Monday 26 September 2022

Experimenting with New Formats: How We Made 'I Am A Book', by Stefanie Posavec and Miriam Quick

Pippa Goodhart: I'm delighted to welcome to very original thinking picture book creators to the Picture Book Den. Stefanie and Miriam's 'I Am A book. I am A Portal To The Universe' won The Royal Society's Young People's Book Prize. So I've asked these creators to explain how that book came about ...

I’m Stefanie Posavec, a designer and artist who works with data. Often I co-create data artworks with my longtime collaborator Miriam Quick, a data journalist. 


Within our shared practice, we explore unusual ways of communicating data, particularly those that are playful, multi sensory, and accessible to all ages, like creating a set of data necklaces you can touch and wear to learn more about air pollution (Air Transformed), or creating playful experiences to collect data from visitors in order to turn it into an artwork (National Maritime Museum). 


One of our latest projects is I am a book. I am a portal to the universe., published in 2020 by Particular Books (Penguin Random House). I come from a publishing background, both as a book designer and as an author (Dear Data and Observe, Collect, Draw!), but this was my and Miriam’s first book together. 



We came up with the book’s idea while brainstorming new ideas for collaboration in the summer of 2018. We knew we wanted to make a book using data, but were feeling weary of the standard data-driven, infographic book format, so we challenged ourselves to explore a different approach. 


After some brainstorming, we came up with our big book idea, asking ourselves: “What if we made a book where the book itself is the measuring device?”


We began to develop the general concept and brief:

      The book itself is a measuring device, where all the measurements are embodied in the dimensions of the book itself. 

      It’s a book for (almost) everyone, from children aged 8 and up to adults. Our goal was to write for the data-uninitiated or data-intimidated, people who wouldn’t normally pick up a book with ‘data’ or ‘science’ in the title. We wanted the book to be accessible enough for children, but entertaining enough for adults, with a bit of ‘bite’ and humour to it.

      No traditional charts or infographics were allowed in the book! We had an absolute ban on all of the trappings of a traditional info-book. 

      Finally, our golden rule, and biggest constraint: all the data should be represented on a 1:1 scale, printed on the page at actual size.

That’s a complex brief, so how did we make it happen? 

Once we secured a book deal, in order to develop the book we fixed its specifications – its dimensions, paper, number of pages and more – with Penguin Random House very early on, and they made blank dummy books to these specifications that we could then work with while we developed the content. 

With our dummies in hand we started by brainstorming all the ways of communicating data using its form,

carefully measuring and inspecting every component and interacting with it, bending the pages, wearing it as a hat while chatting to each other virtually … and we started to find the beginnings of ideas.


As every data fact needed to be represented on a 1:1 scale, we looked for interesting measurements around the same size as the book, so lengths between .1mm (the human-egg-sized dot on the end of the arrow on the left hand page below) and 20cm (the height and width of the book, and the diameter of the grey circle on the right, which represents one giant single-celled organism).



And we also explored how the reader’s interactions with the book could also communicate data: for example, in this spread the book invites you to hold it up to the sky, then tells you there are six sextillion stars behind the footprint of its two pages, when held at arms’ length.



Or in another spread you might be asked to slam the book shut as hard as you can to hear how noisy sunshine would actually sound (if space wasn’t a vacuum)…  this is not an e-book (and never will be)!




As for the narrative, we developed a more fleshed-out concept and narrative vision. We realised the book should speak directly to the reader in the first person and have a strong personality.


For example, on this spread, the book (rather pompously) declares itself to be ‘a portal to the universe’. It’s a universe that’s dynamic, constantly moving and changing, full of countless mysterious, elusive things flying through us or away from us.


Our goal was to make scientific ideas from this dynamic, mysterious universe accessible and approachable for readers of all ages. We tried to include concepts that weren’t common knowledge, but that anyone could grasp, with a few mind bending facts thrown in for good measure. 


An example can be seen in this spread, which is about the bizarre consequences of relativity. The book tells you that, if you stood it upright on a table, time would pass a tiny fraction of a second slower at the bottom of the page than the top because it is closer to the earth’s centre of gravity.



We also made sure that all of the book’s information was fully referenced by adding a section we called ‘the small print’ – a big appendix at the back of the book that explains all the background, calculations and assumptions behind each spread.


So after 2.5 years of hard work, did we actually succeed in making a book that went beyond the typical infographic book? We hope so because just recently, we won The Royal Society’s Young People’s Book Prize 2021, a prize that rewards excellent, accessible STEM books written for under-14s.


Best of all, while the shortlist was named by a panel of adult experts, the final decision was based on the voting of 11,500 young people aged 8-14, and this is why winning this book prize means more to us than any other award we’ve won.





The young people’s decision to vote us the winner is testament to the fact that people respond to these new not-your-standard-infographic-book approaches that we were working with, and that there is value in pushing past standard publishing formats and trying something new. 


What’s next for our shared publishing career? We are currently working on another project together that we hope will build on the success of our first book and also appeal to an all-ages audience, watch this space (and keep your fingers crossed for us)!




Monday 19 September 2022

How to Answer Curious Questions Kids Ask on School Visits • by Natascha Biebow


I do a fair number of virtual school visits, which are hugely enjoyable ways of connecting with teachers and librarians as well as children in many parts of the world. The highlight for everyone is usually the Q & A when the students get the opportunity to ask questions and get answers to whatever they're curious about.


Other authors and illustrators will be familiar with many of these questions, like:


- Where did you get your idea?

- Why did you become an author?

- How long did it take to make the book?

And even the more personal types of questions, like ‘How old are you? and ‘How much do you earn? Are you rich?’


This is a portrait of me doing a school visit by Angely

Every once in a while, a child will ask you something that gives you pause, perhaps something that you don’t know the obvious answer to and you find yourself umming . . .


Here are a couple that have made me stop and think:

“How many times did you mess up on the book?”


I love the idea that children think that you need to ‘mess up’ to make a book.


And indeed there is a lot of messing up!


In the first draft  . . .


And the umpteenth drafts . . .


One of the umpteenth drafts of my book.

And in the illustration roughs . . .


Steven Salerno's rough doodle for the first spread of The Crayon Man


And sometimes even in the artwork!

Messing up is part of figuring stuff out. Messing up is to be human and it’s how we make better books and learn for next time.


Messing up






But I’m not sure I can count how many times I messed up to answer that kid's question . . .

“Are you and the illustrator friends?”

Ooh, wouldn't it be great if you could just hop on the phone to your illustrator, and meet up for pancakes or pizza or something? We could share about our lives, what we are making and maybe find out we both like dogs or collecting cool rocks.



Then I’d tell the illustrator how amazing they are at interpreting the words I'd written.


And congratulate them on making visual magic between words and pictures.


And sometimes, if we were on the subject of the book we're making together, I wouldn’t be able to resist offering my two cents about this and that. 


We'd be friends in no time, I'm sure!


But, if you’ve ever made a picture book, you’ll know that the process is rather different. Usually, the editor and art directors are the ‘go-betweens’, the champions and project directors of the picture book. The author talks to the illustrator through them. Very rarely do they meet – at least until the book is out in the world.


This process allows SPACE for each of the author and illustrator to each create freely and unencumbered, and to carefully weigh up and consider feedback to make the best book possible.


So, authors have to trust that everyone on team publishing has the best interests of the book at heart and that every decision that is made is for the good of creating something amazing for children. Sometimes that is HARD.


I’ve made friends with many authors and illustrators with whom I collaborated with my editor’s hat on. We play together, we write letters (and emails) to each other, we share cookies and coffee and we talk about one of our favourite things – books.

THE CRAYON MAN illustrator Steven Salerno and I have collaborated and exchanged many emails. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet met in person. I’d like to be friends with my book’s illustrator because we share something very important in common – we’ve made a book together!



I didn't know what Steven Salerno looked like until
he shared this photo for a joint blog post on his process.

“Do you sell every book you write?”

This question can be read in two ways:


Do you sell every book that you write?


If we sold every book that was printed that would be super super!

No bookstore returns.

No books pulped.

No more sitting in the bookstore at a signing waiting for a single person - anyone - to come and talk to you and buy a copy – the books would just fly off the shelves and the tables and you'd get to sign them all until they were SOLD OUT!


Do you sell every book you write?


Oh my goodness, wouldn’t that be AMAZING? Can you image if you wrote a book and it sold right away and you didn’t have to wait for ages and ages and ages for it to find a good home with an editor?


But on the flip side, it’s actually quite good that everything I write doesn’t end up

on children’s bookshelves because fairly often it needs polishing and loving and cooking some more, and then re-jigsawing and sometimes even










Luckily we have time, kind and generous critique group partners and editors to help us realize THAT.


and . . .


“What happened to Harold?”


Harold C. Smith was Edwin Binney’s cousin, with whom he ran Binney & Smith, the company that made Crayola crayons. Harold was the salesman in the duo, while Edwin enjoyed experimenting and inventing.

Harold made friends all over the world on his travels selling products. He later turned to writing and philantrophy.

Edwin and Harold outside the factory (From
The Crayon Man, illustrations by Steven Salerno)


You can never be quite prepared to second-guess what children might ask.

To get out of a tight situation, you can either quickly Google it under the table or . . . 


. . .  if you’re brave enough, admit you don’t know and make it a game. :We should all look it up, shouldn’t we?!"

What curious questions have young readers asked YOU on your author visits? 



Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor

Natascha is the author of the award-winning The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, illustrated by Steven Salerno, winner of the Irma Black Award for Excellence in Children's Books, and selected as a best STEM Book 2020. Editor of numerous prize-winning books, she runs Blue Elephant Storyshaping, an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission, and is the Editorial Director for Five Quills. Find out about her new picture book webinar courses! She is Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. Find her at


Sunday 11 September 2022

Quick ways to make little books – with Mini Grey

                                                                              Above: 'Fight': screenprinted book by Katherina Manolessou

Sometimes what I want most to do is just cut and fold some paper into a little book. There’s something about being able to physically hold a book and turn the pages that is just not the same in a digital version. So sometimes it seems important to make a physical version of the story you’re attempting to make.

The book is an ancient technology, but actual paper may still be the most enduring way to save information and pass it on to future Earthlings.

It’s very satisfying to have made a physical little book. And you can show it to people.

And children can get huge satisfaction from making a book too.

So in this blog post, I wanted to share a few quick & easy ways that I use to make little books, and all of these ways of little-book-making are ways that children can make books too, so I also wanted to say a bit about children making books in schools.

Here we go!

LITTLE BOOK Number 1: Stuck Down Spreads

A picture book page always has a fold in the middle. For this type of little book, you can either:

Make yourself lots of little pages the same size with a fold in the middle and work onto them....


OR print yourself a storyboard to work onto, like this one...

Here's a storyboard that's been sketched into.

Here are cut and folded printed storyboard spreads  (the advantages of being able to print them is you can change the size of your pages).

  Then start sticking the first to the second, the second to the third, and so on, until you have a little book you can flip through.

Making teeny minibooks for the Last Wolf and the Greatest Show helped me look at the stories as a whole.

What’s good:

µBeing able to work small scale on a storyboard means you can work fast. µAssembling your pages means you can reorder them, can swap in and out pages that need improving, and play with your content. µYou can have any number of pages. µYou end up with a nice sturdy book. µPages don’t have to stay rectangular: here’s the dummy for the Bad Bunnies where I’ve cut into the pages to make them more magical. 

 You’ll probably want to give your book a cover, but don’t worry, we’ll look at covers later.

LITTLE BOOK No 2 : Zig-zag book

This is how I do it: The zig-zag book spread has an extra tab on the side, where it’s going to be stuck together, so you either need to fold yourself some pages with tabs, or use a storyboard format with tabs to print out your pages. Fold the centre fold and the tab fold for each spread. (The blank storyboard we saw earlier has gaps between spreads, so you can leave the right hand gap attached to make spreads with tabs)


Then start gluing – Pritt stick seems to be strong enough for this.

What’s good:

µAgain, you can play with the order and look at your content before assembling. µWhen your book is glued together you can flip through it like a normal book but also pull out your zigzag and see your story all at once – and that can be a nice way to display your book. µ Again, you can make your book as long or as short as you like.

Little Red Riding Hood by Caroline Whitehead. This zig zag is one folded piece of card with a slipcase cover.

Those two ways are the way I always make little book dummies, because they give you the flexibility to change your spread ideas easily. But there are other formats that can be fun to play with, or good for publishing little batches of handmade books – here are a couple:

The Folded origami book

This is a nice way to make a little book out of one folded piece of paper. What’s a nice possibility is, because the artwork is on only one side, it makes it easy to photocopy/scan the finished book and print and cut/fold a batch of books. 


What to do:  1. Fold your paper into 8 equal rectangles by folding in half 3 times. Open it out and fold all your folds the other way, so the folds are happy to be folded both ways. 2. With the paper landscape ay round, fold in half. Cut from the centre fold to half way. 3&4. Open out and fold in half lengthways, your cut bit should open out into a box shape. 5&6 Flateen the box shape by pushing the two outside pages together and press down your book. You should have 3 inside spreads and a front and back cover.

Because your pages are all doubled up, it's possible to cut into them to pull out pop-up shapes, like this.

The Pamphlet Book

You can use this format to make a blank book – but I don’t really like starting with a blank empty book and filling it up – I like starting with collecting my delicious ingredients and exciting content, and then building a book with it.

But the pamphlet book format is how books really get published, so if you like super-complicated page ordering, printing a pamphlet book could be for you!

Your paper will be folded into 8, and you’ll have 16 pages in all. (32 page picture books are made of 2 of these 16 page pamphlets) So first you’ll need to make your 16 pages of content at the right scale. THEN – pop your pages onto your big page framework so they are in this order and way up (see below). (That is the most mind-boggling and tricksy part of this whole process.)

NOW – fold. First fold into 8 equal rectangles, just like for the origami book. 

1. Now have the side with page 1 in front of you, with the 1 at the bottom right. 

2. Fold in half so you can still see page 1. 

3. Fold in half again, fold the top half down so you just see pages 1 and 16.

4. Fold in half again so you can only see page 1. 

NOW sew it together. Make an odd number of holes in the main fold that will be the spine. 

Start at the middle hole. For 3 holes: sew into the centre hole from the outside. Now running stitch to one of the outer holes. Push your needle though to the outside. Now form the outside, sew into your other outer hole (missing the centre hole) and push your needle through to the inside. Now, on the inside, sew into the centre hole, and push your needle through to the outside. You can tie your two thread ends around the centre long stitch, to hold it all together.  You can tie decoratively or cut neatly. Now trim your book (along the top and right hand side edges) so your pages are liberated and you can flip through your newly minted book.

For a cover – you can either make a separate cover and stick your book into it, gluing page 01 and page 16 down to the cover. Or add an extra page to your book before sewing – this can either be your endpaper, which then gets stuck to your cover – or it can be your actual cover, as in the book above.

And now, at long last, we come to


Now if you want to get super-crafty, there’s making a book-binding cover, with fabric and boards inside, but that’s more of an upholstery project and I tend to need something way quicker, so here’s how I make covers…

Cover 01: Super Simple Folded Cover

Use card, adjust your template to fit your book.

Then either: slip around the front and back pages of your inside book, or Stick your covers flaps down to firm it up, and stick page 01 and your last page into your cover.

Cover 02: Slightly Stronger Cover

I often make covers like this, but it’s a fiddlier template.

But that’s not all – you can have

Fun With Covers

Playing with your cover can mean your book can turn into a suitcase or a shop or a television…what about a house? A theatre? Books are the masters of disguise.

It's fun to just play with the different things you can do with a simple card cover.


Making Books with Children

Making a book – even a small short one – is a lot of work, and a long process. So it’s good to think small – for example making a short book for one poem could be a more do-able project than creating a complete picture book. The standard 32 page picture book format is way too much work! Work on a much smaller scale of number of pages.

I think it’s good to try working from a storyboard: you can use your storyboard sketches to make the actual pages. If you work at a small scale it is easy to change a page, to swap in an alternative, and you have less invested. It’s good to see your spreads all at once in front of you. Sometimes just ordering your images is the way to create your story. If you work at a small scale you can realise your ideas FAST, and I find drawing small is liberating. Do tests! Collage in drawings you’ve made or pictures you’ve found: cutting & sticking and drawing are all activities where you start to generate more ideas, and the doing of them is productive but not daunting.

I particularly love cutting & sticking words – sometimes just sticking your words on your double page spread can help you invent how to tell that bit of your story.


And then there’s always the possibility – for a stall at the winter/summer fair: could your class become a publishing house?

These are two books made with my son Herbie when he was at primary school. Herbie made the contents and I helped him publish them - and he sold quite a few at the school winter sale.


Children making stories in school often is seen as a literacy/writing activity – and that the main outcome will be writing-based. For me, the practice of making stories involves visual story telling:  diagrams, sketches, visual brainstorms. But story-making drawings don’t have to be ‘good’ drawings – they’re just a way to collect ideas. (See my post on How To Not Draw Things for more about this...) I find being able to move my elements around and being able to start anywhere sets me free, which is why collecting images and words, and cutting and moving them about is so useful. I don’t have to start at the beginning and move linearly.

The homemade book is often the only existing copy in an edition of one, a special object to be kept forever. And if you’ve managed to transform paper into the magic doorway that is a book, you’ve made something precious indeed.

Mini’s latest book is The Greatest Show on Earth, published by Puffin.