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An Idea

We live in a city, but I have several friends that are raising chickens in our neighborhood. It occurred to me that many kids — even those who’ve never set foot on a farm — might still find themselves spending time around chickens, perhaps in their own backyard or a neighbor’s. And, being kids, they’d naturally have lots of questions about these fascinating birds.

The book took shape in my mind one day when I saw my neighbor walking home with one of her chickens following, right at her heels.

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Note and Sketches

My books begin with notes and rough sketches. For A Chicken Followed Me Home! I compiled a list of questions and made little sketches. These quick notes and sketches make it easy to consider lots of different approaches. At this stage, it’s relatively painless to throw out ideas that don’t seem to be working.

 
 
 
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Thumbnails

Next is a “thumbnail” layout of the book, with simple sketches of each page in the book. Thumbnails help me quickly figure out what information I will include, and in what order.

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The Wacom Tablet

In the early stages of creating a book, I make many quick tracings of the creatures that I might include. I do this on a Wacom digital tablet. It uses a special pen that allows me to draw right over an image on my computer. These quick drawings let me explore many possible views of the animals, making it easier to design the book.

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Designing the Spreads

Using the tracings, I begin to lay out each two-page spread more precisely, including headlines, text, captions, and sketches. I’ll use these layouts to make a dummy.

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The Dummy Book

This rough version of the book is called a “dummy.” The pages are printed out, folded, trimmed, and glued together. A dummy lets me envision the rough art and text as it will appear in the printed book. For A Chicken Followed Me Home!, I make perhaps a half-dozen dummies, including a full-color version at the end of the process. This allows me — and my editor and art director — to see an almost–finished book and make revisions.

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Editing

Eventually, I formalize the text and submit a manuscript to my editor. This picture shows some of her comments on my manuscript. The editor’s questions and suggestions are an important part of the process. They help make the book better visually and verbally.

 
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Finding Reference

Now it’s time to create the actual illustrations. Finding the right reference is important. As I’ve worked on the project, I’ve collected images from books, the Internet, and photos I’ve taken. I like to have lots of different views of whatever I’m illustrating — this gives me more options when I compose my own picture.

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A Pencil Drawing

Guided by my reference images, I make a pencil sketch that serves as a guide for my illustration. With tracing paper overlaying my original sketch, I make several rounds of changes to get the composition and expression just right. The drawing becomes a combination of many of the reference images I’ve collected and many of my initial drawings. I make a final freehand drawing, which gives the illustration a kind of personality and energy that a tracing seems to lack.

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Choosing Papers

Choosing the paper that I’ll use for the illustration is the next step. These are three of the papers I used for my Rhode Island Red chicken. I scanned them and built the illustration on my computer. The top sheet became the chicken’s body, the second sheet its wings, and the third its tail feathers. I often manipulate the papers in Adobe Photoshop, shifting colors or changing the shape or size of the pattern to work for the part of the chicken I’m creating.

 

A Final Illustration

Here’s an sequence showing how my finished illustration for the spread titled "What kind of chicken is it?" took shape. It began with a line drawing made on the Wacom tablet. I selected individual areas inside the lines, then filled them with the pieces of paper that I chose for each part of the chicken.

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A Book on the Board

Here, on a large tackboard in my studio, are ink-jet prints of the book as it nears completion. I put up my work as it progresses, beginning with rough design, tracings, and placeholder text. This photo shows the almost-finished pages with actual copy and art in place.

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The Final Layout

Finally, the manuscript and the illustrations are complete. At this point, I bring my text and images into a computer layout program and refine each spread. Here you can see one of the completed spreads as it appears on my computer.

I deliver a final digital file containing all images and text, called a mechanical, to my publisher. This file will be checked over by the editor and art director, then sent to the printer. The printer makes “proofs” of every page. These proofs show exactly what each page will look like, and they give us a chance to check everything one last time before the book is printed and bound.

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A Book!

More than two years after starting work on
A Chicken Followed Me Home!, a bound copy arrives!

How many books have you made?

I’ve made 20 books — 16 of them were co-written with my husband Steve Jenkins.

 

How long does it take to make a book?

From the time I begin work on a book until I have a finished copy in hand, it might be two years. But I’m not working on just one book for all that time. Typically, I'm working on two or three books at different stages.

 

How old were you when you wrote your first book?

Twenty-eight

 

Where do your ideas for books come from?

I’ve always loved children’s books, and I collected many — both old and new — before I had children of my own. My first book was a result of a handmade bookmaking class I took in New York City. Many of the books I worked on with Steve were inspired by our kids and the activities we did with them. Others had their start in a conversation with Steve about some new cool fact one of us came across. Frequently, in doing research for one book, we come across interesting information that inspires a future title.

 

What’s your favorite animal?

I love our golden retriever, but cats are amazing animals to watch.

 

What’s the most fun part of making a book?

Coming up with an idea and starting to research it. Another part of the bookmaking process I really enjoy is the design — working out how the pages will look when the type and illustrations come together.

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Q & A

 

These are some of the questions I'm often asked when I visit schools.

How many books have you made?

I’ve made 20 books — 16 of them were co-written with my husband Steve Jenkins.

 

How long does it take to make a book?

From the time I begin work on a book until I have a finished copy in hand, it might be two years. But I’m not working on just one book for all that time. Typically, I'm working on two or three books at different stages.

 

How old were you when you wrote your first book?

Twenty-eight

 

Where do your ideas for books come from?

I’ve always loved children’s books, and I collected many — both old and new — before I had children of my own. My first book was inspired by a handmade bookmaking class I took in New York City. Many of the books I worked on with Steve were inspired by our kids and the activities we did with them. Others had their start in a conversation with Steve about some new cool fact one of us came across. Frequently, in doing research for one book, we come across interesting information that inspires a future title.

 

What’s your favorite animal?

I love our two golden retrievers, but cats are amazing animals to watch.

 

What’s the most fun part of making a book?

Coming up with an idea and starting to research it. Another part of the bookmaking process I really enjoy is the design — working out how the pages will look when the type and illustrations come together.

Was it hard to get started as a children’s book author?

When I started making children’s books, I was working in and around the publishing business in New York. I was lucky enough to know a few people in the children’s book world who were looking for projects.  And our graphic design work was paying the bills, so I was able to move gradually into being an author and illustrator. We were lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

How do you and Steve work together?

We've collaborated in our design office for many years. When we began working on children’s books, it was never hard for us to have a conversation about what form a book should take. It has always felt easy and natural. Often, I have an idea for a book and take it to Steve. We toss the idea back and forth, and it may evolve into something quite different. We research the topic, talk about it, and if we decide it’s a good idea we write a proposal and submit it to our publisher. Once it’s accepted, we get to work.

I do most of the image research, pulling potential subjects from books and web sites. We talk about things to include and make pages and pages of lists and notes. These notes will become the basis of Steve’s rough text. I make lots of sketches on a graphics tablet. This is a quick way to explore many different subjects and compositions. I’ll decide what creatures to include on each spread, do sketch layouts showing size and position, and figure out where the text should be placed.

 

The next step is to build a dummy — a handmade book with fake text and rough sketches of the art. I usually make several dummies. We send the ones that work off to our editor and art director, who ask questions and make comments. I refine the layout, and Steve begins work on the actual illustrations, using my sketches as a guide. After the text has gone back and forth a couple of times and our editor has reviewed it, I include it in the layout. As Steve finishes the illustrations, I scan them and place them in a digital page layout program. We make one final color dummy that shows what the actual printed book will look like. The final step is a mechanical — a digital file for the printer with final edited text and art in place.

Are you worried that you’ll run out of ideas for books?

Not really. Steve and I have folders on our computers filled with possible book subjects. We are usually thinking about several possible book ideas at any given time. We always keep an eye out for related facts and images that we might stumble across, and these often send us off in a new direction.

A Partial List of Book Awards (and the number times received)


Randolph Caldecott Medal Honor Book (for What Do You Do with a Tail Like This?)
ALA Notable Book
New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books
Orbis Pictus Recommended Books
AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize finalist (2)
Eureka Excellence in Children's Nonfiction (5)

Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12 (5)
Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts, NCTE (2)
Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices (6)
A New York Public Library’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing
Chicago Public Library Best-of-the Best (2)
Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year (6)
Booklinks Lasting Connections Selection
Junior Library Guild Top 10 Books for Youth
Junior Library Guild Selection (6)
Colorado Book Awards (2)

My books have been translated into ten languages.

 
 
 

Children's Art

One of the unexpected pleasures of writing for children is receiving mail from my readers, which often includes collages or drawings based on one of my books (or the animals in them).

 

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