Painting with Light

My life goal is to share wonder. For twenty-five years, I've been doing that through words, in creative partnership with terrific illustrators. But now I also paint with light, via photography, in order to immerse readers in snow storms, raindrop landscapes, mass wildflower blooms, the experiences of frogs, and colorful farmer's market days.

A lot of people ask me which comes first, photos or text. Daily photography gets me out in nature and helps me notice things, such as raindrops on a butterfly's wings (Raindrops Roll) or snow outlining dark tree limbs (Best in Snow) or the shape of a rock outcropping (Thank You, Earth).

But I don't take all the photos for a book and then just make up text for them. Each book has its own journey, a path that crisscrosses and winds back on itself. That first photography may last months or years and may or may not be part of the book. That photography may be more like brainstorming and visual research.

Raindrops Roll began on a rainy day when I wanted to go out and photograph but it was raining. But then I thought, why let a little rain stop me? I went out, anyway, and photographed and I found that I could photograph raindrops on a butterfly's wings.

Over months of photographing raindrops, some of the book's voice and language formed. Then I had to photograph more to respond to those words. At times, as I form ideas, I realize where I need to go, and what I need to learn, technically, to achieve my vision.

Like a painter who needs to experiment with new kinds of paint, canvas, brushes, or styles, I go to great lengths to experiment with perspectives, lenses, tripods, flashes, and all sorts of wacky equipment to extend what I can do. At times this involves me in awkward postures, balanced between rocks, over water, or crawling through muck to get a shot.

Some of this takes place in our suburban yard, which is landscaped with native plants to provide habitat for birds, frogs, and a myriad of other creatures. But we also travel widely. Last year, my husband drove me 5,000 miles roundtrip to California so I could photograph desert wildflowers for the 2019 Beach Lane/S&S book, Bloom Boom.

That trip, in turn, heavily influenced Thank You, Earth, because on our rapid road trip West, we made stops, including a spontaneous side trip into Arches National Park when we reached Utah late one day. My favorite spread of the book, "Thank you for mountains and minerals that strengthen bills and bones" is a result of that adventure. That raven, along with the rock formations and elk, spoke to me of the wide open spaces of the West.

How the Photos Can Change the Words

Photography, like other arts, can reveal things—even to the artist. Often when I come inside and load the photos on the computer, I see something new in the frame, such as the fly inside the lupine pod in Raindrops Roll or the spider behind the metallic bees in the lobelia flowers on the copyright page in Thank You, Earth. Digital photography can hone observation skills and send you back into the world with new questions. The process of creating photos may also loop back and change what seemed like a finished manuscript.

In early 2015, Best in Snow was written and already contracted with many of the photos produced. But then my editor, on the last wisp of winter, told me she needed all the photos before the next winter. Uh oh! I dashed, slightly panicked to do a last bit of snow photography, but the snow was already melting.

My frustration, however, turned to curiosity and discovery. I found refreezing puddles, changing surfaces of snow, and magnificent feathers of ice squeezing out of logs. Like many people, I had not spent a lot of time outside on those squishy in-between days, when the new snow has browned and it's not yet warm enough for warm weather fun. Inspired, I drove home and rewrote part of the book to include snow melt. Fortunately my editors at Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster are tremendously intuitive and supportive of my development as an illustrator. So they embraced this change. Lots of children's books do a beautiful job of covering first snow, new snow. But my editor and I were exhilarated to think that this book would also cover that slushy, messy back-and-forth of refreezing that is winter, as well.

Field Guides and Photo Styles

Lots of people worry about whether they've taken a "good" picture. My question is: does it work, bring emotion or information? Photography, like other arts, has so many genres, styles, and customs. Field guide photographs, for examples must be crisply focused and clean, with no part of the plant or animal hidden behind a log or a rock. If it's a leaf, it must not be caterpillar-chewed. Because that photo must represent the species for people who need to identify it. I'm married to a field guide co-author, plant expert Jeff Sayre, co-author of the Kaufman Field Guide to the Nature of the Midwest. So I recognize that field guide photography requires skill and patience and can be hilariously challenging.

But I'm not trying to create hyper-sharp field guide photos or nonfiction spot illustrations to break up heavy text for my books. Illustration for quick identification is different from expressing a rainy day (Raindrops Roll) or the word and color joy of a farmer's market (Rah, Rah, Radishes) or the unfolding of the wondrous and ancient athletic feat of bird migration (Warbler Wave).

Instead of a clean background, at times, I go for depth of field, with busy layers to show not just a creature, separated from its habitat, but a creature in all the complex, vine-woven, layered environment of a forest. I love to tuck additional nuggets of scientific content in a photo, even if they are not mentioned in the main text. I prefer a photo that has a texture, a feeling, a meaning. In Best in Snow, there's a photo of red-winged blackbirds flying up as snow falls. The snow began and I looked out and the birds were lifting up, flying oddly. They were clearly sort of freaked out, dodging flakes, as in, what's this stuff in the air? Look at the birds' plumage. Many of those birds were juveniles. They had never seen snow. This is what I want to capture: not just what a red-winged blackbird looks like, in form, but what its life is like, as part of the snowy, wild world.

Generally, I'm not trying to document my own experience, per se, in books. I'm trying, through art, to give the reader an experience that inspires his or her mind and heart to lift in wonder and connect to the subject of the book. One exception might be my book, Thank You Earth. As a book-sized thank you note, it is a bit more direct. It is one of the truest expressions of my heart and soul, a real milestone in my career, and it was a privilege to create this book with Virginia Duncan and Sylvie Le Floc'h at Greenwillow.

A Dance of Photos and Words

Because I have spent twenty-five years as a picture book creator, I leave space for words. I imagine the space for the text, on the spot, as I compose the photo. When I am creating work purely for a wall frame, I balance the photo differently.

At times, I intentionally set up a photo to blur parts of the image as a background for words. I often photograph multiple versions so that we have layout options—lizard on the right, on the left, in the foreground, in the background. All of this is done in the camera, not on the computer. Once I have done everything I can to represent a creature or nature experience in photos, I pair it with phrases and try to imagine the book's flow. Then, I work with a publishing team, specifically the art director and editor.

That begins a rather wild ride. Because of the trim size of the book, the pacing of a read aloud, and new yummy design elements introduced by art directors such as Lauren Rille at Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster, the book may shift a bit.

As my editor at Beach Lane, Andrea Welch, likes to say, "Something happens when we try to make the photos live together on the page."

Each photo needs to play off of adjacent photos and their level of light/color, work with the read aloud flow, and make pleasing designs on pages. I go back to my five thousand or so photos and experiment and mock up alternate layouts or suggest alternate photos. On occasion, I go out and photograph something new we need, created by the flow of the book. We work as a team to make the photos and words sing in concert.

Other illustrators, who work in paint, pastel, and other media, also create books in partnership with designers, type designers, and so many other team members. It's a rather lovely, and little heard about, part of the publishing. The choices and considerations are far deeper than just "Let's put a bunny on this page." It's intuitive work, full of pondering and debate.

People in children's books, not just the writers and illustrators, but also the publishers, really do put their hearts and minds into making the best experiences possible for their readers. I also hope, as a photographer, that the books will inspire educators and young readers to take up whatever cameras are handy—traditional ones or phone cameras or tablets—and re-connect with the world. Digital cameras are hand lenses 2.0: powerful STEM tools for getting kids to see patterns, shapes, engineering, and nature at work.

About the Author

April Pulley Sayre, MA, is a photo-illustrator and author living in the Midwest. She has a bachelor's degree in biology from Duke University and a master's degree in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College. She is the author of 65 books including Warbler Wave; Thank You, Earth; and the 2019 release Bloom Boom. Her book Raindrops Roll was an ALA Notable and NCTE Orbis Pictus Honor Award Book. You can reach her at, on Twitter @AprilPSayre, or on her Facebook page, April Pulley Sayre Children's Author.

MLA Citation Sayre, April Pulley. "Painting with Light." School Library Connection, November 2018,

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Entry ID: 2145380

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