Illustration Lesson Week One: Character

Hello! I'm so glad you’re here and that I'll get to work with you for the next 3 weeks! I'm excited to share what I've learned in my thirty year obsession with children's books, so thank you and welcome to Illustrating Books for Children! I hope this course inspires you in creating your own children's books. I've put together a collection of books that I think are exceptional and are a good example of each week’s theme—I’ll include a book list at the end of the lesson. Post your progress in the Facebook group, and please give positive feed back to each other and I will as well! :) You're welcome to share your work on social media and you can tag it: #illustratingbooksforchildren. Please don't share the course content, however, I worked hard to put this together. Thank you!

You will have or already have your own way of working on your books. I will share the way I work on mine and you will discover what works for you. I often find that book projects can feel a bit chaotic as a variety ideas and images present themselves. Change of an idea or image inevitably affects the rest of the book, often leading to unexpected consequesnces.

This week includes:

• How I make a dummy or a working protype of the book.

• How the physical form of a book can tell a story.

• Examples of children's book characters and elements that help identify who they are.

• Your assignment

• Resources

 The Book Dummy

I like working with a book dummy because as you turn through the pages it's obvious what is working and what is not. My heart does a little dance when the book is working and throws little jabs at me when it's not. (Tip: read to the age appropriate audience for insight on what's working and what is not—it's amazing the clarity that comes to you when sitting with a 4 year old.) I keep reworking my book dummies until they're tight, feel fluent and don't "jab" at me as I read through them.

The real secret is to get the ideas out of your head and on paper right when they arrive. Record your ideas with more detail than you think you will need. You should have a place to put your ideas as soon as they come to you. Lately I have been using one of those storyboarding journals from Moleskine, but here are a few more options for capturing your ideas: (note: Click for download of pdfs and the dummy for the dummy making lesson.)

1) Picture book layout thumbnail page. 

2) 9 page pdf indicating spreads for a 32 page picture book.

3) How I make a dummy. 

4) I tape pages on the wall as a layout of the whole book and tape my sketches into place.

     •orange pages are: front and back cover 

     •white: endpapers 

     •green: the book starting page 1 and ending page 32





You can see by looking at books what the general children book sizes tend to be. You'll want to keep in mind how it will fit on a shelf (too small and it gets lost—too big and it doesn't fit) or how it fits in a child's hands. That said, if your idea calls for something unusual—then give it a try and follow your gut. 

A 32 page picture book is most common. It used to be that publishers didn’t stray much from this page count, but more and more there are picture books that exceed 100 pages. (note: Added or subtracted pages need to be in multiples of four.) Here are three examples of picture books with longer page counts that are in the market now.

48 pages

104 pages

112 pages

The Form of a Book Tells a Story

A horizontal format, a square format, or a vertical format each has it's own unique qualities. A horizontal format feels more at rest. It also re-enforces reading from left to right; it makes a linear journey. A square is playful where a vertical format can feel more formal, especially when paired with a formidable subject. Surprise and clever design delights the reader and encourages creative thinking. I want to share some books with you that use the actual form of the book as storytelling. These artists keep a broad view of what a children’s book is to create something new and exciting—pay attention to the narrative quality. Before you continue, take a piece of paper to jot down any fleeting ideas that come to you as you read this lesson.(note: Hover over the arrow on the right to scroll through images and activate the pop-up descriptions.)

You've just seen examples of books which make use of the following design to great effect. Can they also play a part in your storytelling?

  1. Shape of the Book

  2. Color

  3. Perspective or Point of View

  4. Pacing

  5. Cutouts, Folds or Flaps

  6. The Marking on the Page

  7. Scale

  8. Medium

Make notes of any ideas that come to mind.

One of my favorite examples of clever storytelling is The Potato King by Christoph Niemann. Niemann uses a photograph of a potato and potato prints to tell the story of how potatoes came to South America. It's remarkable how much Niemann conveys in a potato print. (note: Hover over the image for the description pop-ups at the bottom of the book.)

Choosing your Manuscript

I want the course to be flexible—So you have a few options as to what to work on...

• If you have a manuscript you are working on—work with that.

• You can choose something in public domain like a nursery rhyme. 

• Often images come first in book creation. You can do the assignments without a manuscript. Think of concepts or themes that you want to work with and see if story ideas come to as you illustrate. If you choose this option:

         • Write out a list of 5 themes, subjects, or concepts you want to work on.

         • Write 5 questions about each theme along with the answers if you know them.

         (This is a great exercise for coming up with new ideas.)


For example my theme might be "circus" and my question about the circus might be: Who is in the circus? And my answer might be: a list of each circus member and what is special about them. 


I'm keen to show you how broad the range of a characters can be in a children's book.  A dot can be a character, or a line or a leaf can be a character. Here are few unusual examples followed by more typical ones. (note: Again hover over the image to see a description of character elements and use the arrow to scroll through the images.)

So—what informs your characters?











SCALE (as in relation to other things) OR SIZE (as in size on the page)?

Finally, I'm including this retelling of the little red riding-hood story. Tone of the storytelling helps to define Little Red's character—I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. | Brooklyn, NY 

© 2018 by Kristen Balouch

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