To See Ourselves as Others See Us

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

Robert Burns, 1786

When Little A decided to present Children of the Salt Road in a Kindle in Motion edition, in a sense, I got that “giftie.” Maybe not to see myself, but to see my words and what they convey as others see them.

I was fortunate that two very talented artists, Kouzou Sakai and Rebecca Mock, agreed to do the illustrations for my book. And the work they produced was beautiful. I encourage you to click on their names up above and check out their websites. Each of them has an impressive portfolio you can browse online to get an idea of what their work looks like. And you can buy prints, too, by the way.

Kouzou, who is located in Japan, illustrated the sections I wrote from Mark’s point of view, and Rebecca, located in Brooklyn, handled Catherine’s point of view. With me in Connecticut and the Amazon folks managing the art side in Seattle, it made for quite an interesting mix. But it worked to create a whole new creature–an illustrated book. And I have some very fond and early memories of illustrated books.

I was that kid whose reward for being nice and quiet (never really happened but I tried) was a new Bobbsey Twins or Nancy Drew book. Later, when all hope of “quiet” was lost, I still looked forward more than almost anything to a new Trixie Belden. And there were the Brooklyn Public Library trips on Thursday evenings with my father, when I would bring home stacks of books, only to be paralyzed with indecision about which to read first. I can close my eyes and feel their sticky covers and smell their–ahem, special–uhhh, aroma, but it was the pictures that drew me in despite the assault on the nose. My parents also had a collection of beautifully illustrated classics and as I got a little older, I was permitted to reread the illustrated version of a book I’d already read sans pictures.

As I read, I was making decisions I hadn’t quite thought about consciously until we began the process for illustrating Children of the Salt Road: When would I view the characters and locations as illustrated and when did I already have my own ideas that conflicted with the artist’s view? In thinking back, I realize that my picture of many of the characters in, for example, a Trixie Belden book, are very much like the illustrations but others almost not at all. And it isn’t just pictures. It seems I am perfectly capable of reading that a character has red hair and blue eyes and ignoring that altogether as well. When I think of all those classics, many of them with woodcuts, I realize I never took any of those illustrations literally.  So what does our mind do with book illustrations? Because there is no doubt they are great fun. If a book is a lovely, big party, an illustrated book is a kind of fiesta.

This subject came up in a phone call with Tyler Freidenrich,  Art Director for Children of the Salt Road, and he recommended a book called What Do We See When We Read. It’s a beautiful book, which is appropriate, and it talks about how we read and take in information, visual information, about characters and settings. I had never realized before, for example, that as readers we are capable of adjusting what we see in our minds as we go along. So, if you had been reading along thinking a room had no windows, and then learned that the room needed to have windows for the story to make sense, you would happily put a couple of windows into your mental picture, probably without missing a beat.

In the end, I think book illustrations serve several purposes. They, of course, exist on their own, for their own sake. They can be beautiful or unsettling or any of the many things art can be, almost always delivering a sense of luxury to the work.  And they serve to activate a different part of our brains while we read. But I think the most important thing they do is set–or hopefully reinforce!–a mood. An illustration that works is evocative of something that the reader will find throughout the text, something that matters in understanding the story or simply in letting herself be drawn in.

In Children of the Salt Road, Kouzou and Rebecca show us two different views of the same world.

Their sensitivity to what that world might look like to each of the two main characters is wonderful to see. If you have read the Kindle in Motion Edition–and if you haven’t, check out the special promotional price on Amazon for the month of December–I would love to hear your thoughts about it.

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