Magic Formula: How to Create a Picture Book

This time up, I considered writing an advice column about what to do when you’re waiting for an editor’s response. But then I decided it’s more interesting to look at the work itself: making books. Over my next few blogposts, I plan to lay out a process for creating a picture book, using examples from my published and as-yet unpublished work.

PART ONE: CHARACTER.  Let’s start with character. Good stories need intriguing characters, characters that sparkle with their very own inward and outward expressions of self: looks, mannerisms, substance, personality quirks and out-of-balanced-ness.


Rough sketches for Frank of “Frank and Izzy Set Sail,” exploring gesture.

My characters are usually an amalgam of people I know, their traits exaggerated and edited for maximum dramatic impact. I am especially interested in duos, for the interaction and conflict possibilities. Also, I think it’s easier to draw animals than people.


Thumbnail sketch of Frank and Izzy.

So, Dear Reader, if you want to play along, start by drawing a favorite animal. You can anthropomorphize a little or a lot. Look through family movies and photos for lively gestures and expressions and try to transfer what you see to your animal. Notice how other illustrators do this. (Paul Schmid, Arnold Lobel, James Marshall to name a few.) Hilary Knight’s Eloise illustrations are great inspiration for childsize action gestures. Another strategy is to google photos of famous duos, (i.e. Lucy and Ethel, George and Gracie Burns, Sonny and Cher…), and try to capture their interaction in your characters.


Rough sketches for future characters based on Ethel and Lucy.

I like to do these sketches on tracing paper. It’s easy to erase and rework. Once I have several pages, I hang them on the wall to consider. I think about proportions. Heads to bodies to legs and arms. Do this and pretty soon you’ll have a rough, generalized look for your characters.


Rough sketches of Zelda and Ivy, finding proportions.

It’s impossible to draw pages of the same characters without starting to sense story bubbling up. Sometimes these ideas come out of “mistakes” in the drawing. For example, maybe the line you’ve drawn for a smile gives the character a devious look. Go with it. Think about what that character is up to. Your mind will start spinning story.

Meanwhile, life goes on. Pay attention. Note overheard conversations that sound like your characters. Keep track of situations that provoke an emotional response in your own life, the funny, scary, sad, annoying, angering stuff. Write down anything that seems made for these little characters you are brewing.

My next turn to blog here will be Feb. 7. Using these preliminary drawings and notes, we’ll move toward constructing the story.

6 responses to “Magic Formula: How to Create a Picture Book

  1. Grateful!

  2. This was wonderful! Thank you so much!!! Now, I’m a little bit scared…

  3. Hi there, 

    Loving this blog.  And this post.  

    I have a question for you.  I’m a (published) children’s book author who has a secret dream to illustrate some day.  Only you know this dream.  

    Thing is, I can’t draw.  I mean it.  A four-year-old does better than I do.  I even took a class to begin the process — the teacher said it was for all levels — but it was so excruciating and humiliating that I had to quit after the first four classes.  It was much too difficult and everyone else was painting like Picasso.    

    Do you have any advice on where/how to begin?  For now I have a sketch book, and I try to draw the things around me, but even this is overwhelming.  Does one start with contours? Line? Color?  It’s a big, dark monolith of confusion.  

    Also: writing is an extremely meticulous and tight practice.  You sit hunched over your desk trying to think of the right words until blood drops form on your forehead (not my quote).  I was hoping that doing art would feel more…freeing.  Looser.  Am I wrong?  It feels just as hard.  Perhaps harder because it requires such concentration.  

    I am sorry to bother you.  Again, I love the blog.  

    All best, 

    Amy Bronwen Zemser

    • Amy. Thanks so much for reading our blog. It is true that drawing seems to come more easily to some people than others, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn. Like anything else, you have to practice; to put in the 10,000 hours to mastery that researchers seem to think it takes to get really good at anything. Drawing is seeing and will be a big help to your writing whether you illustrate your books or not. Best of luck!

  4. Love your idea of famous duos and people in your life to mimic. I’m going to try this with my next characters. Yay, Laura, great post.

  5. Pingback: More Magic | Books Around The Table

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