Pictures, then Words by Emily Winfield Martin

Let’s begin at the beginning.

In the beginning, I was very small and made a lot of pictures, just like everyone else around me – all very small and with access to crayons and pencils but not terribly much else. I went through the usual phases…cute animals, girls in fancy dresses, mermaids, flowers (actually, I’m still in all of these phases). I made my first picture book when I was seven, entitled Did You Know Flowers Can Talk? a story inspired by utterly ripped off of Alice in Wonderland’s Garden of Live Flowers. I was so taken with the idea of anthropomorphized flowers, I drew a bunch of them. Then some pictures of myself with a flower-friend. Then I wrote a picture book story to take myself & the talking flower places: most notably, the mall, where we were terrorized by a boy named Stanley and his loud boom-box and mean dog. Clearly, a prodigious storytelling mind at work.

Jump forward a bit and I’m in high school, then college. Not so very small, but still with access to mostly art supplies, a hideously embarrassing minivan, big goth boots and not much else. Still making pictures, and occasionally using them to illustrate (incredibly melancholy and suitably depressing) picture books for myself or for school projects. I was studying photography and painting in the Art department, and reading modern novels in the English department. I fell in love with art comics, entwining stories and pictures seamlessly. I got smitten with a revolving door of directors and become fascinated with the idea of the film still, the frozen moment that implies a larger story.  And when I was finished with four years of that, the thing I most wanted to do was to make pictures that had stories to tell (and, if anyone would let me, maybe, more stories that had pictures to go with them.)

After college, when I started selling my artwork in earnest, I began to hear (to my surprise & delight) that people had that exact response to the kind of images I like to make – they felt like the pictures implied larger stories. Some of these people were children’s book editors, who talked with me and encouraged me and helped me begin to understand what kind of pictures are best for this, and what kind of stories are best for that, and (very kindly) that 5,000 word picture books aren’t entirely in hot demand. All the while, I kept making paintings and doodling characters and sometimes there would be one I liked so much I would make a little book about them that would get stowed away in a drawer somewhere. I made a book of paper dolls (yep – each with their own little story.)

And then I set about my most ambitious pictures-first story yet, just for myself, which was the peculiar beginnings of Oddfellow’s Orphanage – a series of more than a dozen painted portraits of the occupants of a magical orphanage (complete with cryptozoology lessons and dancing bears) along with accompanying slim paragraphs detailing how each person or creature came to the orphanage. My now-editor found all of this online, and asked if I’d thought of expanding it. I loved her immediately, and I loved the prospect immediately, and so we did it, and Oddfellow’s Orphanage, a heavily illustrated series of vignettes detailing the goings-on at the peculiar & wonderful orphanage, was published by Random House shortly after.


When we (my editor, book designer and I) began work on our new picture book, Dream Animals, it happened a similar way. We thought the image of giant, magical animals that helped children off to their dreams was so wonderful, and it grew from there. We chose the menagerie, and talked about different fantastical dreams. I sketched it all, then painted it all, but didn’t write the accompanying poem ‘til we were nearly finished with the art.

Boy  Girl Dream

At this point, I think words and pictures are so tangled up for me that I can’t imagine how I would go about untangling them. Each of the book projects I’m working on now or hope to work on soon somehow sprang from an image I created first.  In the last year or two, I’ve even worked on a novel, a conventional one, for grown-ups, or semi grown-ups, and even then, I had to see the characters like pictures in a scrapbook, be able to watch it play like a movie. I had to see it all, be able to paint their portraits and build the sets and know exactly how everything looked while the story happened, before I could write the story.

Pictures, then words.

EMILY WINFIELD MARTIN sketches, paints, and stitches to create imaginary worlds and characters. She is the author/illustrator of Dream Animals, Oddfellow’s Orphanage, and The Black Apple’s Paper Doll Primer. Her store, The Black Apple, has been featured in national publications and on TV shows, including the New York Times and The Martha Stewart Show. Emily lives among the giant fir trees of Portland, Oregon, with her fellow adventurer, Josiah, and their cat Miette.