Project Page: Creating A Children’s Book

In January 2020 I began the final major project (FMP) of my MA Illustration course – writing and illustrating my first ever children’s book. This page is where I will be sharing videos, photos and written updates of the book and its creation process.
Looking from the outside, the creation of a children’s book seems like a mystifying process. Where do people begin? How do they format the book? Through posting the entire process from start to finish here, I hope I can help others who might like to try the same thing. I still have so much to learn, but jumping in and getting ones hands dirty is always the best way to discover how do something.

January 2020: Researching Structure

Initial Idea: Use the Idea you Feel Most Passionate About

My book will be based on a collection of approximately twenty letters that I exchanged with my parents when I was around the ages of six to eight, believing that I was corresponding with a tooth fairy.

This idea has been sitting in the back of my mind for years, and finally I have the time and space to give it the best shot I can. I believe the physical existence of the letters also has the possibility to make the book extra special, if I can do it justice.

I also considered another idea which I thought would be more marketable in Japan, where I currently live. However, I didn’t feel fully committed to that idea, and have shelved it for a later date. I felt that, to get through such an intense project like illustrating and writing a children’s book, I needed to be completely committed to the idea.

The collection of letters which will form the basis for my story ©️OttiliaStephens2020

Research

The biggest hurdle for me when getting started with making this book was uncertainty about technical specifications. I wasn’t sure how many words I should be aiming for; how many pages I needed or what the layout should look like. Perhaps this should be secondary to the story and art, but uncertainty over these technical questions paralyzed my creative energy for several weeks in January.

The simple, and rather frustrating answer, is that none of these questions have set responses. While there are conventions in children’s publishing, it seems that there are few concrete rules about word counts or layout. The reality is that any book produced by an individual is very unlikely to be accepted for publishing without changes. I asked my friend the illustrator, writer and children’s book author Max Low about his experience when Graffeg Publishing picked up his work. While the content remained as he had written and illustrated it, the publisher requested the format to be changed to square. I feel that Max’s experience is probably very common, and whatever we initially decide for formatting may be altered when the book is ultimately published, at the publisher’s request.

Looking through children’s books is very helpful
Photo ©︎OttiliaStephens2020

I decided not to let formatting issues to worry me too much, and simply to work in a format which would be easiest, so either A4 or square. This decision will likely not be finalized until I am thinking about the art more concretely.

To help me in getting a sense of layout, I looked through the children’s books I have to hand. These include simple, graphic design-esque Jon Klassen works and more elaborate, traditional story books like Orlando Keeps a Dog. The sheer variety of even my small collection of children’s books showed me that I don’t need to worry enormously about style, wordcount or number of pages.

However, the consensus online and in Andrea Shavcik’s little book seems to be that a basic children’s book is 32 pages long, including end pages and title pages, and that any addition to that page count would be made in multiples of four, because of the technical requirements of page binding. None of the books I had to hand was 32 pages, but I decided to go with this as a basic size. This means;

32 pages cover to cover
P1: Cover
P2-3: End Pages
P4: Copyright page
P5: Title Page
P6 – 29: Story pages (12 spreads)
P30 – 31: End pages
P32: Back cover

In terms of illustration:
1 front cover and 1 back cover, or 1 wrap-around cover illustration
2 spreads of pattern for the end pages, if we want them illustrated
1 illustration for the Title Page
12 full page illustrations

I will go with this for now, and see what happens if the book actually gets picked up by a publisher.

February & March 2020: Writing

Uncertainty

I was unsure how to move forward because I had three main themes I wanted to include, but was tying myself in knots trying to give all of them presence in the text. I spent several weeks in March reworking the story over and over again. However, the writing process was becoming a little artificial and I had lost my sense of intuition. I did things like putting the into spreadsheets with different columns for the different themes to make sure I was showing them all, and even wrote the text out as a simple screenplay at one point, detailing the scenes I would illustrate for each line of text. All of this was very time consuming and didn’t actually help me get over my main issue – that the text was jumbled and lacked clarity.

From Wikimedia Commons: Tom Eckersley for the United Kingdom Ministry of Labour (published 1942)

Around this time, a friend introduced me to the work of the British graphic designer and lecturer, Tom Eckersley. His work has incredibly strong visual communication – there is no ambiguity, and his message is clear. I believe the simplicity and strong visual impact of Jon Klassen’s work in I Want My Hat Back is also a large part of its its appeal.

This led to a re-think. I feel the graphic design rule of thumb that ‘less is more’ can apply to stories as well as images. I decided to cut out the contrived themes and focus on doing justice to the source material – the original collection of letters.

Rather than creating a contrived story and fitting the letters into it, basing the story on the letters themselves seemed much more honest and wholesome – a homage to the roles that parents can play in their children’s lives.

Organizing the Letters

I got out all the letters and transcribed them. This helped me to see how I could use the letters to help me shape the story. I made high-quality scans of all the letters at 600dpi and saved them to an external hard disk. I then went through and transcribed all of them, inserting them into a word document and transcribing the text next to them.

Because I believe part of the charm of the letters to be my writing style as a six year-old with terrible spelling, I decided to try to keep the letters as they are as far as possible. For this reason, kept any editing to the absolute minimum necessary to make the letters understandable.

I then went through again, this time searching for the letters with the greatest appeal, which could be used for the book. I discovered that most of the letters were usable, and could be included directly in the text.

I then went through and re-flied the letters to reflect the order in which I would try to use them in the book, for ease of reference. I printed out the word file, to have a physical version of the letters on hand for rewriting the text. While this preparation felt excessive at the time, it was necessary for me to really get a good grasp of the source material, and I am sure that this preparation will ultimately make for a better story.

April 2020: Finalizing the Text

The Final Draft (for now)

A post from my Instagram, celebrating the completion of the text ©︎OttiliaStephens2020

Finally, in mid-April, I feel as though the writing process is at last coming to an end. My final draft is just over 1000 words long, and I have done my best to make sure that it is simple, accessible.

I was a little nervous that the length would be too long, as over 1000 words is (I believe) pushing the upper limit for text length for ages six to eight. However, since this is a book about writing letters, I think that making it much shorter would have meant diluting the content to some extent. If the book is picked up by a publisher, I imagine that they may propose their own edits, so for now, I am leaving the text as it stands.

However, now that the text is essentially finished, I need to begin the process of story-boarding and deciding the layout of the images in relation to the text. I feel that this may lead to further editing of the text, as the flow of the book and the images may not fit what I’ve written now. Deciding how best to illustrate the text is a daunting process, and I hope to spend a lot of time on it in the coming weeks. For now, here are a couple of videos of what I’ve been doing recently.

May 2020: Endless Thumbnails

After creating the text, I started trying to lay out the book. Here, I ran into considerable difficulty.

Digital, Traditional, or Both?

The illustrated books I grew up truly loving as a child were always made with traditional media, and generally had a very tactile quality. You could see the brush strokes and pencil marks, or could tell that the works were made with collage. I was a ’90’s child and therefore, the artists of the books I grew up with did not have access to the same digital tools that artists have available to them now.

Perhaps this has influenced me into adulthood, but I like books that have a hand-made feel to them. However, it is also possible to get very tactile, traditional-looking results with Photoshop or Procreate on Ipad, if used sensitively. This means that I ran into a dilemma during May and into June, which has been negatively impacting my progress on the book. Should I work mostly digitally, or mostly traditionally?

The Allure of Traditional Materials

Traditional materials look good, adding depth and humanity to illustration. They are also highly respected – I feel it can raise the profile of a work if it is only done using traditional materials. I also find it easier to work on paper sometimes, for example, when planning out ideas and layouts, as ideas seem to flow better.

The Allure of Digital Materials

The editability and ease of use wins every time. Infinite edits and infinite saves make working digitally a far more practical approach. However, the happy accidents, like ink blots or watercolors blending together in unexpected ways which can happen with traditional media, will never happen digitally. This is because each mark has to be physically made by you, and each mark is calculated to turn out exactly as expected each time. The size of screens or drawing tablets can also affect my ability to judge the overall look of a competition.

I tried several different ways of getting around this issue of wanting to work traditionally, but feeling that working digitally is far more practical.

The Decision to go Traditional

In July 2020 I made a visit to Kinokuniya Bookstore (South building) in Shinjuku, Tokyo. It is a very large foreign language book store, with an extensive selection of children’s books. I wanted to visit this a book store rather than a store for Japanese language books so that I would be able to hunt for books that I remembered growing up with.

I spent about an hour browsing through the children’s books. I really tried to focus on the art and to see what appealed to me. With all these books laid out beside each other, I began to notice the ones that I wanted to pick up, and the ones that I was less inclined to reach for. I also tried to pick up on the differences between digital and traditional media. While it can be difficult to notice any difference, there are some signs which reveal what media the books were made with.

For example, digital media can have lots of texture, but it also tends to have sharp lines, perfect curves or very uniform colour.

… more on that later.
This page is a work in progress, and is being updated when I have time during the creation of the book. If things seem to end rather abruptly, I promise that they will be updated later. Happy drawing!

A quick update ( I will be back to update the project page in more detail after the submission of my Final Major Project for my MA Illustration Course):

My children’s book is finished! In this video, I talk about how I have finally finished writing and illustrating my first ever children’s book! I look at some of the pitfalls and some of the labour-saving techniques that got me through this enormous project, which has taken up most of 2020. This project also formed the final submission of my Final Major Project for my Illustration MA with Falmouth University.