Illustrating Your Picture Book

I studied creative writing at the University of Arkansas, but I didn’t study art; so when I wrote my first picture book, I assumed someone else would illustrate it. That changed when I learned that if a publisher matched me with one of their illustrators, I would have no input with respect to the art. In fact, I would not see the art until the book was finished, and if I didn’t like the art, too bad. So I decided to illustrate my books myself. After all, I had a vision of what the book should look like, so why not try to do it myself? Was I a professional illustrator? No, but over the years I’ve learned a few tricks that help me create art that looks polished and professional. All it takes is research, practice, and maybe a little innovation.

Step One: Research

I research everything I want to draw. If you count each type of coral in Sea Horse, run! as a separate animal, I researched about 40 different animals for that book including sea horses. For Sea Horse, run! I also went to aquariums and used my flip video camera to capture live action footage in the various exhibits. I studied the videos at home, and when I found a helpful angle or ‘shot’, I took still images from the videos and printed them as examples of what I wanted to draw.

Step Two: Practice

I study photos of the real animals and practice drawing my sketches. Sometimes I draw and redraw my characters as many as forty or fifty times. I struggled so much drawing the pictures for my third picture book (Polliwog, 2004) that I decided to take some art lessons before I tackled Sea Horse, run!. I wanted to use more watercolor in my sea horse book, so I found an artist that specialized in watercolor and took private lessons. I believe those art lessons made a big difference when it came time to illustrate Sea Horse, run!.

Step Three: Innovation

Even after much research and practice, you may find that your paintings or drawings are simply not meeting your expectations. Don’t despair! Be innovative. There is more than one way to illustrate a children’s picture book.

If you want to illustrate your books yourself, I strongly recommend that you study the art in published children’s books. Find a style of art that you are drawn to or a style you could easily replicate. Experiment with other media like photography, three-dimensional art, or collage.

Photographic Art (Books by Carl Sams and Jean Stoick) You don’t even need to draw or paint your pictures if you are a photographer or know someone that is. The art in Stranger in the Woods– A Photographic Fantasy published in 2000 by Carl Sams and Jean Stoick was so innovative that it won several awards including the Benjamen Franklin Award for best children’s picture book. By the way, this book was independently published.

Three-Dimensional Art  Another great example would be the art in Lauren Child’s version of The Princess and the Pea. Lauren built a miniature, three-dimensional world out of cornflake boxes, dollhouse furniture, and paper dolls dressed in many layers of paper. Lauren used a professional photographer (Polly Borland) to take pictures of her miniature ‘sets.’

Collage  Art that is simply cut and paste using various media (art, cloth, photos) can be very effective and fun. Here are some great examples:

Books by Steve Jenkins including Down, Down, Down; Actual Size, and What Do You Do With a Tail Like This?

Falling for Rapunzel and Waking Beauty by Leah Wilcox, Illustrated by Lydia Monks

Secret Seahorse by Stella Blackstone and Clare Beaton

Your collage can also be digital. Tim Hopgood is a great example. I draw or paint my pictures by hand and like Tim Hopgood, I assemble the final art in the computer as a digital collage.

I use Photoshop to create my digital collages, but it took me several years of trial and error to learn the basics. If you want to use Photoshop, find someone that is already an expert to help you get started. Also, you can find step-by-step videos on the web that will teach you Photoshop basics. It is an expensive computer program, so another alternative is to find free applications on-line that work like Photoshop. I googled “free applications like photoshop” and came up with these recommendations:

In Summary:

If you want to draw the pictures for your children’s story, but you are not a “professional” artist, don’t despair! If I can do it, anyone can. Just be mindful that it may take a lot of effort to establish your style as an artist.

STUDY art in other children’s books. Make a list of your favorite artists. Research how they create their pictures.

RESEARCH what you want to draw. If you need to draw a picture of a yeti (abominable snowman) in the Himalayas, check out books from the library about the Himalayas. Study the landscapes. Research the yeti. Find pictures other artists have made of a yeti. Remember that you can’t copy exactly what someone else has drawn because their art is copyrighted, but by studying other versions of the picture you are working on, you will find inspiration for your own, original art.

PRACTICE. Don’t be afraid to draw and redraw your art. After all, the story is rewritten over and over again. When you’re writing, you may change the plot, add or remove characters, or revise the setting. The same is true for your art. You may start out drawing one thing then decide to draw something completely different. You can change the characters or backgrounds. You might even decide to change your style from watercolor to mixed-media collage. There is no right or wrong. The more you practice and work on your pictures, the closer you will come to your final draft. Creating art is not so different from writing stories. The first draft is inevitably sloppy. Keep at it!

Innovate. Experiment with other media.

The biggest hurdle to transforming yourself into a ‘professional’ artist is finding the time and the passion to stick with it. It won’t happen overnight. You have to be patient and persevere, but the same can be said for writing your story, too.

In the late nineties early ought’s, it was hard to find a publisher if you were both writer and illustrator. That is not necessarily the case anymore. In the past few years I have heard several agents and editors comment that they are actively seeking people that can do both writing and illustration.

Your next obstacle will be publishing. Visit my Publishing 101 page for tips.

My Visit to Saint Patrick School, October 5, 2011

Tammy and Michelle Branco, Librarian at St. Patrick School

Saint Patrick Catholic School in Wentzville, Missouri has been educating students for more than ninety years. Established in 1908, the campus serves about 450 students ranging from Kindergarten through 8th grade. I am very grateful to the school for giving me the opportunity to speak with their students yesterday about the writing, illustrating and publishing process. The librarian, Michelle Branco, did a wonderful job preparing all the students for my visit. Even the upper grades (6th-8th) were familiar with my picture books, and I was pleased to learn that the older students enjoyed them as much as the younger.

K-2nd 8:30 AM – 9:00 AM

3rd – 5th 9:00 AM – 9:45 AM

6th-8th 9:45 AM – 10:30 AM

I rarely have the opportunity to speak with middle school students (6th-8th grades), but since they are old enough to write and publish a book themselves, I take them through the publication process, step by step. Saint Patrick School does NOT use e-books, but many of the students own Kindles, Nooks, or even iPads. I emphasized with older students (6th-8th) that although it is easier and faster than ever to publish a book, the amount of work that goes into creating the story is still the same. Traditional publishers might spend a year or more formating, publishing, and preparing physical books for the bookstore, whereas an e-book can be published and sold directly to customers within a matter of hours!  To further illustrate, consider that in 2010 over 300,000 physical books were published by traditional means, whereas independently produced books (small presses, e-books) numbered over 2.7 million in the same year ( Competition is fiercer than ever, so writers and artists who want to excel need to master the fundamentals:

Step 1) You have to be as familiar with your genre as your readers. Your audience will compare your book to others like it, so READ, READ, READ!!! Make sure your book measures up. If your book is not as good or better than the other books like it, you’ll have a hard time finding an audience.

Step 2) Do your research.


Step 4) Test your book on your audience before you publish. If your feedback is not stellar, revise again!

The time it takes to produce a quality book your audience will love AND recommend will stay the same, regardless of how the book is published (a year or more with a traditional publisher or published within minutes as an e-book). In other words, you still have to read, research, and rewrite (or redraw) to produce a book. It is a time-consuming process that may take months or even years to accomplish, but if your audience approves of the final product, it is worth all the effort. When it comes to writing or art, dedication and perseverance will never go out of style!

2011-2012 Book Awards

Was your book published in 2011? Do you want to enter your book for awards? Some deadlines have passed, but several awards are still accepting submissions. Here are three lists that I created of awards for children’s picture books. I rank the awards as “Best”, “Recommended”, or “Expensive”. Keep in mind these lists are not meant to be comprehensive. There are hundreds of awards out there!

(Organized chronologically by the deadline due date for a book with a 2011 copyright.)

Year Name Deadline Winners Announced Minimum Cost
2012 IRA Teacher’s Choices List/Awards 7/22/11 4/29/12 FREE
2011 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards 9/17/11 10/17/11 $95
2012 Benjamin Franklin Awards 9/30/2011 or 12/31/11 4/1/12 $90
2012 Reader Views Annual Literary Awards 10/31/11 3/25/12 $75
2012 Wanda Gág Read Aloud Book Award 12/16/11 5/1/12 FREE
2012 Theodor Seuss Geisel Award 12/31/11 1/15/12 FREE
2012 Caldecott 12/31/11 1/15/12 FREE
2012 Notable Children’s Books 12/31/11 1/15/12 FREE
2012 Gryphon Award 12/31/11 2/1/12 FREE
2012 Golden Kite Award (SCBWI) 12/31/11 8/1/12 FREE
2011 ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards 1/13/12 5/1/12 $99
2012 Indie Book Awards 2/24/12 5/1/12 $75
2012 Giverny Book Award 3/1/12 4/1/12 FREE
2012 Boston-Globe Horn Book Award 5/15/12 6/1/12 FREE

Click on the award above to visit its page or learn more about each award on my upcoming blog post entitled: FOURTEEN PICTURE BOOK AWARDS.

(Organized chronologically by the deadline due date for a book with a 2011 copyright.)

Year Name Deadline Winners Announced Minimum Cost
2012 Children’s Choices Reading List/Award 7/22/11 4/1/12 CBC member ship
2011 Parent’s Choice Awards 8/22/11 11/17/11 $100
2011 USA Best Books Awards 9/30/11 10/31/11 $69
2012 Nautilus Awards 1/15/12 6/1/12 $155
2012 IPPY Award 3/15/12 5/1/12 $75

Click on the award above to visit its page or learn more about each award on my upcoming blog post entitled: FIVE PICTURE BOOK AWARDS YOU MAY NOT RECOGNIZE.

The minimum cost is per title per category. Late entries for the Learning Magazine Awards can cost $225/category. 

Year Name Deadline Winners Announced Minimum Cost
2012 Learning Magazine Teacher’s Choice Awards for the Family 7/22/11 12/2/11 $195
2013 Learning Magazine Teacher’s Choice Awards for Classroom ? ? $195
2013 Learning Magazine Teacher’s Choice Awards for Children ? ? $195
2012 Mom’s Choice Awards  Varies  Varies $300
2012 Children’s Choices Reading List/Award 7/22/11 4/1/12 CBC member ship

Learn more about these awards on my upcoming blog post entitled: THE HIGH COST OF ENTERING or AWARDS FOR THE BOTTOMLESS BUDGET.

Most states also give awards for picture books. In order to be considered for a state award, your book must be assigned to the state reading list. Cynthia Leitich Smith compiled a great list of State Awards for Children’s and YA Books.

State Book Awards are also listed at:

Here is great blog post about evaluating the benefits of literary awards. This post has some great advice. I highly recommend reading it before entering your unpublished (or published) work into a contest:

Do you know of an award not listed on this page? Let me know via email: authorvisits @

2011 Fall Retreat

If you want to write for children, The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is a great organization to join. Although it is an international organization with annual meetings in New York City (January) and Los Angeles (August), your membership entitles you to participate in conferences and/or retreats happening in any state or region around the world. Attending a conference or retreat will give you the opportunity to fine tune your manuscript by getting feedback from an editor or literary agent. You will also learn what types of manuscripts editors or literary agents want to publish.

St. Scholastica Monastery

The Arkansas SCBWI writer’s retreat occurs every fall, and in recent years writers from across the state have converged on the Saint Scholastica Retreat Center in Fort Smith for three days of intensive work on their writing. The retreat center, sponsored by the Benedictine Sisters, shares a 66 acre wooded area with Saint Scholastica Monastery, and the secluded setting is the perfect spot for contemplation and inspiration. I attended in 2009 and 2010, and during both retreats I made great progress with the revisions for my novel.

Sadly, I will be out of the state during the conference this year, but you may be able to attend! If you submit pages from your manuscript by October 1st, you will receive feedback from the editor at the retreat. The 15th annual Arkansas SCBWI Fall Retreat for Writers of Children’s Literature (November 4th-6th, 2011) will feature hands-on workshops led by Stacy Cantor Abrams, editor at Walker Books for Young Readers, and guidance on craft issues by Anna Myers, an Oklahoma author of nineteen novels for middle-grade and young adults.

You must be an SCBWI member to attend. Registration is usually by invitation only, and reservations are on a first come, first served basis. Email the Retreat Director (retreat @ if you are interested in joining SCBWI and attending the retreat.


SCBWI Membership: First year is $85. Annual renewal fee is $70. Join SCBWI

Arkansas Fall Retreat: $280 (Includes meals, snacks, all sessions, and private rooms with a shared bath.)

For more information, visit these websites:

Arkansas SCBWI

Arkansas SCBWI Retreat Page


Anna Myers Main Website

Books Published by Bloomsbury Kids

Dawn Denton, Arkansas Writer and Gardener

Yesterday I autographed copies of my new book, “Sea Horse, run!”, at Nightbird Books on Dickson Street in Fayetteville. Nightbird is an independent bookseller that supports and encourages Indie authors. Of course the greatest benefit of a book signing is that it allows the author to make a personal connection with readers, but yesterday’s event was a special treat because it allowed me to meet another local children’s book author, Dawn Denton. Her first book, Ruby and Rocket, came out last year, and her latest book, Oliver the Toad, was just published last month.

One thing Dawn and I have in common is that we both like to use our books to educate children. I put factual information at the end of my books after the story, but Dawn weaves her amazing facts into the stories themselves. Dawn is a certified Arkansas Master Gardener, so both Ruby and Rocket and Oliver the Toad were inspired by her extensive knowledge of gardens and the beneficial animals and insects that live in them. Dawn lives in Siloam Springs, and her books are perfect for children ages 4 to 9!

Thank you, Nightbird Books, for supporting local authors and artists!


For more information about Dawn Denton…

Read this announcement from Bella Vista Garden Club:

Visit Dawn’s Personal website:

“Like” Dawn on Facebook:

Dawn’s Publisher:

Dawn’s Books on
Ruby and Rocket
Oliver the Toad

Email Dawn…

Gardens and fresh produce are a big deal in Northwest Arkansas. Here are a few must see destinations for Garden lovers…

Botanical Gardens of the Ozarks

Fayetteville Farmer’s Market

And we can’t forget Northwest Arkansas’ famous organic food co-op:
Ozark Natural Foods

Readers Make Books Real

THE TELEGRAPH reported yesterday that Penelope Lively, the Booker Prize-winning author of MOON TIGER, said e-books are for “bloodless nerds” and are no substitute for real books. Responses to Ms. Lively’s statements vary. Sarah Crown, a blogger at the, agrees with Ms. Lively (Read Sarah’s Post), but someone needs to speak on behalf of the “bloodless nerds.” I guess that will be me!

I believe Ms. Lively needs to expand her definition of a ‘real book.’ What makes a book ‘REAL?’ My definition of REAL comes from an old picture book entitled, THE VELVETEEN RABBIT:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” 

The Velveteen Rabbit

Image via Wikipedia

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit…

The way a book is made does not determine whether or not the book is REAL. An agent, editor or publishing house does not make a book REAL. Distributors, wholesalers, and bookstores do not make a book REAL. The paper the book is printed on does not make a book REAL. What is a REAL book? A book becomes REAL when it is loved very, very much by a reader. If that is the case, it doesn’t matter how a book comes into the world. If a reader loves it, the book is REAL.

Take care, Ms. Lively. Those “bloodless nerds” will determine the future of your books. If you insult your readers, they might just decide that your books are not REAL after all.

Further Reading:

THE VELVETEEN RABBIT by Margery Williams
(Please note: Both the e-books and print versions are REAL;)