Picture books are one of my favorite things in the world. There can be so much magic inside those 32 illustrated pages, where the words and the images work together to tell stories in a way no other medium can.
But holding that tidy, finished book in your hands disguises all the hard work that went into the making of it. Even after decades of studying the process of illustrating picture books, I didn’t truly understand the process until I was hired to illustrate my first book. Hopefully, I can give you a peek into how a picture book can be made, but as I have said before, the key to illustrative success is to get to work!
Here are the steps to follow for successfully making a picture book dummy.
Step 1: Begin working from a manuscript
When I make books, long before I begin finished art, I am constantly switching from designing characters to writing the story to layouts to art experiments and back to story and characters and so on. Some illustrations appear in my head fully-formed before I’ve even thought up the main character. Sometimes a character keeps showing up in my sketches before I know what story she belongs to. And sometimes the text is clear and beautiful and gives me no ideas about its visual companion until hours of labor and reams of paper have been spent.
Whether you are working on a story of your own, like me, or illustrating the work of another author, the manuscript allows you to navigate through the period of being lost in a sea of nebulous bits of images and / or snippets of unattached text.
Once you have the finished story in writing, begin by reading it aloud several times to feel the rhythm of it. I like to mark up the manuscript with pencil, dividing up the story into spreads (everywhere two pages face each other is called a spread), deciding where to put all those critical page turns, which are the secret to a picture book’s magic.
As I read, in my mind I am picturing the page layouts in broad strokes — a mountain here, the moon up there, the main character creeping through the bushes over there, etc. — all in an effort to plan out the way the book works. The process here is the same as when you are illustrating a story written by someone else. When I’m done, the text is all marked up with ideas and notes and sketches, too.
Step 2: Fitting it to the physical world
At the first pass, just try to feel out the most instinctual page turns, but after you get a loose sense of it, you need to make sure it is going to fit into the traditional picture book lengths of 32 pages or 40 pages*. Keep in mind that you need to leave space for the title page and the copyright and dedication page. There are ways to fudge it, but there are basically two conventions: The “end matter” as these pages are collectively called, can go in the front, taking up three pages, usually, or they can be divided to the front and back, and then they will take up two pages. However, there are always exceptions.
*Note: All books must have pages in multiples of four — this is because the pages are made by folding a sheet of paper in half, which creates a first page outside the fold, two facing pages inside the fold, and then a fourth page on the back.
With the particular book I’m writing, I ended up with seventeen spreads after my first pass. That’s too many for a 32-page book, but not quite enough for 40 pages. I went back through the story and looked for places the story could compress or stretch, and since a 32-page layout felt too cramped, I settled on a 40-page layout, with nineteen spreads and the end matter divided front and back.
In the books I’ve illustrated for others, the editor and I usually agree up-front how many page the book will have, so our job is to fit it all in properly.
Step 3: Move on to storyboarding
Now that you’ve gotten the feel for the story, and you’ve figured out how to fit it to a physical book layout, you need to plan out each page and spread. As is common to most visual storytelling, like film, animation, and comics, I use a storyboard to work out these details.
My storyboards are iterative. I start with a template of small rectangles where I can try out broad ideas. I have a template that works for a vertical page layout, and another for a horizontal layout. As I work out the general page designs and the lights and darks of each spread, I begin to work larger and larger, usually going through the entire story at least three times, adding detail and refining the image at each larger stage. Some pages are easier to figure out than others. Some take a dozen drafts or more.
But all that planning is worth it. All along the way, you’ll be able to get a real sense for exactly how the theoretical book will function once it becomes a real object. You can edit out the parts that aren’t needed and quickly try out details to see if they make the story more clear. In the end, it means that you won’t spend hours or days on a piece of final art that doesn’t work in the finished book.
Step 4: The dummy!
After all the initial planning, you should be ready to make something to show an editor or agent. Also called a “mock-up”, the picture book dummy is the thing you will send off to see if they think your book is publishable.
Typically, a dummy is made up of the story’s full text, and pencil sketches for the majority of the images. Finished art for one to three pages (leaning towards three) gives the recipient a clear idea of what you intend the book’s illustrations to look like. Historically, the dummy would be a physical object, sent in the mail and at least printed out at full-size, if not hand-bound, so it feels and acts like a real picture book. These days, dummies can be sent as PDFs as an email attachment, and most editors and agents can get a good enough sense of things from that digital document.
If you send the dummy directly to an editor, s/he may or may not see it as a good fit for his/her publishing house. If you guess well, the right editor at the right publisher might agree that this is a book s/he can publish, and after that editor gets approval from his/her publishing house, we can make a deal and begin making it into a real book. If you guess poorly, you may have to wait until that editor tells you he can’t use it before you send it off to someone else, and that can take as long as six months or longer.
If you have an agent, his/her job (after giving me his/her best-guess “yea” or “nay” as to the book’s “publishability”) is to help you pitch it to just the right editor at just the right publishing house. A good agent knows the market well enough to show it to the most likely editors and has a friendly relationship with those editors, so they won’t slam the door in your face. The trade off, of course, is that s/he will take a cut if the book sells. But I’m happy for them to get paid for saving me all that time and waiting, especially if the agent then negotiates a good contract for the book.
While an agent is not technically required (there are a few publishers who still maintain a “slush pile“), it is increasingly difficult to get a book made without one. In the best of worlds, a good agent can help an illustrator stay focused on the creative work, while takeing care of the business side of things.
As always, once I get this story put together and into someone else’s hands, it’s time to start working on the next idea. So I’ll start over at the beginning of the process, and do it all again! After all, “If you want to have good ideas you must have many ideas.” – Linus Pauling
Stop talking about wanting to do it, and just get to work! Write it down and start drawing!