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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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Updated: July 26, 2016

This is part of the super-fantabulous Bonus Page for WHERE ARE MY BOOKS?, Debbie's first solo picture book, published by Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers in 2015.

If you're interested in finding out more, please visit the Simon & Schuster website, the WHERE ARE MY BOOKS? Bonus Page or follow my WHERE ARE MY BOOKS? Facebook page

Entries in pbcreation (4)


How WHERE ARE MY BOOKS? Was Made (Part 4): More Process, Final Art and Cover Art

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

Back to Where Are My Books? Bonus Page

Even though I did the early sketches for Where Are My Books? by hand, I did the final art entirely digitally. I like working with two monitors:

For those curious, I was using Photoshop CS6, and my main computer is a 27-inch iMac with a 3.4 GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 16 GB 1600 MHz DDR3 memory. Don't ask me exactly what all that means; I just copied it off my "About This Mac" info. :-)

I draw using a medium-sized Intuos 5-Touch pen Tablet. I still haven't gotten around to taking advantage of the 5-Touch shortcuts.

Every so often, I print off my current art and hang it up on string that Jeff has rigged up for me across my office ceiling. I find this helps in (1) helping me check overall flow and consistency, and (2) helping me feel like I'm making progress. When I revise any particular illustration, I'll replace it with the newer one:

I'll also sometimes create PDFs of the whole book, whatever stage I've reached, and then flip through the PDF on my iPad. The text is just a placeholder until my art director, Laurent Linn, can work his design magic.

When the sketches were close to being finished, Laurent asked me to come up with some cover ideas. Here are a few:

We settled on the last image, so I worked on turning that into cover quality:

Getting closer, but we decided the overall color was too dark (brown bed, brown hair, shadows, etc.) and Laurent encouraged me to go for a wilder, brighter color:

And it worked!

Of course this meant I needed to go through all the illustrations and change the color of the bed, but that's one of the advantages of digital art -- I had kept the bed color on a separate layer, so could change it without having to re-draw everything.

Note the bored Potato from I'M BORED in the lower left corner:

Then Laurent Linn worked his magic with the design and text placement, and here's how the final cover turned out:

 To be continued in Part 5.


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

Back to Where Are My Books? Bonus Page

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.



How WHERE ARE MY BOOKS Was Made (Part 2): Thinking visually with a thumbnail sketch template, plus free print-ready template for picture book writers and illustrators

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

Back to Where Are My Books? Bonus Page


I spent a lot of time revising the manuscript text; I estimate I revised it at least 40-50 times in total through the whole process (only a few of these were on the request of my editor). Anyone who thinks writing picture books is easy IS OUT OF THEIR MINDS.


Don't get me wrong -- writing picture books is also tons of fun! But it also takes a lot of work; if you haven't already, do read Part 1.

I did some writing and revising via a plain text document on my Mac, some using Scrivener, but ended up going to plain paper so I could scribble and doodle at the same time. Here's why:

Even as I agonized over the text, I could tell that something wasn't right. At one point Justin suggested putting aside the mss and working on figuring out how to tell my story visually in very rough thumbnail sketches -- knowing that would help determine my text. He told me not to worry about character sketches yet.

I loved the idea. To help accomplish this, I created a template which fits on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. In case any of you would like to use it for your own picture book planning, I've provided a print-ready PDF version (click thumbnail below):

Click image to download PDF (approx 1 MB)

There seemed to be many different templates for book dummies out there, but I wanted to make sure I was using one that Justin approved since I was going to print out multiple copies for me to scribble on. Justin said the endpapers were separate for a 32-page book.

[Updated November 6, 2015: Also see my updated post with free picture book thumbnail templates for picture book authors and illustrators, including templates that let you brainstorm different layout options for a single spread.]

I filled up nearly a dozen of these sheets with my scribbled thumbnails. Working out a story with small thumbnail sketches is GREAT for exposing bad pacing and other storytelling problems; it's well worth spending time on small thumbnail sketches in the beginning than pouring hours into finessed sketches.

As I worked on these thumbnail sketches, I realized that the mss I sent Justin just didn't work. I worked non-digitally for these sketches using just a pile of printed sheets, a mechanical pencil and a big eraser. The eraser got a LOT of use. :-)

Here are some other sources of finding picture book dummy templates:

Tara Lazar's Picture Book Dummy/Construction Layout Tips

Sara McIntyre's Book Dummy

How To Mock Up A Picture Book - by Darcy Patterson, from a writer's point of view

FAQ: Making A Picture Book Dummy - by Tina Burke

How To Make A Storyboard - by Uri Shulevitz

Even if you don't draw but are just writing a picture book story, I still recommend you try this method. Just use stick figures or a scribbled phrase (e.g. "Sam throws marmite at Emma" etc.). As much as I love digital tools, I do find freedom in being able to write and draw freeform with just an ordinary ballpoint pen on cheap paper. Plus I don't get as easily distracted by email or social media that way.

Continued in Part 3


How WHERE ARE MY BOOKS? Was Made (Part 1): Coming up with an idea

Posts so far: Main Index/Resources -Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4

Back to Where Are My Books? Bonus Page

One of the motivations for writing WHERE ARE MY BOOKS? was a blank contract I signed in 2012. For those not familiar with the term, a blank contract is a sign of faith from the publisher in an author and/illustrator. Have to admit I was both flattered and nervous about accepting an advance for a book I hadn't yet written or illustrated.

I am grateful to Justin Chanda and Simon & Schuster Children's for not only giving me my first big break in children's publishing, but also continuing to believe in me.

I've been posting sporadically about the early stages of the process over on but now that I actually have a TITLE for the book, I've decided to revamp the posts for the WHERE ARE MY BOOKS? Bonus Page.

The first step:

I brainstormed picture book ideas.

I've been compiling picture book ideas for a while now, inspired by Paula Yoo's NaPiBoWriWee, Tara Lazar's PiBoIdMo and #KidLitArt's Picture Book Dummy Challenge. I've turned some of these into picture book manuscripts. WHERE ARE MY BOOKS? began as a single line that I scribbled as one of my ideas during PiBoIdMo. At the time, I had no idea that it would eventually turn into my first solo picture book.

What I discovered: it's easy to come up with ideas for books. The challenge: to come up with book ideas that are different from anything else already out there.

This is one of the common misconceptions held by newbie picture book writers, I find: that their story is unique. I still consider myself a newbie picture book writer, by the way, so I speak from experience.

Child nervous about their first day at school but then finds out another child feels the same / makes new friends / discovers it's not so bad after all? Done.

Child has trouble making new friends because they are too shy / insecure / mean / stubborn / family just moved? Done.

Child loses a beloved object / pet / toy and is totally distraught but then formulates plan / enlists help / searches everywhere? Done.

Child having a horrible day where nothing goes right but then takes action & everything turns out ok? Done.

Child resents the fact that he is always overlooked / ignored and decides to do something about it? Done.

Child hates doing something that parents always want her to do so finds a way around it but then discovers why it was a good idea? Done.

Child resents older or younger sibling so decides to run away / get rid of sibling somehow but starts missing the sibling despite himself and reunites? Done.

Child...well, you get the idea.

The bottom line: It's very tough to come up with a story that is totally unique.

But still:

I tried to figure out how to make my story stand out in the marketplace.

At this point, I can already imagine some of you shaking your fingers at me and saying, "Just focus on making a good story. Worry about the marketing/publishing part later."

However, I'm already assuming that having a good story is an essential. My end goal, however, is to not only get the book published but to have the book sell well. If the story is too much like others already out there, a publisher is less likely to want to take a risk on it. And if the book doesn't sell well, then the publisher is less likely to offer me more contracts.


So yes, there needs to be a good story BUT  I also want to help an editor convince their sales team that the book should be published.

An aside: I've already gone through this several times with my novels for young people, in which various editors liked my story enough to take to the next step, but then the projects were nixed by sales/marketing. It's one reason I spent way more time in the plotting/outlining process for my current YA mss before starting to actually write it (and it got nominated for an SCBWI Sue Alexander "Most Promising For Publication Award"! It didn't win...but still! Now I just need to finish it).

So yes, I was discouraged. But then I thought, hold on. Surely I can't be the only one despairing about finding a unique story idea. And there are new picture books coming out all the time! 

And that brings to me to another essential part of my "newbie picture book writer/illustrator" self-education:


I read many, many picture books.

Since the career-changing events of 2010, I've been immersing myself in the world of picture books. I have no children and hadn't really read many picture books since my nephews and nieces grew past that stage.

Once Simon & Schuster BFYR offered me my first picture book illustration contract, that all changed. I started going to the library and local bookstores every week to read as many picture books as I could. I read everything I could get my hands on -- old and new.

I looked at both the text and the illustrations, and how they enhanced each other. I didn't always like the picture books I read, but tried to analyze exactly WHY I didn't like them. And when I really enjoyed a picture book, then I'd reread it and ask myself similar questions: WHY did I like it?

I needed to figure out a unique spin for my stories.

 I looked especially closely at new releases. Obviously these publishers had faith in these books, so what was it about the stories that made the publishers willing to invest money into these projects? The answer: a unique spin. In almost every case, the basic story was enhanced with a framework made unique in either the setting, characters, voice, format or other aspect.

Once I realized this, I went over my list of picture book stories and started working on expanding some of them into full manuscripts with the whole "unique spin" aspect in mind.

But still, I wasn't completely happy with any of them yet. 

I realized that I needed to get my head into "pitch" mode.

When I last visited Simon & Schuster BFYR in NYC to talk about I'M BORED promotion, Justin asked me if I had any picture book stories to show him. I hesitated, saying that I had written about 25 picture book manuscripts but wasn't yet happy with any of them.

Justin interrupted my babbling excuses and suggested that I needed to change my mindset. Having worked with S&S BFYR on I'm Bored, I already had my foot in the door. Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers was my publisher. He was my editor. So how about I pick out 4-5 of what I considered my best stories and send them to him, even if I didn't think they were perfect yet?

Whoa. Really?!?

Ok, I admit I was pretty clueless. I had figured that even though I had illustrated a book for S&S BFYR, that I was still starting from scratch when it came to submitting my own stories. And that if they said no, that was it.

I was wrong.

Anyway, I promised Justin I'd send something very soon. Of course I was STILL paranoid about sending stories that I considered early drafts, so I enlisted the help of my MiG Writers critique group for some feedback and suggestions for tweaks.

Then...I took a deep breath and send my stories to Justin.

He picked one he thought had the most potential. I'm very happy he picked the idea that he did; of all the stories I sent him, this is going to be the most fun to draw!

We had a phone meeting about my story, with editorial assistant Dani Young sitting in. It was a TRULY EXCELLENT phone meeting. I was all "omigod, you're absolutely RIGHT" and "YES! I love that!!" and Justin was all "it's all right there in your story" (I just hadn't seen it).

What Justin was able to do, which I hadn't, was to identify the essence of my picture book as well as see the potential of what it could be. AND he was able to communicate that to me.

By the end of the phone call, I was incredibly inspired and eager to get started.

Continued in Part 2 (Thinking visually with thumbnail sketch templates)