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Debbie Ridpath Ohi reads, writes and illustrates for young people. Every few weeks, she shares new art, writing and resources; subscribe below. Browse the archives here.

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How WHERE ARE MY BOOKS? Was Made (Part 3): Figuring out the characters, more revisions, reading aloud

Making Of A Picture Book posts so far: Main Index/ResourcesPart 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4

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After settling on a version of the manuscript that was polished enough for me to start doing layout sketches, I worked hard on layout sketches but also thought more about my characters.

The main character, Spencer, was named after one of my nephews:

I also wanted mixed ethnicity in the characters, though the real-life Spencer's parents are both Caucasian. So as I was working on how the characters looked, I designed them with an Asian Mom and a Caucasian Dad in mind:

I'm happy to see that there are more and more books for young people being published in which characters have diverse ethnic backgrounds but their ethnicity aren't necessarily the focus of the story, and I wanted this in my book.

I tweaked Spencer quite a bit throughout the whole process. I still have the character reference sheet I had pinned up on the bulletin board beside my computer so I could look at it anytime:

My art director (Laurent Linn),  editor (Justin Chanda) and assistant editor Dani Young also gave me feedback throughout to help make sure the character looked consistent throughout the book. Even in the reference sheet above, for example, I realized that the character on the top left and top right looked too old, so had to tweak.

In the very first layout sketches I sent to S&S, the characters are very rough and just placeholders:

The handwritten notes you see above are mine, taken during a June 2014 phonecall I had with Justin, Laurent and Dani about my first layout sketches with an early version of my story. We decided that although the story idea was solid, I needed to revise to make the story more fun to out loud.

I almost ALWAYS read everything out loud now when I'm working on picture book text or even I'm reading someone else's picture book for the first time. I strongly advise all new picture book writers to do this -- reading your story out loud can help highlight issues that can be fixed early on. The goal: to make the readaloud experience fun for grown-ups as well as younger readers.

Also, we decided to go with a third person narrative instead of the conversation style above, and I was much happier with the result..

The notes above are from Sept 2013 about another version of layout sketches. Notice how much the text has changed after I went through the revision process with Justin! He's a brilliant editor, and I continue to learn so much. Justin and Laurent also had some wonderful suggestions for the art which included switching up the activities (have Dad doing gardening and Mom doing the home maintenance) as well as some visual ideas on improve the storytelling flow.

And again, I have to say once again HOW MUCH I LOVE THIS CREATIVE COLLABORATION. I am 100% convinced that my story text and illustrations are much stronger as a result of working with my art director and editor. I should also point out that there was no point where Laurent or Justin said, "You have to do xxx." It was more like "Why don't you try xxx and see what you think? Or feel free to come up with another idea that might work even better!" 

Anyway, here's what the final spread ended up looking like:

Thanks to my librarian friend Rand Bellavia for coming up with the "Send In The Clown Fish" title. :-)

Continued in Part 4

Related Resources:

My mini-interview with Simon & Schuster publisher/editor Justin Chanda: advice for aspiring picture book writers

Diane Muldrow: Pacing The Picture Book - Takeaways from a session by the editorial director at Golden Books/Random House at the 2011 SCBWI Summer Conference.

3 Tips For Pacing In Picture Books - by Jo Hart

3 Ways To Pace Your Picture Book - by Joyce Audy Zarins on Writers' Rumpus.


Reader Comments (1)

This ethnical mix is nice for a book like this. It is not controversial and fits nicely with current character mixes in popular fictional shows in several diverse markets. You can even avoid religious and philosophical issues if you so choose with this sort of charcter arrangement, I'll bet.

March 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Kesner

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