Illustrating my First Storybook

Last semester at art school we were asked to write and illustrate a storybook. There was no set theme for the brief and final stories ranged from tales about hungry anteaters searching for their favourite food to unwelcome dinosaurs trying to befriend their new neighbours. My book was called Who Does The Moon Talk To? and followed a grumpy, sleep-deprived moon as he travelled around the world being increasingly rude to all of his nocturnal friends. 

Today I thought I’d share a little behind the scenes look at how I developed the storybook as well as what I learnt along the way. This is how I created Who Does The Moon Talk To?… 

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The Brief

Every project at art school starts with a briefing to explain exactly what it is you are being asked to make. This time it was a children’s book but not the entire thing. Making a complete, full-colour picture book in a matter of weeks is a tall order so what we were asked to do instead was to create what you would need when pitching a book to a publisher. We were asked to create a dummy book (a rough first draft of our books outlining the story and page compositions) as well as completing at least 3 spreads from inside the book in full colour. The book was to be 32 pages long which, once you take away the cover and end pages, actually leaves 24 pages for a story to unfold within. 

We had been told that this project would be coming up and so had plenty time to ponder what type of story we might like to tell. I chose to develop an idea I’d had in the back of my mind for a while…

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Photograph by Alexander Andrews

The Idea

I’d been quietly pondering over the idea for Who Does The Moon Talk To? for quite some time. The idea - and name, in fact - have been at the back of my head for so long I don’t quite remember when or where they originated from. The idea was for a book which introduced the idea of nocturnal animals to children by asking the titular question - just who does the moon talk to? I knew from the very beginning that I wanted the book to include the moon and lots of nocturnal animals but that was about all I was certain of. Did I want it to be an educational book or a fun story? What age of kids did I want the book to be aimed at? Before I confused myself even further or was able to answer any of these questions I thought I’d better just start drawing.

The Sketches

I am not the kind of creative who can just sit and draw for hours on end. I get bored pretty easily so detailed drawing isn’t really my bag. When I need to loosen up at the start of a project, I always start by doing a series of blind drawings where I draw looking only at the subject and not at the paper. You can see a little slideshow of some of my nocturnal creature sketches below:

 
 

The results of this loosening-up exercise are always fittingly loose and fun but often aren’t taken beyond this stage. However, I found that the blind drawing style lent itself particularly well to this project and decided to develop it further. As I knew I wanted to keep the moon visually very simple throughout the book, the rest of the characters had to be brought to life with an extra dose of personality. The expressions and postures which come out of such an unpredictable way of drawing add so much character that I actually find harder to achieve if I look at the paper I am drawing on. The unpredictability also means a lot of the drawings end up too messy to develop so I decided I’d do a whole lot and choose the best. I found a list of more than 50 nocturnal animals and spent a very fun and relaxing afternoon drawing each one of them several times. From these hundreds of wonky creations, I edited down my favourites until I had a books-worth of characters.

The Research

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Illustration by Andrea D’Aquino

There were 2 main areas of research I tackled at the start of this project. Firstly, artist and picture book research was an obvious starting point. I very quickly gathered a heap of drawings but wasn’t sure how I wanted to develop them into images which would work as spreads within a book. I looked at lots of collage artists who had created books to see how they had composed their images. It can be a tricky balance to get right when looking at artists with similar techniques and styles to your own but I was careful to consider what it was I liked about the books rather than steal specific layouts or ideas. I love the work of picturebook makers Andrea D’Aquino and Laura Carlin so read as many of their beautiful books as I could get my hands on. I also looked at a whole heap of Flying Eye Books as they are my favourite children’s book publisher. The research process reminded my just how much I love children’s books. I have been lucky enough to review some beauties during my time as a blogger and I am going to share all of my favourites in a separate blog post very soon. 

Photograph by Nino Yang

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Secondly, I did some research into the moon itself. To fit in with the drawing style I had chosen, I decided pretty early on that I wanted the book to focus on humour more than education but still I wanted some aspect of the story to be rooted in fact. Originally, the story was going to follow the moon around a singular night as it visited animals all around the world but the fact that this didn’t make sense - as it is night at different times around the world - bothered me for some reason. Instead, I based the story around the fact that, as it was always night time somewhere, the moon rarely gets to sleep. Throughout the book, the moon gets increasingly exhausted and as a result is increasingly rude towards his nocturnal friends. As this proceeds, the moon visually changes from a thin half moon to a fool moon, which is a little nod to the moons cycle and another aspect which loosely ties the book’s concept to fact. This might seem overthought to some but I like that these little details give to the book roots. 

The Colour Scheme

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Colour was a particularly challenging part of this project for me. If you scroll through my Instagram you will see pretty instantly that I love bright, cheerful colour schemes. I have a regular palette filled with blues and pinks and yellows which I use for a lot of projects. For a book set solely at night however it didn’t quite fit. As I couldn’t use the palette I often rely on within my work, I thought I’d add an extra challenge and go almost entirely monochrome with just a couple of colours used sparingly throughout. The book’s very limited colour palette is made up mostly of shades of grey and black with white details including an inky moon as well as the odd scrap of brown paper texture and splash of bright yellow ink. I will probably go back to my colour-crazy ways in future but it is nice to know I can create things I am happy with without having to rely on a pretty colour scheme. 

The Story

My next task was to firm up all the storyline details. The selection of drawings I had picked helped a lot with this as they decided which which animals the moon would be seen visiting. I arranged them in a logical order - the moons sees the woodlands animals like bears, beavers and mice first, then fish in the sea and finally the big cats abroad - and I had a rough story structure. I also decided I wanted all the conversations between the animals and the moon to be concealed under flaps. At first when you flick through the book you would simply see a bunch of animals making different noises but as you explore further you uncover conversations which will hopefully make you laugh.

As the book had this added element, to fit in with the brief’s specifications it had only to be 24 pages in total rather than 32 which gave me a little less room to play with. It all fitted in pretty nicely though with a bit of editing. Then there was the small case of the ending. How did the Moon’s story come to a close? I decided that eventually the moon would pass the sun who would grant him his desperate wish of a well-earned nap. This felt too neat and dull however for the final ending so I added in one final surprise - a fold-out page which saw a huge family of big cats screeching at the moon to “wake up!”. The cats getting their own back on the moon on behalf of all the nocturnal animals felt like a fitting way to end the tale.

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The Artwork

Once I had all these elements were in place, all that was left to do was to create the artworks themselves. As the brief specified, only a selection of the pages had to be created in full colour. As the style I was creating the pages in was quite simple, I decided to aim to create all of the pages which included animals in full colour. Whilst I don’t regret this added challenge, I do regret the way I went about completing it. There were six spreads in the book and instead of doing the logical thing and working my way through them one by one, I decided to tackle them all at once. This led to me having a bunch of semi-finished pages but not really feeling like I was getting anywhere for days and days. Being honest, I am still not sure what possessed me to go about the task in this way but at least I have learnt from this mistake and would know how to go about things better in future. 

The Dummy

As well as the artworks, we also had to show a rough version of the book as a whole. Whilst this is referred to as a “dummy book”, it didn’t actually be a physical book. I chose to create mine digitally as a set of semi-detailed thumbnails outlining the layout of each spread of the book as well as the cover. Creating my dummy storyboard took a couple of stages but I won’t bore you with every single one. Here is the final storyboard…

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This storyboard alone didn’t quite sum-up my vision for the book though. The flaps which reveal the conversations being had adds a humorous, unconventional element to the books so they had to be visualised in some way to bring the concept as a whole to life. With the help of a cheeky wee mock-up and my photoshop skills, I quickly conjured up some photographs which showed the idea of this interactive element…

The Story

I swayed a little over whether to include the whole story in this blog post in case I do revisit this idea in future. However, the images lack something without the text accompanying them so I figured I’d just go for it. Here is the story of Who Does The Moon Talk To?

Have you ever wondered who the moon talks to? As we are all settling in for the night, lots of animals are just waking up so the moon always has lots of animal friends to keep him company. It is always night time somewhere in the world so the moon is almost always awake. Not getting enough sleep can make him a little bit grumpy…

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“Why don’t I have any friends Mr. Moon?”

“To be honest Mr. Skunk, It is because you smell. I don’t mind though because I am so far away.”

“Good evening Mr. Moon! Did you know that animals that are awake at night are known as nocturnal animals?”

“Yes, of course I knew that Mrs. Owl. I am the Moon and I know everything.”

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“Hello Mr. Moon! Do you like my moustache?”

“I can’t see your moustache Mr. Beaver. Perhaps I am just too far away or maybe it is just small and unimpressive.”

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“Do you like my glasses Mr. Moon?”

“For the last time Mrs. Bear, those are not glasses. That’s just your face.”

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“I’m a Cat Mr. Moon!”

“You’re not a cat Mrs. Fish. You’re a Fish. Cats eat you for dinner.”

“I want to be a Fish Mr. Moon!”

“Why!?! It is easy being a lion! All you do is nap you silly little cat!”

From time to time, the moon passes the sun and she tries to cheer him up. The sun’s words are always wise but the moon is always far too tired to listen. The Sun understands and sometimes she even arranges for the moon to fInally take a well-earned nap. But not for long…

“WAKE UP MR. MOON!” shouted the big cats.

The end

The Moral

That is just about all I have to share on my first experience with children’s book illustration. The only question left really is will I ever try and turn this into a real book? The answer, for now at least, is no. I enjoyed the process but I didn’t fall in love with picturebook making in the way I thought I might to be honest or in the same way I did with other projects. For that reason, I don’t think I will revisit the idea too soon. I do love the characters in the book so might do a little side project with them soon but in terms of books and stories, for now I am letting Mr. Moon have a well earned rest.

One of the most interesting things about art school has been discovering what projects I do and don’t click with. What I have enjoyed most - and therefore where I would like to see my work as an illustrator go in future - has often surprised me. Whilst I don’t see myself as a picturebook artist, I have gathered a lot more insight into what I would like to do through some recent projects. More on that very soon…