The International Illustrator

Most UK publishers aim to sell rights to overseas markets. Many editors and art directors prefer to communicate by email rather than a phone call, even if we only live a couple of miles away from their office. So in theory it doesn't really matter where we come from, or where we live any more, whether the market is this country or another - or does it?

Technology is a wonderful thing, we no longer need to be on the doorstep of publishers, we correspond by email/Skype, and deliver artwork by courier or scan it and sent via an ftp transfer site. Whether the illustrator is in the next town or the other side of the world shouldn't make that much difference to publishers now, so long as we have a good broadband connection. The internet has opened the world market to illustrators, but with the vast global industry out there we have all those other factors to consider - finding and gaining the attention of buyers in the first place, time zone differences, language / cultural barriers, and crucially, making sure our work is actually suitable for the international market.

It's the same whether you work with overseas publishers directly, or domestically for a British publisher selling foreign rights (as nearly all do). We cannot ignore the world.

Geography, Behaviour and Style

It's very important to research where you target your work, know how it might fit with other countries, to see your portfolio through the eyes of an overseas public. If your style and the iconography of your work is too focused on the tastes of your own culture it may not appeal to another. For British illustrators, including things like double decker buses or traffic clearly driving on the left side of the road can handicap the chances of a book's success with a foreign publisher, also including language-specific lettering in an illustration (in say, a signpost or hoarding) can hamper a foreign deal, most publishers ask illustrators to leave the area blank and draw lettering on separate art so translations can be dropped in on a separate film the same as text.

Child-care traditions differ across the world, in some countries showing unsupervised young children in potentially dangerous situations can also raise flags. 

The English edition of Japanese bestseller Hajimete no Otsukai (English title Miki's First Errand) by Yuriko Tsutsui and Akiko Hayashi was criticised in the US for showing a very young child sent shopping on her own, an acceptable thing in rural Japan, but uncommon in America. There were also problems with painted Japanese language signs, which had to be retouched for the US edition. (© R.I.C. Publications Asia)

Even after a book is taken on by an overseas publisher there may be problems. Book censorship by libraries, schools and so on is widely reported and challenged, so it's advisable to be aware of (and if possible try to avoid) any potential issues. Some years ago Anne Rooney wrote a still pertinent assessment of censorship in the US for the New Humanist, nudity, even in animals, can get you into all sorts of trouble, some educational publishers don't like to show cows with udders, I've heard tales of anthropomorphised animals having to be redrawn with legwear as well as shirts to prevent them appearing "naked" from the waist down (though Disney's Pooh got away with it!). 

The way we characterise faces, the size and positioning of features etc., can be a particularly touchy point - some generic English renderings simply do not transfer to other markets. I often re-illustrated UK works for the Japanese market because the original illustrations were stylistically unsuitable for Japan. Every country has successful illustrators who have had problems selling their books overseas purely because their character designs don't travel well.

Mapping the Market

In order to avoid these traps it's important to study what is successful in other markets, but it's not a good idea to simply ape styles popular in other countries, we all know the old saying "coals to Newcastle" - why would an overseas editor publish a second-hand version of illustration they can find on their own doorstep?

We have to be true to our vision. I worked in Japan for many years and studied the market very closely, but I never attempted to copy Japanese styles, my illustration remained rooted very firmly in my own heritage, in fact I was encouraged to "be English", especially in my children's books. But I quickly learned what aspects of my work would resonate with Japan - my colours became lighter, cleaner. Japanese illustration is largely optimistic, escapist and non-judgmental, comical irony is fine, but not cynicism, you can be dark, but not bleak.

Raymond Briggs's Snowman was a massive success in Japan, but it was a very different case for Fungus the Bogeyman, the character was seen as degenerate and unappealing to a Japanese audience. (© Puffin Books)

Overseas clients often look for something in our work which is different to local illustrators, but which nevertheless speaks to their public. The key is to understand the things that touch with societies across the oceans. Some of the most successful UK exports - Quentin Blake, Oliver Jeffers etc, have very personal styles that may seem to be rooted in Anglo-Saxon or Celtic heritage, but it's the humanity of the work that crosses borders. I don't think Blake or Jeffers spend much time adjusting their work for overseas, because their vision encapsulates the universal human experience. 

It's more important to know what to avoid rather than what to aim for.

Ethnic Diversity

If we are to speak to an international market, its very important our books connect with a  range of social groups. I work a lot with American publishers, my latest book came under fire from one reviewer because I chose to make the sole human character Caucasian - it wasn't a problem with my illustration as such, but because the book speaks to the reader from a 2nd-person narrative - "you", and by representing this "you" as white and blonde I was (in their opinion) rejecting other ethnic groups. The lack of racial diversity in books is a huge issue in the US at the moment and the reviewer censured my book as an example of the problem. Their bluntly worded review sparked a lot of illustrators and writers to leap to the books defence, after which the reviewer felt obliged to partly retract and clarify their position. However the controversy has highlighted how very sensitive an issue this is, it's led me to a lot of soul-searching. Diversity is extremely important in books, it's true for every culture, but in the US in particular it's a political hot coal, ignore it at your peril!

So should we always plan our books to be all encompassing or neutral? To be geographically non-specific, and always include all ethnic types (even when there's only one human in a story)? Setting our characters in fantasized worlds or cloaking them as anthropomorphic animals are a couple of ways to tackle the global issue, but it limits the scope of our work and the range of stories, we also need international books about real children in real locations. I personally try to make my work appeal to the universal child, the inner child within me, which has no race, religion nor specific environment. However as illustrators, it's extremely important how we portray the details, in order to reach out to the world we need to consider how the world of our imagination speaks to society.


John Shelley is the Illustration Feature Editor of Words & Pictures and co-coordinator of the Central East Network. 
He's illustrated over 50 books for children, many of them published in Japan where he lived for many years.


  1. Really interesting, John. Thanks. I took a look at the Kirkus review 'clarification' of the original review and I now appreciate where she is coming from, even though it's unfair to you. It's a minefield and I suppose the easiest option is for writers to not use 'you' because we're all different.

  2. A thoughtful and thought provoking piece John. I wonder if there are any reflections on these matters from 10, 20 and 30 years ago.

  3. Thank you Paeony, Paul!
    Yes, many people have railed against the supposition that a "you" text with an associated character is suitable only for those readers who look the same as the character, and Kirkus has been accused of starting a witch hunt after they admit they've changed how they review books because of recent incidents.
    Paul, that's an interesting point - I expect reviews of 10 and 20 years ago would have had a different (though equally political) policy. All the more reason we need to keep up to date with developments in target markets.


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