How to Make a Children’s Book

How to Make a Children’s Book

This is a long story, but I’ll try to make it short. Or at least entertaining.

Way back in 2003, Robbi and I made our first book together. Kind of accidentally. She needed some words to illustrate for her grad school application, and so I showed her some of my strange little stories.


Robbi illustrated my words. A book emerged. We had a ton of fun.

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And so we decided that making books together was the thing we wanted to do one day. When we grew up.

But it wasn’t quite time yet. First, Robbi got her MFA.

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Then we got jobs at a design firm and learned about branding and page layout and publishing and production schedules and printing and the other things you need to know in order to run a small publishing company.

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We did that for a few years, but then we got sad, realizing that we were spending all of our best energy making stuff for other people.

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And so we quit our jobs, moved into our barn, and started making books for ourselves. Over the years, we’ve made a LOT of books (65 and counting).


And we’ve sent them out to anyone who seems to be interested.


One of our early titles was After Everafter. It’s a mix-and-match book that lets the reader recombine parts of ten illustrated stories to make 10,000 separate permutations.


Another of our early efforts was Babies Ruin Everything,  a satirical book about an older sibling’s frustrations upon the arrival of the new baby. It doubled as a birth announcement for our son Kato.

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One day back in 2008, I think, we were at a book fair in NYC. It looked a little like this.


We didn’t even know it at the time, but a guy from Disney came by our table and bought a copy of After Everafter.


About a year later, he shared it with an editor who worked for a major publishing company.


As it turns out, SHE was looking for someone to make a mix and match book about super heroes. She called and introduced herself to us.


Erin, who is very nice, asked us if we’d like to write and illustrate a book about the Super Hero Squad series (which is a little kid version of the Marvel Super Heroes). We said yes, of course. It was a huge opportunity to get our foot in the door.


The Super Hero Squad Flips Out did not turn us into overnight sensations, but it did let Erin know that we knew what we were doing, worked very hard, and always met our deadlines. When the super hero dust settled, Erin was interested in doing another book with us.

We had shared our self-published stuff with Erin, and she thought that Babies Ruin Everything might make an excellent children’s book—with major revisions and entirely new illustrations, of course.

The Idiots’Books version of Babies Ruin Everything was written as a satirical piece for adults, and so some aspects of the original material was not exactly children’s book fare.

The terrifying moment when bloodthirsty spiders threaten the baby for example.

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And that heartwarming passage when the baby pees all over himself. Actually, the baby pees all over himself on pretty much every page of this book.


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Or that moving episode during which our protagonist fantasizes about riding on a pony as it poops on the head of her sworn enemy, Nancy.

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Needless to say, some tweaks were needed to make it appropriate for the children’s picture book market, and so Erin and I set to work in revising the manuscript.

Erin_M2_collaborating_BREWhile Erin and I worked on the words, Robbi sketched and painted and developed the characters.

A spunky little girl…


…her menace of a baby brother…


…and the girl’s trusty sidekick, best friend, and totem animal, Leonard the Hamster.

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Robbi also created one full scene—just to give a sense of how the characters might look when placed in a colored layout.


Months passed. (Things happen not terribly quickly in the trade publishing world.). One day, we got a call from our agent, Meredith.


Erin had made an offer on Babies Ruin Everything! In fact, it was to be the very first picture book published by her brand-new imprint at the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. And in case you are wondering, the imprint’s name is…wait for it…Imprint!

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We did a lot of leaping and hollering. This was the “big break” one dreams of, and we had been dreaming of it for a long, long time. We spent a few minutes pinching ourselves…

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…but then it was time to get to work. And so we did.

There was more revising to do, and so I did it.

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But most of the work that remained was Robbi’s, and so she rolled up her sleeves and got down to business.

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Her first job was refining the characters, in particular the protagonist. One of the great things that happens when you illustrate a book with a publishing company instead of with your husband in in your living room is that you have access to people with great experience and great ideas. Our editor Erin and our art director Patti Ann thought it might be worth exploring what would happen if the girl’s eyes were simplified from the version in our pitch.


They suggested that Robbi model the eyes of our Babies Ruin Everything protagonist after those of the main character in our independently published children’s book My Henderson Robot. Here’s how her eyes looked.

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And here’s what Robbi came up with for the new version of Babies Ruin Everything heroine.


Simpler, sweeter, more expressive. More Robbi. We loved it. Once the girl was in hand, Robbi did more studies of the baby.


And trusty sidekick Leonard.


The next step was seeing what these characters would actually be doing as they made their way through the story. Instead of starting at the beginning and figuring the book out a page at a time, Robbi sketched out the entire thing by creating thumbnails. This is the illustrator’s version of creating an outline before sitting down to write a paper.


The thumbnails allowed Erin and Patti Ann to get a sense of the visual pacing of the book and whether there was a good balance of fully developed scenes and simple illustrated spots. There was a bit of back and forth at this stage, but once Erin and Robbi were both happy, Robbi started creating more fully fleshed out sketches on her computer—still not final art, but a clearer sense of how the actual pages and spreads would look.

Here are a few examples.

The girl’s bedroom.


The baby being hoisted over mom’s shoulder.


Girl and baby scribbling not very carefully in the corner.


Once the entire book was sketched out like this, Erin and Patti Ann took another close look and made more suggestions for refinements before Robbi took the huge next step of developing the final artwork.

First, she took out her pen and ink and brushes and painted all the final line work for the characters, using her light table so that she could use the sketches as a guide.


Once the lines were inked, Robbi stopped briefly to set up a photogenic tableau and admire her handiwork. Admiring is an often overlooked, but utterly indispensable, moment in the creation of any book.

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Then it was time for the painting.

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Painting, from what I can gather, is immensely gratifying.

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It’s the moment when the characters escape from one flat, monochromatic plane of being.

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And leap suddenly into another.

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Suddenly, they are utterly alive and unleashed, for better or for worse.

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When the painting was done, Robbi placed the inked and painted characters in the layout and built fully rendered scenes around them, using cutouts of sampled of watercolor washes like pieces of collage, adding shadows to create texture and depth. It’s a long and technically complicated process, but the end results are pretty satisfying.

Here’s what the three scenes I showed you in sketch form look like as finals.





Apples and oranges. Day and night.

Once the insides of the book were done, the tricky and essential process of creating the perfect cover.

In this process we were aided by the talents of the book’s designer, Liz Casal. Liz’s lineup of gorgeous cover designs speaks for itself, and so we knew we were in very good hands. But no matter the talents of those at the table, the process of testing and exploring and lamenting and weeping and finally rejoicing on the way to finding the perfect cover is a long one. But a hugely important one. As it turns out, people really DO judge books by their covers, which is why there are people who specialize in knowing what works and what does not when it comes to covers. Fortunately, the team at Macmillan really knows what they are doing. And so I am happy to share with you, for the first time, the actual, real-live cover of Babies Ruin Everything.


We are over the moon about this cover. We love everything about it, from the general concept to the helpless and offended look on Leonard’s face to our wonky handwritten names.

Just the other day our appreciation for the cover rose to yet another level, because just the other day our proofs arrived.


The proofs are the actual artwork printed on the actual paper stock with the actual finishing techniques. In the case of our cover, all that delicious red ink will be covered with a varnish, which is laid down in a subsequent run through the press after all of the images are in place. The varnish creates a deligthful gleam, and a texture that you can deliciously appreciate by running your finger across the page. Those scribbles literally rise up from the stark white.


We got seriously geeked out. Not only is the quality of printing head and tails above anything we can manage in-house, but such techniques as varnishing are just beyond our scope as DYI publishers. Another first with this book: the dust jacket. Here it is in full, stretched-out glory. The front flap (on the right) introduces the characters and teases the story. The back flap (on the left) has our bios and author’s photo, or author’s illustration, as the case may be.


But that was just the cover. The interiors were equally stunning. The kids joined us in perusing the proofs. They have been hearing about Babies Ruin Everything for so long and were excited to finally have a look.

Apparently, they like it. All except August, who (as the closest thing we have to a baby in this family) was insistent on living up to his role and ruining the shot.


Every day brings us closer to the release date, but that date is still not even sort of close. Trade books have a long gestation period. The book will hit the shelves on July 21, 2016. Between now and then, the Macmillan sales team will do their best to sell the book to bookstores and create excitement among people who love and promote and review books.

But the cover is just about to be officially unveiled, and so we figured it was high time to bring you up to date.

Until then, our protagonist waits not quite patiently on the magnet board above my desk, biding her time.


I want to take a moment to give a shout out to the core of our Babies Ruin Everything team. Although so many others have contributed to this book’s long gestation (thanks to Jesse Post, Nicole Otto, Patti Ann Harris, Mary Kate Gaudet, and Liz Casal, and Bridget Watson Payne among others), we want to give particular thanks to our incredible agent Meredith Kaffel Simonof (red dress), whose smarts and savvy and expert stewardship helped make this project a reality, and to our visionary editor Erin Stein (far right), who took the leap of faith to give us this opportunity and feeds us donuts and makes our ideas so much better.


We have always loved the Flatiron Building, long before we had any idea that it housed the Macmillian offices and long before we knew that we and Macmillan would one day be in cahoots. But these days, we feel even more attached to the place, and so grateful to have a creative home there, in the eighth floor conference room—where tiny seeds of ideas grow into full-grown books and reckless dreams become reality.


Since you can’t yet go out and buy eleven copies of Babies Ruin Everything, perhaps you’ll do the next best thing and like the Babies Ruin Everything Facebook page, which is launching today. We’ll use it to keep you up to date on the milestones yet to come, including the book’s release next summer.

And that’s all. Just an ordinary post for a Tuesday morning. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Making Our Mark

Making Our Mark

For months we have not been sharing some very exciting news, because for months we have been existing in a state of sworn secrecy. But now the moment has arrived, and we can finally spill the beans.

Our longtime editor (and, dare I say, friend) Erin Stein, formerly of Little Brown Books for Young Readers, left her old post in December to start a new imprint at Macmillan. For those of you not in the know, an imprint is a sub-division of a publishing house, a curated collection of titles with a particular editorial sensibility. Erin, who has long been a fan of our work, decided to include our book Babies Ruin Everything among the titles in her first “list,” which is the group of titles offered by an individual editor or imprint.

We are extremely pleased. Not only do we love working with Erin (who was editor for our surprising journey into Spider Man’s psyche, The Super Hero Squad Flips Out), but the thought of being a part of something that is just getting started appeals to our entrepreneurial sensibilities.

The reason we are telling you this today is that the something that we are a part of was just officially launched. Erin’s imprint will be called…wait for it…Imprint!


Here’s the story in Publisher’s Weekly (including brief mention of Robbi and me and Babies Ruin Everything).

As for the book in question, Babies Ruin Everything is the trade picture book version of our old Idiots’Books title of the same name.


The original is a satirical piece with sophisticated language and NSFK illustrations and intended for adults. Version 2.0 is still lighthearted and funny, but definitely meant for kids. Specifically, it is targeting the market niche defined by families having second babies (apparently, this is a robust and viable group of book-buying people). The book helps build empathy with kids who are feeling a bit put upon by the arrival of the younger sibling. You might buy it for your kid if your kid is worried about the new baby. Or as a shower gift. Or because you enjoy stories involving ruin.

Here is the unwitting protagonist of Babies Ruin Everything, shown here in the series of sketches we submitted to Erin in the process of developing the character.


And here is the insurgent, upstart baby in question. He who ruins everything. He whose disarming affect and perpetual grin makes him impossible not to root for, to the constant consternation of our heroine.


And here is our protagonist’s trusty, loyal sidekick, Leonard the hamster, always by her side in good times and bad, not a fan of babies, to be sure.



If you ask Erin, Leonard is the actual protagonist of Babies Ruin Everything. Beyond her love of books, Erin has great affinity for all things small and cute and fuzzy.

And who is this this towering, hamster-loving scion of the publishing universe, you might ask?

Here she is (far right), along with our (amazing) agent, Meredith Kaffel (red dress), at the Imprint offices in NYC last week.


There is much more to be said about this book, about Imprint, about our Macmillan adventures to this point, but for now I will leave you with the view from the 8th story conference room of the Flatiron Building, which is Macmillan’s home. It was an inspiring backdrop for a creative brainstorm.


We gathered that day to discuss the making and marketing of Babies, which, contrary to the usual terms of gestation, will not be delivered until about a year from now.

Fortunately, Robbi’s obligations are a little bit different this time around.

Introducing Benji McBean

Introducing Benji McBean

We are gearing up for our annual trek to Alaska – three weeks of commercial salmon fishing, which you can learn about in some detail HERE. This means we are scrambling to get ahead, or, at least, to not be so far behind when we return. So we’ve already almost finished our next book – due out August 1st. This means we are much farther ahead of the game than usual.

We’ve gone for a different format this time, and are trying our hand at our first kids-oriented mix-and-match book. As much as we would like to try to sell Ten Thousand Stories to kids, we recognize there’s some unsavory stuff in there. And as much as we would like to claim The Super Hero Squad Flips Out as our own, we recognize that nobody cares that we wrote it and that it really has very little to do with our [non-Marvel] universe.

And so, here’s a little introduction to our next book: Benji McBean and His Amazing Machines.

It’s basically about a kid (Benji McBean) and a bunch of different machines he’s constructed to take care of his problems. Like the “The Dish-Demolishing, Chore-Churning, Dust-Destroying Device,” for instance:

Dish Demolisher

I started out about three weeks ago. Matthew had long ago written the text, so was already pretty much completely done with his part. It was lots of fun in the sketching stage to make up a bunch of different machines (there are eight). For a while I was trying to make them all mechanically feasible, but then I realized that I was putting ridiculous constraints on myself and I could pretty much do whatever I wanted. Once the sketches were done, I printed them out and put them on the light table and inked in my linework.

Inking In

This guy is one of my favorites for his scrub brush hair.

So, at this stage, I basically ink and ink and ink like crazy. Usually in the wee hours, when no one is awake to bother me, and when it’s dark enough in the room that the light from the lightbox shines nicely through the paper:

Inking at night

Until I’m done:

Inking like crazy

And then I start in with the painting:


Which takes a VERY long time.

I try to keep myself alert by drinking lots of Coke and eating lots of ice cream and York Peppermint Patties:

Bad food

I would not recommend this to anyone. After a couple weeks of this, I feel truly terrible. As evidenced by this photo:

Lookin' Good

All of this is to say: who knew that being an illustrator could be so bad for your health? I am suddenly regretting my decision back in 7th grade to become an illustrator instead of a professional basketball player.

More on this book to come.

In the meantime, please feel free to download the coloring page for the Dish Demolisher at this link HERE, or from the image below:

Dish Demolisher Coloring Page

This one has lots of detail in it, so send me a picture when you’re done coloring! I’d love to see what you come up with.

Henny Wampum is Here

Henny Wampum is Here

Good morning, everyone. For various reasons, I am excited this morning.

1) It is December, which is the month of August’s birthday, my birthday, and Christmas.

2) It might snow soon, and I love snow.

3) We got our Christmas tree this past weekend, and I love Christmas trees.

4) The latest Bobbledy Book is here! It’s called Henny Wampum Had a Really Big Head.

It’s about a little girl named Henny who, as the title suggests, has a head that is, quite frankly, gigantic. Her very, very large head makes doing even regular kid things rather difficult. And so she decides to take matters into her own hands and figure out a way to solve the problem. Much ingenuity and lollipop eating follows.

Bobbledy club members will be getting their copies any day now. Maybe even today, if you live close enough to Chestertown. Last Friday night, Robbi and I stayed up late, folding letters and stuffing envelopes.

We have a new newsletter for you. WARNING: It features a carnivorous Brussels sprout.

And, as a special bonus, we’re sending you a top secret code that you can use to buy outrageously discounted Bobbledy club memberships as holiday gifts. Because we enjoy outrageous things, holiday gifts, and the thought of new club members.

Be on the lookout for the good old green, red, and purple.

These are the true colors of the holidays as far as we’re concerned.

Here Comes Henny

Here Comes Henny

We hope that all you Bobbledy club members are busy working on writing and illustrating your own versions of The Snowmen Below. We can hardly wait to read what you come up with.

But while we do, we are keeping plenty busy working on the next book we’re going to send you, which is about a girl named Henny Wampum who has a really big head.

And when I say big, I mean really, really big. So big that she has to hold it up with one of her hands, which makes it difficult for her to do anything that requires two hands. Things like juggling, knitting, clapping, pushups, etc.

Here’s Henny (and lots of other kids, too).

And here’s Robbi, hard at work on Henny.

Fortunately, Robbi has a normal-sized head, which means she has one hand free to draw while the other hand holds a cookie.

Otherwise, she’d definitely choose the hand with the cookie, and this book would never, ever be finished.