• Frederike Schmitz

Beyond words: when a story really needs illustrations


Photo by Daria Tumanova on Unsplash

Early on when writing about Didi, the immune cell I realized that I visualized lots of things I wrote about in my head but had no idea if that actually came across as I wanted.

As I wrote about earlier, I first decided that Didi lived in the intestine, but when covid-19 hit us it was time for her to move to the lungs.

I did my PhD studying the (small) intestine and had a pretty good understanding of how things look like there. I knew from looking at colored slices of intestine where immune cells are located, which ones live where. And by reading hundreds of scientific papers during my (well eh.. relatively short) scientific career I also had a good understanding on how and where they travel to when they meet an invader.


In general, immune cells pretty much do the same thing though wherever they are in your body. The moment they encounter an invader they get activated, send out tons of messages to warn each other and recruit more cells and then travel through the lymph system to the nearest lymph node. The lymph system is an intricate tunnel system that runs pretty much in parallel to your blood vessels, but it ends in little knobs- the lymph nodes. It’s filled with a clear fluid and is specially made for your immune cells to get together and exchange information on invaders and other challenges.


All of this I had in my head.

But it’s something altogether to describe it in a way that it is clear to the reader who knows nothing about all of this.

And as some of these concepts are so alien to the world, we live in, it needs a lot of attention and creativity to bring it to life without overloading the reader.

As you can imagine, in comparison to the intestine, the lungs are something different altogether.

As I mentioned previously the lungs are also a mucosal organ, covered in yummy mucus- slimy stuff. So are the intestines.

As such similar immunological principles apply here too.

But it is simply built completely different.

That makes sense as the main function of the intestines are digestion of your food and the lungs primary reason of being is letting you breathe.

Both very much essential functions but requiring different structures, so to say.

As I was not that much ‘at home’ with how exactly the lungs look like I spend a good amount of time looking at colored slices of lungs, in which scientists use different markers to visualize different types of cells.

In essence the lungs look like a tree turned upside down and hollow from the inside.

Where the trunk is the windpipe, this tree has two main branches, splitting off right and left. From then lots and lots of branches split off into even smaller branches. At the very end the tunnels make room for the ‘alveoli’, little chambers specialized in exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide.

So, where do immune cells live?

Underneath the cells that make up these tunnels, as well as in the alveoli.

Immune cells are pretty much everywhere.

And they need to be, in case an invader decided to break in.


But before I spend an entire chapter on describing the lungs- the world the story takes place in- I figured I must leave this to an illustrator.

After all words can only do so much.

I knew that I needed illustrations not only to visualize the world but to help the reader envision the characters, to bring them to life.

And there was no way I'd be illustrating my own stories. I did some sketches here and there but I knew that it would take me ages to get better at it- and my illustrations would never be as good as the ones from a real illustrator.



I needed good illustrations!

This is especially true for my indented audience, young children.

When I looked through books for that age range of 7-10 years old, I noticed that text and illustrations alternate. From that age onwards kids can read or listen to more text than their younger fellows. But they still heavily rely on illustrations.


And you know, the same might actually be true for their parents or adults in general, reading the story about Didi. After all, it’s complex and takes place in a completely different world than what we know.

As I mentioned earlier, I had my parents test the story for me.

They have no background in biology and it is festinating to see what they understand and what kind of idea they have about their immune system and their body in general.

They also said that they needed illustrations.


But then how do you find an illustrator?

So, I asked myself "How can you find an illustrator who is willing to immerse himself or herself into the world of science?"

After all I wanted a representative reflection of how the lungs really look like.

And the cells of course.

After all, the story was based entirely on science, so the illustrations should be too. As much as they can be of course. As I mentioned in an earlier blog I’m writing informational fiction.

So, some features are imagined, and the rest is based on facts.


Finding an illustrator is not an easy task. When I think about the publishing process with a traditional publisher, often the publishers don’t want you to send them a manuscript with illustrations attached. They want to find the illustrators themselves.


However, for me it was essential to work with an illustrator early on, to interact about how things can be shown, what is realistic and what is not. To get some feedback on what I needed to write about and what I needed to leave out, as well as what a reader can still imagine and what might be beyond their imagination.


Out of pure luck, the same friend who was reading my raw manuscripts already from early on is also a talented illustrator.

And yeah, she might not admit that ;)

Lucky for me, she was up for the challenge to illustrate Didi and her family and the place they live in- the lungs.


I don’t know how many of you have worked with an illustrator or any artist before?

I found and still find it so refreshing how a different point of view can challenge your own idea of things.

My friend asked me seemingly trivial questions like

“What does a cell look like in real life?” and “How does the lung look like from the inside?".

Yeah, well, it’s complicated.

We do have sophisticated technology nowadays to visualize the inside of our body. We can even zoom in so much that we can look at cells, molecules and even atoms.

But they are hardly ever in color (the colors we see in these pictures is from the labeling technique scientist use) and they are often in 2D.

However, when you write a story and want to bring this across visually, you need to think in 3D and then find a decent way to explain that in as much detail as needed but not too much.

However, some things are just beyond words.

But also illustrations struggle with representation. With 3D versus 2D. With colors. With imagination versus real life. With perspectives.

Stay tuned for a guest blog post from my friend! She can tell you all about it.


She had more of these critical questions.

“If you write that this cell uses a weapon like a slingshot- it has to have hands. Do you want me to draw hands on the cells?” she asked me.

Hmmm, hands?

Now, that I look back at some of my sketches, my cells indeed have hands and feet. But when she asked this I thought to myself, “No, that would make them really human."

Why then, did I sketch them out like that and wanted to give one cell a slingshot to fight with? After all, my friend was completely right: the cell then needed hands to hold this tool.


Her questions lead to an interesting discussion about how close to science I wanted to be.

Or how human should the cells be?

I mean obviously the cells needed eyes, otherwise they won’t be seen as characters but merely as cells as they are.

After all, I want to give them a personality and a unique character.

But do they then need to have hands? Legs maybe? Ears?

Well, no. Because then they would 'just' resemble people.


What do you think? Do fictional characters based on science need to resemble humans for you to connect to them?


Do you know of examples where the authors and artists chose to do that?

Did it work and why?


I know that many of you have told me that they keep getting reminded of “Once Upon a Time... Life” which was a hugely popular cartoon about our bodies in the 90s.

Here they really show (immune) cells as little humans.


But can you also relate to them without human features? By just getting to know about their character, by going on a journey with them and sharing their struggles and doubts?

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