Illustrating Nonfiction

by Edie Ziebel

When considering illustrating nonfiction, especially a biography of a contemporary subject, photos need to be considered, either to cover the subject wholly or used in conjunction with illustration. Often, especially when the format is a picture book, illustrations are used for the complete book. For creating that unique, special package that is the picture book,you can exercise more control over the entire look for the book when commissioning the artwork. When photos are used, they are often from different sources with different color values, levels of quality, etc. that can keep a book with images on every page from working as a complete whole.

Another consideration in this decision is economics. For a trade book, an illustrator would usually be paid an advance against royalties. While some photos can be purchased from stock agencies that grant all/forever. Often, photos are licensed for a specific print run. If the book is successful and goes for reprint the photo needs to be relicensed, often at a reduced rate, but still at a greater cost than the advance against royalty structure.

In looking at covers to talk about what I think works or doesn't, you can't help but notice books on similar subjects which take very different approaches. For example, ESCAPE NORTH!, FREEDOM TRAIN, and NIGHT RUNNING all deal with the underground railroad. NIGHT RUNNING has real pathos and tension on its cover, it's dark and mysterious, you can tell from the body language of James on the cover that he's in danger. The other two, while different in that they're both telling The Story of Harriet Tubman couldn't have greater contrast as far as emotion and effectiveness as covers. FREEDOM TRAIN has dramatic lighting and a moving composition while ESCAPE NORTH! Is very static. The three figures look like they're out for an evening stroll, not escaping from anything.

I remember first seeing MARTIN'S BIG WORDS. Bryan Collier's painting is direct and accessible and beautiful. But what made it stand out most of all is that there is no type on the cover, it's just the portrait. You can't consider that treatment for too many subjects, but it's a strong book cover now muddied somewhat by the string of awards decorating it. The price of success.

About the Author


From baby books, to chapter books, through middle grade readers and young adult books, Edie Ziebel has designed and art directed over 1,000 books. Edie has worked at several major publishing houses and has always been a freelance designer throughout her career. She has collaborated with outstanding, award-winning illustrators as well as newcomers to the field, helping them to create compelling books for young readers. To help nurture talent, Edie volunteers with the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Conference, which she has co-chaired for the past 3 years.

With experience in trade, mass-market, and educational publishing, Edie will bring the appropriate design to your project. Specializing in books for very young children, Edie can help you develop illustrated books, guiding the development of the artwork itself, as well as the layout and pacing to make your story jump off the page. Edie’s also has collaborated on many different types and formats of novelty books, she can really think "outside the box".

Her experience working with licensed properties can help you create a character that stands out in the crowded license marketplace. She can develop style guides to help keep characters consistent whether you continue to create  their books or have others extend your line.

Edie’s time in educational publishing helped develop her informational graphic skills, helping authors bring home their point to readers in a clear, graphic manner. She’s also designed books and materials targeted towards teachers. 

Bringing a sensitivity to typography and layout to all her book projects, Edie Ziebel can bring the best out of you!


"She is intelligent, concise, has a good eye for detail and a great sense of humor."

"Edie one of my favorite art directors ever. We worked on a number of wonderful books together at Cartwheel, a Scholastic imprint. She is imaginative, creative, inspirational and a pure pleasure to work with. I repeat, one of the best!"

"Edie is a phenomenal organizer who’s able to juggle many projects at once, and she manages schedules and people with ease. She was well-loved by her staff, and all the freelance designers and artists she worked with. I was lucky to have her on my team. A strong designer of both upscale trade and mass-market children’s books--a rare combination—I don’t think I ever once saw her lose patience or become flustered."

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