March 17


Seeing My Character For The First Time by Madelyn Rosenberg

Whenever I’m in a classroom, kids ask, “Do you illustrate your own books?” The kindergarteners, especially, like using proper terms for things, so they say “illustrate” instead of “make” or “draw,” proudly stretching every syllable.


I open my writing notebook and hold up one of my sketches – not bad but not brilliant, almost always in pencil. “If I illustrated my books,” I say. “They would look very different.”


“Try crayon,” a would-be artist advised me once.


Duly noted.


I like to draw because It uses a different part of my brain. But my drawings never fully realize my characters. Still, l have an image of what they could look like in my head. And then I hand my manuscript over to an editor and —


“What if,” I tell the class, “You wrote a story. And you could tell the story in words but someone else was in charge of the pictures. What if you had to give your words to a friend or a total stranger and trust that everything would come out okay?”


The students all illustrate their own work, of course. The idea of letting someone else do the drawings is anathema. They frown. They shake their heads. Some of them fold their arms.


But when there’s time to take things a step further – if the students have a chance to write a description of a character and swap it with someone across the room — the arms unfold. They move on to the next feeling: the exhilaration of seeing something that started inside their own heads drawn to life by somebody else.


There are plenty of exciting moments on the path to publication: The “yes” from an editor. Signing a contract. That feeling you get when you open a box and knock on a hard cover book for the first time. (What? You don’t knock?)


For me, the most exciting moment is the first time I see what an artist creates based on my words. Even if I know the illustrator in question, even if I’ve seen sketches of other things they’ve done, it doesn’t prepare me for seeing my character in gouache or digital or acrylic flesh. I open the file, my fingers on fire.

“Surprise,” says the character, once mine, now ours. “It’s me.”

For my February picture book, Cyclops of Central Park, the main character was the biggest surprise of all. My imagination had cast him as either green or blue, roundish and cuddly-ish, like a prize you’d find in a claw machine game at Ocean City. When I first met the character Victoria Tentler-Krylov had created, an anxious, almost hipster who had borrowed a vest from Cher, I admit I didn’t recognize him at first.


“It’s never quite going to be how you played it in your head,” reminded my editor, Stacey Barney. “Otherwise I’d be married to Idris Elba. You have to let the illustrator bring a perspective to the project.”


Victoria’s visual perspective was different. It was better. Much. She had her own deep imagination, so she traveled beyond mine and busted Cyclops out of the confines of the claw machine. She made him unique. She made him breathe. Now I can’t imagine him any other way.


With my brain steeped in Victoria’s images, I’m thinking of potential new adventures in a way I wouldn’t have before, in a way that would incorporate all that Victoria brings to the character. It’s a change in my creative process, but one that makes sense, I think.


Turning over the workings of your brain to somebody else is scary – as scary as a monster (at least, one who isn’t afraid of his own shadow). Writing is scary, too. So is love. Love for a person or a book. Love for a character who is finally ready to meet the world.


Madelyn Rosenberg is the author of CYCLOPS OF CENTRAL PARK and other books for kids, big and small. Visit her online at