Monday 25 March 2019

Behind the Scenes of a Picture Book Character by Chitra Soundar

A typical conversation I have with teachers at schools:

Teacher: How do you choose an illustrator?
Me: I don’t. Publishers choose.
Teacher: Do you get to tell them how to illustrate?
Me: Nope!

Most often, especially when a writer is starting out, they don’t get to choose an illustrator or give stage directions or write illustrator notes into manuscripts. At least that has been my experience on the 20 picture books I’ve published so far and with the next few coming out soon.

I recently was part of a twitter conversation where some people said their stories appear as words in their mind. But for me it’s scenes, visuals, characters who appear and talk. When I write, I visualise the story in my head. 

So when I get to see my story fully illustrated, it will be nowhere near what I’ve imagined for the following reasons:

a)    The illustrator has a different mind. Their experiences have created a vision in their minds. 

b)    A picture book has inputs from many experts. The words of the story is the north star, but those words can still be interpreted differently by the editor, the designer and the illustrator.

c)    It is a multi-creative process. When a story has been written, it then transforms into pictures in an independent creative process and that varies from illustrator to illustrator, just like no two writers will write the same story in the same way.

More recently I’ve been more interested in thinking about how characters are formed. When I wrote the first story for Farmer Falgu, I didn’t have a specific farmer in mind. From the name, it might have been obvious to an Indian reader that he might be north Indian (as there is a river called Falgu in the north) and in the south, the names are more Dravidian and we don’t have the consonant F in our languages. 

But Kanika Nair who illustrated the first book and the series of 4 titles, had grown up in Rajasthan. So she brought her life experience to the story and made him a farmer from Rajasthan. This was not in my text and something I had not imagined. Read her interview here.

She said, "Farmer Falgu Series has been one of my favourites. While reading the script for illustrating I felt an interesting connection between the story and my hometown. Thus, decided to set the story in Rajasthan, a state in northern India that is rich in historical significance and famous for its vibrant colourful culture."

The first two stories for this farmer were already written and now he had a specific personality as created by the illustrator.  What does that mean to me as a writer then? 

For the third and the fourth book, I decided to embrace this aspect of Farmer Falgu a bit more. So when I was thinking of a plot line for Book 3 (read about how to write a series here), I decided to bring the cultural aspects of Rajasthan into the story – and hence he goes kite flying. Read more about how this story came about here.

Does this happen to all writers and characters? Does the illustrator bring out a different aspect of the character that the writer hadn’t visualised? I went hunting to find out about some famous characters and their creators.

Here is an interview by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler on creating the Gruffalo and the animals in the forest. Read how Julia had a different colourful image in her mind and when Axel finally settled on how Gruffalo looked, she was happy with it. And then came of course other stories for Gruffalo and Gruffalo’s child and they all had to follow Axel’s portrayal of the forest and the animals.

Another famous collaborator is Quentin Blake and he too talks about how his pictures came to be to bring life to Roald Dahl’s words. 

In an interview published here in the Guardian, this is what Quentin Blake says – 

"What was so wonderful to me was that so many of Roald's stories were fantastical, unrealistic, so I was free to do what I wanted. I could let my style develop. Think of The Twits or the BFG - they don't really take place in a realistic world. They come from my head."

In another interview for the BBC Quentin Blake recalls visiting Dahl and Sophie and redrawing the illustrations for BFG after that. 

And that’s a rare thing indeed because after 20 picture books, I’ve had dinner with only two of my illustrators and I haven’t even met most of them.

Whether Blake’s illustrations then in turn influenced Roald Dahl or not when he wrote the next story, I don’t know. But as children and adults who read these books, the characters like Matilda, BFG and the Twits are visualised in our heads are from Blake’s illustrations. Aren't they?

Do you write picture books? What are your experiences working with an illustrator? Share below in comments. Are you an illustrator? How do you go about making up a character from someone else's words?

Chitra Soundar is an Indian-born British writer, storyteller and internationally published author of children’s books, based in London, England. Chitra writes picture books, poetry and fiction for children and often visits schools, festivals and libraries to run writing workshops and tell stories. Find out more at 

Follow her on Twitter @csoundar.

Monday 18 March 2019

This Blog Post Is Gay - Garry Parsons

The title of this post is respectfully borrowed and adjusted from Juno Dawson’s witty and frank manual “This Book Is Gay” first published in 2014, an important book for anyone to read, not just the LGBT* community. This book is not only informative, it is wholly accepting and basically gives the message that, whoever you are or whoever you are not, it is ok to be you. And that is a message I couldn’t agree with more and one I would hope to pass to my kids.

This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson - Hot Key Books 2014

Apparently, the market for young adult fiction featuring characters identifying as LGBT is growing. Authors like Amy Rose Capetta, Amber Smith, Christina Lauren, Tim Federle and  Juno Dawson, who also writes YA fiction, are appreciated by readers who are looking for a broader diversity of protagonists and storylines with positive reflections of who they feel themselves to be.

Representation in books is so important not only for young people who are themselves LGBT, but for everyone finding themselves in a minority community, and also for those who are not, in order to feel empathy and gain understanding. 

The recent wave of diverse characters in young adult fiction appears to be slowly making its way as subject matter for picture books. There are and have been books alluding to gay characters or featuring same-sex parents, but, by comparison to the plethora of picture books out there, these are very few and can sometimes be lacking in subtlety or quality. 
As an illustrator, parent and member of the LGBT community myself, this is an area I feel is overlooked and in need of representation and encouragement.
This could all be about to change.
In February this year CBeebies’ Bedtime Story featured singer Will Young reading Carolyn Robertson’s picture book “Two Dads”, illustrated by Sophie Humphreys, about a boy who has been adopted and brought up happily by two fathers. This episode was shown to coincide with LGBT History Month.

Will Young  reading Two Dads by Carolyn Roberson illustrated by Sophie Humpreys

“Children’s books are one of the first ways we learn about the world around us so I’m overjoyed to be reading a story to mark LGBT History Month,” said Young.

I wholeheartedly agree. Children need to be able to see the world around them, and themselves reflected in it, no matter who they are and picture books have proven to be remarkable vehicles for this. When the subject matter sits on the periphery of our daily lives or the story concerns something we know very little about, picture books are a good way to start a conversation about them for both adults and children. 
Here are a few stunning picture books that I feel deal with complex issues in clever, subtle and thoughtful ways:
The challenges of a refugee family in "The Journey" by Francesca Sanna, tolerance in "Marshall Armstrong is New to Our School" by David Mackintosh, losing a loved one in "Grandad’s Island" by Benji Davies and the dangers of lies skewing reality in "The New Neighbours" by Sarah McIntyre, for example.  
The Journey by Francesca Sanna. Marshall Armstrong Is New To Our School by David Mackintosh. Grandad's Island by Benji Davis and The New Neighbours by Sarah McIntyre

So what about picture books dealing with the difference a child might feel who might later identify as LGBT? Most LGBT adults can recall the sense of being ‘different’ at a very early age. These books were not around when I was six years old, but they are titles I wish I had seen and ones that offer something else.

Something Else by Kathryn Cave illustrated by Chris Riddell - Puffin 1994

“Something Else” by Kathryn Cave, illustrated by Chris Riddell, first published in 1994 and boasting over a quarter of a million copies sold, is the story of a creature who is told he does not belong and is unjustly excluded, and also about how you can befriend a person who is finding fitting in difficult.

Perfectly Norman by Tom Percival - Bloomsbury 2017

"Perfectly Norman" by Tom Percival, published by Bloomsbury in 2017, is about a little boy who realises that being bold enough to embrace being different is what leads to his happiness.

Hello Sailor by Andre Sollie illustrated by Ingrid Godon - Macmillan 2000

My personal favourite, “Hello Sailor” by Andre Sollie and illustrated by Ingrid Godon, tells the story of Matt, who lives in a lighthouse and spends his time watching the sea for his friend Sailor to return to him. “A beautiful book…it makes – just as it should – the love between two men as natural and as deep as any other,” says the Observer.

Julian Is A Mermaid - Jessica Love - Walker Books 2018

"Julian Is A Mermaid" by Jessica Love, published in 2018 to high acclaim, The Sunday Times calling it “celebratory and ground-breaking”, is the story of a little boy who is mesmerized by the sight of three women in flamboyant dresses he sees while travelling on the subway with his Nana. He leads us, unashamedly, on a journey towards love and acceptance. Who wouldn’t want this freedom of expression for children?

Interior illustration from Julian Is A Mermaid - Jessica Love 

Whilst these four books don’t explicitly speak about same-sex relationships, gender stereotypes or being LGBT, the themes of feeling different, the need for acceptance and the exploration of self-identity can be appreciated without them being preachy. 

This is what Tom Percival says about Perfectly Norman :
the wings are symbolic—of freedom—once you allow yourself to be open and honest about who you really are, you can fly free.”

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson & Peter Parnell illustrated by Henry Cole  - Simon & Schuster 2007

 And then there is the popular, and at the same time controversially unpopular, “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson & Peter Parnell and illustrated by Henry Cole.
“And Tango Makes Three” tells the story of two male penguins, Roy and Silo, who create a family together, based on the true story of two male penguins that hatched an egg in the New York City Zoo.

Roy and Silo's adopted egg hatches - from And Tango Makes Three - illustrated by Henry Cole

The story explores the universal way families form around love and shows that some families who can't have children of their own adopt, in this case with the help of the zookeeper, Mr. Gramsay, who gives them an extra egg from another penguin couple at the zoo.
“And Tango Makes Three” has been at the centre of many censorship debates on same-sex marriage, adoption, and homosexuality in animals and periodically banned in public libraries in certain states in America. In Singapore, the National Library Board were persuaded to file the book in the adult section.  
At the same time “And Tango Makes Three” has been used in schools as a teaching aid and has won multiple awards, including being on The American Library Association’s Notable Children's Book list in 2006.

Undoubtedly, picture books can be powerful starting points for provoking thought, leading to empathy or letting the reader know that “It’s ok to be me”. 

I know I would have enjoyed and valued the story of "Julian Is A Mermaid" when I was six and I certainly would have benefitted from the frankness of Juno Dawson’s "This Book Is Gay" as a young adult. 

Illustration by Spike Gerrell from This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson

For me, these books give hope, especially in a time when the world is struggling to tackle discrimination and hatred in all its myriad forms. We need to be able to give our children a moment where they can feel confident and safe to explore the people they feel themselves to be, whatever that might be, whoever and whatever they grow up to be, even if it is to be a mermaid.

Garry is proud to have recently been asked to illustrate a picture book with an 
It’s ok to be you” theme and which was the prompt for this post.

follow -  @icandrawdinos - Twitter & Instagram

* LGBT - lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

Monday 11 March 2019

Fun with words!- a picture book word search - Lucy Rowland

I recently went on a vocabulary teaching course, where the presenters talked about the importance of playing word games and having 'fun with words'. Whilst the course was really about strategies to teach vocabulary to children, it made me think that, as adults, we still really enjoy word games.  'Taboo', 'Articulate', 'Scrabble' and 'Balderdash' are all firm family favourites in our house at Christmas.   So, just for fun, I decided 
to create a  word search filled with (you guessed it) picture book titles! 

Can you find the 11 picture book titles listed below the puzzle? Good luck! (It took me quite a while! )


Lucy's next picture book, illustrated by the fantastic Paula Metcalf, will be published on 4th April.
You won't find it in the word search but keep an eye out for on the shelves! 

Monday 4 March 2019

Q & A with Steven Salerno: The Process of Illustrating Creative Non-Fiction Picture Books

When my editor, Ann Rider, first suggested Steven Salerno to illustrate THE CRAYON MAN: THE TRUE STORY OF THE INVENTION OF CRAYOLA CRAYONS, I was fascinated to read some of his blog posts about the making of his books. I asked him about the similarities and differences between illustrating non-fiction and fiction picture books:

When an editor first approached you about doing your first non-fiction picture book project, what were your thoughts about taking it on? 

I started illustrating picture books in 2000, and by 2011 had already illustrated 17 popular fiction picture books, and with all of them in a decidedly whimsical style. So in 2011 when an editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt asked me to illustrate Brothers at Bat (a non-fiction true story about 12 brothers who formed their own professional baseball team and played from the late 1930’s until the early 1950’s) my initial reaction was that of surprise . . . simply because up until that point none of my fiction picture books stylistically suggested that I was the perfect choice to illustrate a non-fiction story that logically would be best illustrated in a more realistic style in order to capture the look and feel of the 1930’s through the 1950’s.
Brothers At Bat by Audrey Venick & Steven Salerno
I myself knew that I could indeed create wonderful, appropriate illustrations for the story, because drawing in a more realistic manner is not a difficulty at all, but I was curious why the editor took that stylistic leap of faith in me!

How is it different illustrating fiction vs non-fiction? 

A really significant difference is in the research phase . . . For example: In one of the fiction picture book stories I illustrated, BOOM! – about a dog named Rosie who is afraid of thunder, and his owner who comforts her – it happens to mention a firetruck and an orangutan . . .  So my research for that book merely involved looking at maybe 50 potential reference photos and narrowing them down to the 2 or 3 photos that I actually used as specific reference. Every other visual element created within the illustrations for BOOM! was drawn out of my imagination without any need for reference whatsoever. And all of the other fiction picture books I’ve illustrated also required extremely minimal reference photo research

At the opposite end of the research spectrum is the amount of research that goes into a non-fiction, historical picture book story. For the seven non-fiction picture book stories that I have illustrated thus far, on average, I probably scour through about 3,000 potential historic/period reference photos in order to narrow them down to the 100 to 150 photos that I actually end up using as specific reference to create the sketches and final illustrations for the non-fiction picture book. 

Steven Salerno's desk whilst working on The Fantastic Ferris Wheel
by Betsy Harvey Kraft. Note the reference photographs!

Another significant difference is TIME! – a lot more time! – because of the added time involved with the research phase, and also the significant additional time it takes to create the sketches and final illustrations, which all must reflect real people and places, correct fashions and other objects that are correctly rendered to reflect a specific time period. This is a much slower process!

The net result is that creating the sketches and illustrations for a non-fiction picture book, on average, takes me about eight months total, whereas the fiction picture books that I have illustrated, on average, take me about five and a half months in total. 

You start each picture book project – fiction OR non-fiction – by reading the story many times and then doodling ideas in the margin of the manuscript. Can you elaborate a bit more about this process and its importance in capturing the story
and its voice?

Creating these very tiny, visual shorthand rough sketches directly into the margins as I read the story is simply so that I can immediately begin formulating a record of my initial instinctive vision for the illustrations nearly as fast as I generate the visual compositional concepts in my head.

How long did it take you to research reference for your new book THE CRAYON MAN: THE TRUE STORY OF THE INVENTION OF CRAYOLA CRAYONS by Natascha Biebow? 

It probably took about a month to sort through the roughy 3,000 potential reference photos and narrow them down to the 100 to 150 that ended up actually being used as specific reference to complete the sketches, refined sketches and final illustrations.

Where do you find your reference?

The author sometimes provides useful reference materials. In addition, some of the reference photos I located were in books, but the vast majority came from on-line searches. This yields many photos, but unfortunately most of them are too small in size, and also of very low pixel resolution, which will not allow them to be enlarged effectively. So, many times, you will find a pertinent photo on screen, but because of its size/resolution limitations, it is totally useless as photo reference that you can actually print out and physically use alongside your sketch and easily refer to. Therefore, online not only do you have to locate a pertinent reference photo, but it also must be of a certain size and resolution so that it can be physically printed out.

What do you do when you can’t find accurate visual reference for a particular element in the manuscript given that it’s meant to be a true story?

This happens a lot! For example, with The Crayon Man, the main character is Edwin Binney, who was, in the story's timeline, about 35 to 38 years old. But the only reference photos of the actual real person that I could find of him were when he was about 57 to 65 years old. So, to create the illustrations, I had to imagine what Edwin looked like at 35 - 38 years old based on the available photos of him.

In another example: when I created the illustrations I created for The Fantastic Ferris Wheel, the true story about the making of the first gigantic observation wheel (Ferris wheel) for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. I ran into the following problem: At that time the tallest building in America was only about 30 stories tall . . . and the Ferris wheel was about 27 stories tall . . . which meant that any reference photos I could locate of the Ferris wheel from 1893 were all from an angle looking UP at the wheel. 

But in my initial sketches I envisioned many scenes that were looking at an angle DOWN at the Ferris wheel. This meant that I had to understand how the wheel was constructed so that could devise angles looking down at the wheel in my drawings . . . which was not easy to do!

Can you give some examples of when you completely re-thought an illustration or composition as a result of something you discovered in your research or some feedback you received from the creative team?

Before I do any photo reference research myself, I create my initial rough sketches for the book based solely on the events and actions as specifically described by the text, first in a very rough storyboard format. So once I have already determined my intended images for all the inside of the book illustrations via these rough storyboard images, I then do my reference research to specifically support the elements within the sketches. So I have never located a reference photo that completely changed my intentions for the illustrations. Once I complete all my refined final sketches and they are presented to the publisher (to the editor, art director and designer) they offer their comments and suggestions to improve upon the imagery relative to their communication of the story. Usually all of the sketches are essentially approved as is, with only relatively minor tweaks suggested to improve upon their clarity. But their very smart suggestions, though seemingly minor, really do help to make the illustrations truly be their best.

Let’s look at covers. What do you think makes for a dynamic and commercial cover? How do you make non-fiction relevant so it grabs contemporary readers? 

I always feel that any cover, whether for a fiction or non-fiction picture book should essentially be simple, regardless of whether the illustrator’s style is complex or minimalist or anywhere in-between. It should be an evocative, simple, poster-like image that only needs to reflect the core theme or mood of the story, even if in just a conceptually suggestive manner. 
The basic goal should be to create a visually teasing gem that has the viewer wanting to open the book and look inside . . . What a cover does not have to be, nor should be, is a complex/busy visual scene or concept that overly explains the inside of the book.

In my opinion it's ultimately always a much more effective marketing tactic in terms of sales for the cover to just be very simple and striking rather than get caught up in trying to have too many explanatory elements.   

What is your top tip for illustrators who are considering trying their hand at non-fiction picture book illustration? 

When I illustrate a non-fiction picture book, I personally take the visual stylistic approach of creating the illustrations in a more realistic manner compared to the more stylized whimsical approach I take with the many fiction picture books I have illustrated. But this does not mean that a non-fiction story MUST be illustrated in a realistic manner. A non-fiction story can be wonderfully illustrated in any manner of illustrative style . . . so the only tip I can offer is simply ensure the illustrations capture the spirit of the real people and events described in the story.

Edwin Binney's inspirational story, THE CRAYON MAN: THE TRUE STORY OF THE INVENTION OF CRAYOLA CRAYONS, will be published in March 2019.

View the trailer!

Steven Salerno’s favourite crayon colour is ALL OF THEM, because sometimes each one is the perfect choice. He lives in New York City and creates illustrations for books, magazines, newspapers, advertising, posters, and product packaging. So far he’s illustrated 30 picture books, with five of the titles as both the author & the illustrator. Find him at

atascha Biebow's favourite crayon colour is periwinkle blue, because it makes her heart sing. Author, editor, coach and mentor, find her at and