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.

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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).

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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…

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…her menace of a baby brother…

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…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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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And trusty sidekick Leonard.

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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.

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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.

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The baby being hoisted over mom’s shoulder.

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Girl and baby scribbling not very carefully in the corner.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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