How I Make a Picture Book

-By Adam Rex


And not the only way to make a picture book, obviously.

If it’s not my own story, then I’m starting with just a Word document or whatever of the author’s manuscript. Sometimes you can tell by the way he broke up his sections how he thinks the book ought to be paginated. But I’m free to ignore that if I like–paginating the book is the illustrator’s prerogative.

A manuscript as it appears on my computer-machine.
This is actually some text from the next book I'm
doing with Gaiman–couldn't find the last one.

So I print that manuscript out and start marking it up. I draw brackets around sections that I think ought to stay together on a page or a spread. This turns into a bit of a puzzle for at least a couple reasons–because you want to be deliberate about where your page-turns are falling, and because virtually all printed books have a page count that’s divisible by eight.

In a novel you can just throw a bunch of blanks at the end to round out another eight pages if you have to, but with a picture book you need to be more precise. Add to this that nearly all picture books are either 32 or 40 pages long, and it gets even more restrictive. Few PBs are more than 40 pages. None are less than 32 (board books don’t count).*

I probably just lost half my readers discussing this stuff, so I’m bailing out now. But there are a lot of tricks for getting to the right page count, and not all of them are obvious. So to the guy in the comments section who is going to claim he found a PB with 35 pages I preemptively say: Nope. You didn’t. We can talk about it after class.**

Once I know what’s going where I can start sketching the thing out, and I always end up doing something like this:

Actually the thumbnails to Chloe and the Lion.  Couldn't find the thumbs to Chu's Day, either.
Should I have made a "panda thumbs" joke here?  Because pandas have thumbs?
Maybe it's a little too on the nose.

I draw 32 or 40 or whatever little boxes on a single page of my sketchbook and start filling them in. I only have the most rudimentary notion what each page is going to look like, but this is where I usually discover the ideas that will make this my book as opposed to a book that was merely illustrated by me.

Once I have all my pandas in a row I probably sketch character designs. This is easily my favorite part of the process, when everything's still new and the book in question is still the best thing I've ever done or will do.

On this sketchbook spread you also see Merle Lynn, a character from my COLD CEREAL trilogy,
and also Abraham SuperLincoln fighting an octopus on the moon.

I refine the page thumbnails into loose sketches, and the loose sketches into finished sketches.


Eventually I compile all the sketches into a dummy of the whole book.  In the old days that meant a lot of photocopying and binding together a physical mockup.  Nowadays I just assemble a pdf. This is often the first thing the publisher sees from me.

The pdf is named for its inventor, Paul Diogenes Format.

Now's when I start entertaining comments from the editor and art director, and make changes, and fight for things I don't want to change.

I don't remember there being much disagreement over this particular book, though HarperCollins didn't care for the way I was treating the text in my pdf. They nixed the CMY bubble-things, and hired a letterer so I wouldn't have to worry about that, as I was already several months late at this point.

At this step I consider why I fail to meet deadlines, and why I'm such a constant disappointment to all who depend on me. You may want to skip this step, but I can't seem to.

Anyway, you can guess the rest. Once the editor and I agree on everything, and the author either likes it or else the editor decides the author is wrong for disliking it and therefore doesn't tell me, then I finish the illustrations.




I render the finishes a little differently on each book.  About halfway through I'm so sick of pandas I'm actually glad they're endangered.


When I turn in the art I'm worried that it's totally inadequate.  When the book arrives in stores a year later I only see mistakes.  A few months later I love it.


Goodnight.


*It's been pointed out to me that a small number of 24-pagers exist, so I was wrong about this.  I still advise people new to the field to aim for 32-page PBs, or 40-pagers, because a publisher can't typically price a 24-page book as high.  So you're probably not saving them any money by going shorter.

**I end up discussing this a little in the comments, if you're interested.

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