Illustrator is thus critical in bringing this about.
From being mere page decorator, the Illustrator is now challenged into taking a bigger role in defining the final product, by adding a second layer of meaning to the text. The role of the Illustrator in picture book-making is now increasingly evolved and redefined to be co-author of content.
ILLUSTRATORS AS CONTENT CREATORS
Picture books and children’s book apps offer possibly the most significant co-authorship opportunities for the illustrator. Like the author, an illustrator’s personal beliefs inevitably find their way into the public space in the form of a book. Their work allows them to draw from their life experiences and circumstances, and weave their values, beliefs, and advocacies into their work. Thus, content is not anymore the sole territory of the writer. The conventional value placed on text-based literacy almost always excluded the illustrator from authorship. In a world that is becoming increasingly visual, however, the concept of authorship is being redefined.
THE ILLUSTRATOR’S MANY HATS
An Illustrator may wear several hats, depending on the book project they’re working on. These roles may be classified into three basic job descriptions: problem-solvers, conceptualizers, and storytellers.
Illustrators are problem-solvers.
To be a good illustrator requires doing a lot of homework for every project.
Like the writer they are teamed with, the illustrator is required to do research to be able to have a good grasp and a deep understanding of the topic and subject they are illustrating. Working with a writer, it is the Illustrator’s responsibility how to present visuals to complement and explain the text.
Illustrators are conceptualizers.
Sometimes, however, for certain kinds of picture books, words are too awkward, or sometimes, they can be too much. Good illustrators come up with brilliant imagery and put it to work where words may sometimes fail. A good illustrator can plant the seed of an idea in the mind of the reader.
Illustrators are storytellers.
A good illustrator tells a good story — visually. Devoid of words, a page with just pictures can tell a story and engage the reader.
Undobtedly, there is still work to be done. It’s about time that the industry and the general public, our publishers and the writers start seeing illustators as co-creators, and not just hands that decorate and beautify pages. Because illustrators do so much more. The new emerging technology that is increasingly visual requires that we are not only text-literate but visually literate, too. For all the hard work and value illustrators put into every children’s book, it’s about time they to get the recognition they deserve.