Writing and Illustrating Picture Books

Post by Mariana

In this post I’ll give you an insight on how the authors and illustrators work “together” to create a picture book. I’ll be talking specifically about my experience with Santiago’s Dinosaurios. Please consider that the process might be different with other publishers.

When I signed up my contract with Albert Whitman & Co. in March 2021, I already knew that the illustrator the publisher was considering for the project was artist Udayana Lugo. My editor (Andrea Hall) had talked to me about it and shared Udayana’s portfolio wanting to know my thoughts. I was very excited with the possibility of having such a talented illustrator join the team. I fell in love with her work right away and I knew she was the perfect person to bring Santiago’s story to life, since she also connected with the manuscript and wanted to be part of the project.

May 18th, 2021

During the summer, I spent several weeks working with my editors (Andrea Hall and Nivair Gabriel) on the manuscript. It was a very positive and rewarding learning experience for me. I truly believe that by working together, the story became stronger. I was lucky to have two amazing editors supporting me in bringing this book to little readers. I’m very grateful that both believed in the story. As the manuscript moved to copyediting, my editor asked me about any ideas I had for the cover or what I would like to see on it. I really appreciated that the art team wanted to know what I thought and wanted. It meant a lot to me that they included me in the process. I remember I told them I was picturing Santiago being worried and hinting he loved dinosaurs plus a school setting.

It’s important to note that just as an author has an editor to work with for the text; the illustrator has an art team in the publishing house. My editor and Udayana’s art designer were in contact. However, I was never in direct communication with the illustrator. At first I thought that was unusual; but actually it’s a common policy in other publishing houses as well (I’ve learned that by talking to other debut PB authors in Las Musas group). The reason for this is that the publisher wants the illustrator to have freedom to create; to come up with their own ideas to add to the story without being “directed” by the authors. It’s true that in my manuscript I added some illustration notes in some pages; for example that Santiago’s lunch nuggets had a Stegosaurus shape or that one specific boy in a scene had to be Cam (who’d later become Santiago’s BFF). The objective of the illustration notes is to make the scene clearer for the illustrator; however, the more you can avoid them the better, because that allows the illustrator’s creativity to flourish and that’s when magic happens and leads to unexpected surprises that make the story better in ways you hadn’t imagined before.

Back to the timeline, it was mid-September when I received a surprise in my email. My editor (Nivair Gabriel) shared with me three black and white sketches for the book’s cover wanting to know my thoughts. I was over the moon as I got to meet Santiago and his friends for the first time. I wrote an email back with my comments regarding each of the options. One of them had considered my ideas, the other two had a totally different approach. Still, each of them had something I liked.

At the beginning of November I received and email with what turned out to be the final colored book cover (which by the way, wasn’t an image of the black and white sketches that I’d seen before). I remember I was at the grocery store when I opened the email and looked at the attachment. My kids and I were so excited. The cover was adorable!

In it you can see Santiago and his two friends. You get to see the dinosaurs (even in the texture of the title) and you can spot the cards with words in English and Spanish, which are key elements of this bilingual story. I just love the storytelling that goes on in this image, and the layer of diversity that the illustrator added herself, making the book even more inclusive.

By the beginning of December the whole interior black and white sketches were finished, and they pretty much are the same images that appear in the book right now. I was amazed by how fast the illustrator came up with the whole book! Again, I was delighted and thankful to be included in this process, and once more I was invited to provide my comments about the images. Remember the the black and white sketch that I had received as a cover with my idea of worried Santiago? It became the interior cover for the book!

On February 1st, 2022 I received the final colored version for the complete story. There were minor adjustments to be made, like changing the dinosaur that appeared in Santiago’s dinosaur book (Velociraptor) for one that kids would easily recognize (Brachiosaurus).

By mid-February we were finished. The book was done and the jacket had also been designed. Afterwards I just waited for the cover reveal to be made, in order to share the news and the design. The reveal was made in February 25th and was hosted by “We Need Diverse Books” blog. Then at the beginning of April, I received my Advance Reader Copies (ARC), which made my dream of “holding my book in my hands” come true.

As you can see, creating a picture book is a lot of work and it really takes a village. From my talented editors and wonderful illustrator, to the incredible art and marketing teams, I’m forever grateful.

I feel blessed and very lucky for having such an amazing team behind Santiago’s Dinosaurios story. I can’t wait for the moment this book gets to little readers. I wish they’ll love it as much as I do. 🦖

Mariana Ríos Ramírez is a Mexican picture book author living in South Carolina. She was a high school teacher and co-owned an online business before becoming a writer. Her debut book, Santiago’s Dinosaurios, will be published by Albert Whitman in October 2022. Her second book, Abuelita’s Gift, will be published by Knopf in Fall 2024. Besides writing, Mariana enjoys photography, traveling, Chai Lattes, and k-dramas.

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12 thoughts on “Writing and Illustrating Picture Books

  1. This is such a fascinating topic. I love learning more about the picture book process. And it sounds like you’ve had a wonderful collaboration process, Mariana 🙂


  2. The illustrations really are so cute and adorable. And to know this book would be out in a few months 🤩


  3. I love all the illustrations and the summary on the PM announcement 🥰 Also, I saw Santiago’s on the Us and our MCs post and that was the cutest thing ever. Congratulations Mariana!


    1. Thanks for reading and for leaving a comment, Lena. Happy to hear you like the book’s illustrations and Santiago’s “A ten but” post. I thought it was funny 😬


  4. I loved having a look into this process as an upcoming pb author! Great post and I can’t wait to read your book 💜


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