I want to thank MK Nelson for participating in the March MG Madness with this awesome guest post! MK is the author and illustrator of the MG book The Royal Red Secret.
Joshua “Lucky” Lukenyenko is 12 years old and hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps as a photojournalist. While shooting photos in a local Portland cemetery, he runs across a mysterious girl dressed in red. When her bodyguard threatens him, Lucky suspects a mystery. With the help of his friends Ken and Mei Ling Wong, Lucky sets out to find out the truth about the mysterious Red Princess.
Middle Grade fiction: the question of illustrations
When I began writing for middle graders, I started with what often separates MG fiction from young adult fiction: illustrations. The characters of Lucky Lukenyenko, Ken and Mei Ling Wong began with drawings which demanded that their story be told.
But when it came time to include and expand the illustrations for my first middle grade mystery, The Royal Red Secret, my publisher wanted to know why I thought there should be any illustrations at all.
They reminded me that eight year olds are fiercely proud of graduating out of picture books and of moving up to chapter books. Wouldn’t illustrations in the mystery book put them off? Wouldn’t pictures make the book seem too young for ten to twelve year old readers?
This question sent me back to my own childhood favorites, back to question any assumptions blocking a clear view of today’s middle grade readers.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the line drawing of Wilber the pig! What was it about the drawings in The Little House in the Big Woods, Half Magic, Charlotte’s Web, or Doctor Dolittlethat kept them etched in my memory? When I read these books as a child I never felt they were baby books or picture books. Do kids feel that way today and how could I make that kind of illustration?
Of course, each of my favorites has a top-drawer illustrator. Garth Williams’ line drawings Charlotte’s spider webs leave room for imagination. Flipping through Half Magic and it’s sequels, I was struck by the simplicity of N.M. Boedecker’s drawings that are lively, yet set the historical time and create mood.
Moving up to the twenty first century I looked for styles more reflective of graphic novel/ comic influence or Manga style. Perhaps the art direction of MG fiction was moving toward the current rend in YA fiction, photographs. But even Rick Riorden’s Percy Jackson series and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, (in its original version), carry line drawings and grey scale illustrations. The most well known middle grade books in the world, the Harry Potter series, have single chapter illustrations sprinkled with magical items tying the chapters together visually. The illustrations aren’t all line art, but they still function to set the mood-dark but not overwhelming. J.K. Rowling writes of a terrifying Voldemort, but the drawings of him reduce his potency for a middle grade audience.
With these examples in hand and pointing to the Caldecott winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret,which is more than half pencil drawings, I convinced my publisher that middle grade readers enjoy illustrations with their fiction, that good illustration helps sell books to readers and keeps the stories in the readers’ minds.
All this thoughtful research was useful when I created my own illustrations. Though Lucky and friends meet scary characters and explore mysterious events, I tried to keep a playful and open style. When my young readers open up The Royal Red Secret, I hope the illustrations won’t give too much away, but entice them to read the book cover to cover.
Be sure to stop by the March MG Madness home post and enter the big month long giveaway to win a box of MG books and swag! You can earn extra entries in the big giveaway by answering a question whose answer can be found in the GP above...go HERE to enter
M.K. Nelson is an author and children’s book illustrator from Portland, Oregon. Her first Middle Grade mystery book, The Red Royal Secret is available in ebook format for the Nook, Apple Ibooks, and Kindle. The print version will be available in March 2012 from Smashwords. Her recent book illustrations include Lisa Ard’s Fright Flight from Puddletown Group Publishing.
You can see more of her work, including fine art cards, and contact her through