book for aspiring children's writers seems to include the
line “don't illustrate your book unless you're a professional
artist.” But what if you are an experienced, talented
artist as well as an aspiring writer? There isn't much help
on the bookshelves. Some books mention that after you've written
your picture book manuscript, you should make a dummy
book to submit to publishers; they rarely give tips on how
to make a professional-looking dummy, though, and it's hard
to find advice about what to avoid or what to be sure to do.
I tormented the teacher of the first children's illustration
class I took, asking questions she couldn't always answer!
This article is an attempt to fill
in the gaps. There are almost as many ways to make dummies
as there are people who make them, but I have asked a number
of author/artists, editors and agents what they prefer to
see. Most of the advice in this article is meant for unpublished
The books are right about one thing, though.
It's best not to write and illustrate your own book
unless you are both an experienced artist and a competent
writer. If you feel confident about both parts of the process,
A dummy is a rough mock-up of your book,
meant to show an editor the pace of your story, what images
you plan to illustrate and your ideas for the design of
the book. Will you have text on the left-hand page and
illustrations on the right? Are you planning double-spreads
illustrations on every page? Will the text be in boxes
or will it float on the image? Will the artwork have borders
or be full-bleed?
As both the writer and the illustrator,
you will need to write, revise and polish your story, decide
on page breaks and text placement, plan and sketch the illustrations
and even decide where the dedication will go and whether you'll
have a title and half-title
Often, you will not choose the font
of the text or design the cover and title page; the art director
may design those, working with you and the editor. The editor
and art director will both work with you on the illustrations.
Many illustrators start with storyboards
and move on to small thumbnail
dummies. No one but you will ever see them so you can do what
works best for you. (Yellapalooza.com may post an article
at some point in the future about storyboards and thumbnails).
This article is primarily about the finished dummy that you
will submit to a publisher.
with Pictures explains in detail the structure of a picture
- The cover
and endpapers are usually not included in the page
- Page 1
is (usually) the title page; occasionally page
1 is a half-title page
- Page 2
usually lists the copyright information
- Page 3
is sometimes a half-title page, and sometimes
a dedication, occasionally it's the title page
Sometimes the story starts on page
3, but in the majority of cases the story starts on
page 4 or 5 and ends on page 31 or 32
- Although picture books can also be
24, 40 or 48 pages, it's probably best for the
beginner to stick with 32 pages, the length of the vast
majority of picture books on the shelves. It gives the
publisher one less thing to worry about, like marketing
an unusual-length book.
Picture books are printed on one big sheet of paper which is then cut into pieces; each piece of paper that goes into the book equals four pages, right and left, front and back. Four of these pieces of paper are sewn down the middle, creating a “signature,” which ends up being 16 pages in the finished book. So most picture books are made of two signatures. Look at the edge of a book and you’ll see what I’m talking about. (As ever, there are exceptions. But this is the general practice).
Making the dummy
After you have done storyboards and tiny
thumbnail dummies, make at least one rough dummy to work
out the structure of your book. Author/artist Katie
Hops?) often makes several rough dummies (and continues
to make more as she works with her editor). Experiment
with different text placements and do a lot of rough pencil
sketches of the illustrations. At this phase of the project
you'll probably be working on the story and pictures simultaneously.
When you're ready to do the final dummy
pages, make sure that the sketches show all the important
aspects of the illustrations. Julie
Strauss-Gabel, an editor at Dutton Children's
Books*, says that she wants to see fully-considered scenes
that show your skill as an artist, writer and visual storyteller.
She looks for finesse in visual storytelling as well as in
word choice. Agent Steven Malk
says it's helpful if the sketches for the dummy are
complete. Katie Davis recommends
that the sketches be the best they can be without being final
artwork. You don't need to show every last freckle and
eyelash though; don't worry about details for the dummy.
It's best to work in black and white, whatever your
preferred drawing medium. Color sketches may imply that you
have developed your illustrations to the point that you won't
want to make changes; remember that if you get a contract
you may need to change every single illustration as well as
revise the text.
(If you work only digitally, even your sketches are probably in color. An editor will probably understand this, but you might want to mention in your cover letter that the dummy consists of rough sketches and you’re open to making changes).
Make your dummy the same size and shape
as you hope the finished book will be. The editor and art
director will have input into the final size, in part because
of cost considerations, but the size and shape are part of
your vision. If you imagine that the page size will be close
to 8 ½” by 11” it can be convenient to
work at that size.
Although you can glue the text onto copies
of your sketches, I think it's best to make or print
copies of each page so nothing can fall off. If you're
comfortable using Quark or other design programs, you can
design the whole book on the computer. I get two-sided copies
of my final dummy pages done at a copy shop, on 70 or 80 lb.
paper, which is heavy enough that the printing doesn't
show through. It's fine to glue or tape one-sided copies
together for each page, if you wish.
You have a lot of leeway in making the cover
of your dummy. You can do a careful mock-up of a possible
cover, keeping in mind that the publisher will almost certainly
change it, or you can do a plain cover with the name of the
book and your contact information. Some people make very elaborate
covers and sew their dummies together but I don't think
it's really necessary.
are many different ways to put the dummy together. Any stationery
or art supply store sells portfolios or notebooks with clear
plastic pages (A). Some people slip each dummy page into one
of these, and cut out the extra pages with a mat knife. The
advantage of this kind of book is that it's easy to
make changes, although you are limited to an 8 ½”
by 11” vertical format. The binders can sometimes look
a bit cheap, and the whole book doesn't look very distinctive;
they usually have black plastic covers, and beware, because
these can get too warm in a car and warp in a most unattractive
can simply trim your pages to the desired size and glue or
double-stick tape them together if you haven't gotten
two-sided copies. Then staple the pages together (B). This
is fast and cheap way to make a dummy but leaves little sticky-out
staple parts ready to scratch editors and their desks. Be
sure to cover the staples with tape to avoid this!
make some sort of cover design and print it onto card stock.
I use a blank piece of card for a back cover, trim the two-sided
copies of the pages to the correct size and shape, and have
a copy shop bind the dummy together with Velobind©. It
costs about $2, looks neat and professional and it's
strong and durable.
In the cases of B and C, you'll want to
remember to leave a quarter-inch to half-inch "selvage"
on the correct side of each illustration, so that you don't
lose any of your picture when you staple or bind the dummy.
You should make several copies of your
dummy, so you can submit it to different places, and in case
of damage. I recommend making from five to ten copies at a
time; I made only three copies of my first dummy and came
to regret it when two of them were permanently lost!
Remember that your dummy may be read by
a first and second reader, go to a committee or even two committees
and be passed all around the offices of a publishing house.
It's important that it be sturdy enough not to fall
apart, and it's also nice if it's tough enough
that you can use it for subsequent submissions should it be
rejected the first time.
me!) says, "The one big thing to remember is to find
that fine line between being professional, and not going overboard.
If you go too far editors may get the impression that you
are not flexible. Professional means to keep your presentation
simple, classy and easy to handle (like no coffee stains,
no money tucked in the folds, and no fur wrapped covers, unless
it's a bunny book!). They like all levels of art, all different
kinds of art, you just have to find that special match."
Look at a lot of high-quality picture books,
and you will see that the illustrations have a number of
things in common.
The illustrations usually include close-ups,
middle-distance and distant views, and show a variety of scenes.
They may use unusual viewpoints, like birds-eye or “worms-eye”
views. The variety of the pictures helps keep the book interesting;
a story set in a single room might seem wonderful in a running
manuscript, but the illustrations could be monotonous!
As you're working on the sketches
for the dummy, be sure to leave room for your text. Cut the
text up and tack it on to each page of the rough dummy with
repositionable tape or adhesive. Then, as you work on the
sketches, you can move the text around until you find the
best place for it against the illustrations. If you have a
very busy full-page illustration, the text may be illegible
against the background. You can either have no text on that
page, or find a way to include an area of solid color or white,
against which the text will stand out.
The movement in the illustrations goes to
the right, pulling the reader toward the page turn. As Katie
Davis says, you can increase the drama by using the
page turns in your pacing. A page turn can be the punch-line
of a joke, or a big surprise.
Important parts of the illustration should
not be drawn too close to the gutter,
the valley between facing pages. Double-spread illustrations
that need to line up from one page to the other might not
align perfectly in the middle, so bear that in mind when you
think about the connection between left-hand and right-hand
pages. In a 32-page picture book, pages 16 and 17 are a single
sheet of paper with stitching down the middle, right in the
center of the book. This is a great place for a double spread;
it's the only place where nothing will get lost in the gutter. In a typical 32-page picture book, made up of two “signatures,” pages 8 – 9 and 24 – 25 will be a single sheet of paper with stitching down the center. These are great places for double spreads, because nothing can get lost in the gutter here.
The rhythm of the story needs to be spaced
out over the whole book; make sure that you don't have
some pages with a lot of text and some with very little unless
this is deliberately part of the plan of your book. (For instance,
Maurice Sendak's classic
the Wild Things Are has no text in the central Wild Rumpus
scene). The editor will work with you on determining page
breaks in the final book, but give this a lot of thought as
you plan your dummy.
Along with the dummy,
submit a running manuscript in standard format, and between
one and three highest-quality samples of the finished
artwork. Some houses request only one sample, but most
of the editors and agents I talked to said they'd like
to see two or three. Never submit any original art.
points out that even with all this material, a good cover
letter is still essential. He says that you should be able
to describe your project in a concise, interesting manner
and also give the agent/publisher the impression that you're
familiar with the market and that you know where your book
fits in. If you're submitting to an agent, include a
brief bio. It should be evident that a lot of time and thought
went into your submission; make your presentation as impressive
as possible to communicate the fact that you're reliable
Sometimes people bind the finished art
into their dummies but it's better to submit them separately
so that the editor can keep the art samples on file if she
likes them. Be sure to put complete contact information on
each art sample as well as on the dummy. Things can get lost
I have heard a lot of discussions among
writer/illustrators about whether to submit a dummy/ms/sample
package to an editor or to an art director. The consensus
among the Yellapalooza group is that it's best to submit
to editors, since they have the power to acquire books. Submitting
a dummy to an art director will show her that you know how
to put a story together and it may help you get work illustrating
someone else's story, but your book may not get passed
on to the editorial department. An editor may want to keep
your art samples on file if she likes them; mention in your
cover letter whether you're willing to have the art and manuscript
Different editors have different opinions
about receiving dummy packages from writer/illustrators. John
Rudolph, editor at G. P. Putnam's Sons*, prefers to
make his decisions based solely on the story. He doesn't want
to see a dummy or any art at all until he has accepted a manuscript.
On the other hand, Dianne Hess,
executive editor of Scholastic Press*, loves to get dummies
even when the author is not a trained artist. She likes to
see how the story will flow in the 32-page format.
Not all children's book agents represent
picture books, but most make an exception for writer/illustrators.
Many editors, too, are on the lookout for talented writer/illustrators.
Editor Julie Strauss-Gabel
says "I receive very few dummy/ms/illustration packages.
At the most, I get about one a month, but usually just one
every other month. Of these limited submissions, only a very
few might warrant serious enough consideration to be shown
to colleagues, etc.
"Unfortunately, one component--art
or text—is often not up to the level of the other. Usually
it is the art that is not of professional quality. I need
to see that the project succeeds on all levels. Is the art
of high quality, well executed, vivid, accomplished? Is the
story solid and original? Are the characters compelling? Is
there a particular finesse in the visual storytelling as well
as in the word choice?
"But I'd love to see more work from
author/illustrators. We're always looking for new author/illustrator
talent and, as stated above, get very little. Even if you're
still getting your footing as a writer, I'd love to see innovative,
visually-driven projects from highly-skilled illustrators.
"As I look at a project, I notice the
art first. I usually get a strong first impression of the
quality of the art and whether I think it could compete in
today's picture book market. Once I'm interested in the overall
style, I'll pay attention to the manuscript/story next and
then look to see if the author/illustrator brings visual sophistication
to the telling of the
story. Is there variation in the perspective? Are the characters
engaging? Is the craft of the illustrations of high quality?
Is there something extra in the illustrations that really
brings out the story? Is it a simple manuscript that's artfully
taken to the next level by the illustrations?"
In the case of houses that are open only
to queries, get their guidelines. If they don't mention picture
books written and illustrated by the same person, submit a
picture book query letter with one high-quality illustration
sample. The submission requirements vary from house to house,
so find out as much as you can prior to submission.
*Please check the submission guidelines
for any house before submitting.
As of August, 2003, Dutton Children's Books accepts only queries,
unsolicited submissions. G.P.Putnam's Sons accepts unsolicited
submissions for picture books. Scholastic Press accepts submissions
from agented or published authors with major publishers.
to Julie Strauss-Gabel, editor, Dutton Books for Young Readers;
Steven Malk, Writer's House; Dianne Hess, Executive Editor,
Scholastic Press; John Rudolph, editor, G. P. Putnam's Sons;
Lisa Kopelke and Katie Davis.