Every book starts with an idea. Usually the idea is really a question. It might be a question that a child asks, or something that I'm curious about myself.
The presentation at right shows some of the steps involved in turning an idea into a book.
There is also a short (2.5 minute) video about how the book Move! was made.
This is my daughter Page at the age of two. Around this time she and I were on an airplane . . .
. . . and she asked about the tiny houses and cars. I realized that she actually thought they were small. This gave me an idea for a book about looking at the world from above.
It's called Looking Down, and it's a journey, without words, from space to a child's backyard.
My son Alec, three in this photo, was especially fascinated by superlatives. If we were talking about animals, he invariably wanted to know which animal was biggest, smallest, fastest, or strongest.
His questions led to a book called Biggest, Strongest, Fastest.
My youngest child, Jamie, is five in this photo. He is a budding naturalist, with an interest in anything that relates to animals, astronomy, or geology. When Robin Page (my wife and co-author) and I began working on a book about animal locomotion, called Move!, we had Jamie in mind as our ideal audience.
Every book begins with pages — often many pages — of notes and rough sketches. It is during this part of the process that lists of possible subjects are made and modified, and we begin to explore the relationship between images and text on the book's pages.
These quick, rough notes make it easy to consider lots of different approaches. At this stage, it's also relatively painless to throw out ideas that don't seem to be working.
What's called a "thumbnail" layout of the book is next. Move! is a 32-page book. We figure out what information will be included, and in what order.
Here's another thumbnail layout — dozens of these are done for each book.
At this point the art and text are proceeding along two parallel tracks. Here are tracings, from books and images downloaded from the Internet, of a few of the animals we considered for the book.
Using these tracings, we begin to design each two-page spread more precisely. These layouts will be trimmed, folded, and glued together.
This rough version of the book is called a dummy. Creating a dummy book lets us experience the art and text in the same way that the printed book will be read. For Move! we made about a dozen different dummies.
As sketches of the art and dummy books are being created, we are also working on the text of the book. I always begin writing in a notebook, rather than on the computer. I find writing on the computer, at least at the beginning, makes the text seem more finished and polished than it really is: I become concerned with style and vocabulary before I've really figured out what I'm trying to say.
Eventually the notes are formalized and a manuscript is written and submitted. This copy shows our editor's comments. The editor is an important part of the process. I've worked primarily with the same editor — Margaret Raymo at Houghton Mifflin — for many years, and her questions and suggestions often make a critical difference in the form a book ultimately takes.
Now it's time to begin creating the actual illustrations. Finding the right reference is important, and this step often takes more time than making the illustration itself. I use images from the Internet, sketches and photos that I make in zoos, aquariums and museums, and, especially, books.
I like to have many different images of whatever I'm illustrating. This gives me more choices when I compose my own picture.
Choosing the paper that I will use for the illustration is next. Here are two of the papers I chose for the blue whale. The top sheet includes scraps of recycled newspaper and magazines, all dyed blue. The bottom sheet, which reminds me of the grooves on the belly of the whale, is a print made from a plank of wood. Both papers come from Japan. It's important to know what papers I'll be using before I create a final sketch of the art.
I don't trace reference for my final illustration. For one thing, it's often impossible to find just the right view of a subject. More importantly, the distortions and inaccuracies that creep in when something is drawn freehand give the illustration a kind of personality and energy that tracings seem to lack. Finally, it's important to remember that an exact copy of most printed images would be considered copyright infringement.
The final pencil sketch will become my guide for cutting out the pieces of paper that I'll collage to make the illustration. Each line of the sketch represents the edge of a piece of paper. Here's a detail of the blue whale's eye . . .
. . . and the same part of the actual illustration. Each layer of paper is adhered to the piece below with a thin adhesive film.
Here's the final blue whale illustration for Move! It's the same size as the image in the printed book.