The Picture Book Author-Illustrator Relationship
How did you two come to work with each other?
Heather Fox: Jonathan and I started collaborating on book ideas before we even entered the kidlit industry. We started dating when I was an art student at Kutztown University, just a few months before I took a children’s book illustration course. I worked on a project that involved a folktale, but it needed some revamping so I turned to Jonathan to rewrite it with a more whimsical take. The whole collaboration process got us so excited about making books, and we ended up self-publishing my college project. Eventually our dreams kept on expanding and we started seeking out an agent by pitching some original book ideas.
Jonathan Stutzman: We had no idea what we were doing, we just knew we wanted to make books together. So we just researched a lot. Spent a lot of time in libraries and bookstores. Studied picture books. And when it came to querying agents, we did the same kind of thing. Internet searches, reading blogs. Books. We didn’t quite know how to do everything, but we just went for it and put ourselves out there.
How did you end up finding your agent?
Jonathan Stutzman: After a lot of research online and reading books like Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, we created tiers of agents we wanted to work with and thought would fit our books. And we sent queries out to our top choices first.
Heather Fox: We had some rejections, but in the end we got interest from Elena Giovinazzo at Pippin Properties (one of our top choices!!), which ended up being the only agent that mattered for us! She was a perfect fit, and we’ve loved every minute since we signed with her.
Jonathan Stutzman: Elena is a superstar. We feel incredibly lucky to be able to call her our agent. Especially since it is very unusual for any agent to accept a query from an illustrator-author team. Normally it is either one or the other, or a singular creator who is both.
Heather Fox: And she isn’t just our agent, she’s our dear friend! Which is amazing.
What is your process for bringing the story and illustrations together? What comes first, how much direction do you give each other, what do you do if there’s a mismatch in vision, etc.?
Heather Fox: Normally the story comes first. Jonathan will come up with an idea, he’ll tell me about it and it will inspire me to work on some character design. I’ll sketch out some characters, and show Jonathan, and he will go back to the story.
Jonathan Stutzman: When I see Heather’s art, it always gives me that extra motivation to push forward with the story. Everything comes to life in my head and that propels more energy and life into my writing as I finish the manuscript. Once I get the manuscript done we read through it together and throw ideas back and forth to make it better.
Heather Fox: Jonathan also storyboards as he writes.
Jonathan Stutzman: Yeah, that is a big part of how I work through stories. From my filmmaking days. I need to get the ideas visually out on paper, even if those images don’t necessarily make it into the final book.
Heather Fox: Sometimes he will sketch a spread or scene out, but I will have a different vision for how it plays out.
Jonathan Stutzman: I visualize the book as I write, but of course, Heather is the illustrator and has her own vision too. I have to let go of the images in my head and allow her to work her magic. Sometimes that is difficult, but she makes it look so charming and adorable and hilarious; if I illustrated the book everything would look like potatoes.
Heather Fox: But we also share ideas on the art, just as we do with the story. Even when there is differing opinions, I think that conflict helps get the book where it needs to be. We work through it together, story and art, and in the end, it always seems to work out.
Jonathan Stutzman: That is one of the fun things about picture books, there is such an amazing collaboration between writer and illustrator, and that isn’t even mentioning all the talented people we work with at the publisher.
Heather Fox: Yes! It takes so many [people] to make a book. It isn’t just us. From our agent who will give feedback, to our editor, art director, graphic designers . . . it takes an amazing collection of unique perspectives and talents to make a picture book.
Jonathan Stutzman: And lots of love.
What are the similarities and differences in agent representation for PB writers versus illustrators?
Jonathan Stutzman: I think it’s definitely a unique situation (compared to other creators) because most of our projects are together.
Heather Fox: But when we send her new projects, our agent will normally work more with Jonathan to get the story down. Our editor and I (and art director) will often work heavily with the illustration.
Can you speak about the longevity of partnerships? Some partnerships (e.g. Robert Munsch and Mike Martchenko) are so iconic that it’s hard to separate one from the other, but other authors/illustrators work with many partners.
Heather Fox: There is something so fun and comforting about returning (again and again) to a collaboration that you know and love.
Jonathan Stutzman: It’s like spending time with an old friend.
Heather Fox: Macmillan, our publisher for most of our books together, really wants to introduce us as a creative team. Even though I experiment a little with my art style from book to book (depending on the story), all the books will capture a similar mood and humor. Each book will feel like a “Stutz & Fox” book.
Jonathan Stutzman: The books I have with other illustrators have a different feeling to them. Besides the Tiny T. Rex series, the others are more lyrical and less funny. Maybe Heather and I will do books like that together in the future, but right now we are having a blast being as silly as possible.
Do you expect to continue to work together on future projects?
Heather Fox: We have so many exciting things coming up! It’s going to be a very busy year, especially since we’re getting married in the midst of it all!
Jonathan Stutzman: SO busy. But it’s all incredibly exciting and we feel so lucky and blessed to be able to not only be making books, but be making books together. Which we will keep doing because we have so many book ideas we want to bring to life!