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Maria Salvadore

Reading Rockets' children's literature expert, Maria Salvadore, brings you into her world as she explores the best ways to use kids' books both inside — and outside — of the classroom.

Making books and creating readers: a collaboration from the start

July 11, 2018

A picture book that can stand up to multiple readings is a good one in my book. You know what I’m talking about — the books a child wants to hear (or read independently) over and over. These are most books with enough textual and visual interest to engage time and again. But a picture book does so much more.

A recent study suggests “that illustrated format [picture books] provides visual scaffolding that assists the language network and encourages active imagery and self-reflection in young children, while animation [television and movies] may inhibit such network integration in favor of continuous audio-visual perception.” 

In other words, picture books help children glean meaning from both words and image, practicing an important skill (creating meaning) while promoting healthy brain development. It’s what lead researcher, Dr. Hutton, called “just right” to support emerging readers, in this NPR article, What's Going On In Your Child's Brain When You Read Them A Story?

So what, I wondered, goes into the actual production of a picture book?  Are those responsible cognizant of the power of a book well produced?

Not surprisingly, I had a ton of questions for a young woman I met recently. Kristen Nobles has worked as a senior children’s book designer for Chronicle Books, an art director for Candlewick Press, and is now in the process of developing a brand-new picture book list as the publisher of Page Street Kids, an imprint of Page Street Publishing.

Kristen was gracious enough to take the time to answer them here. There are some interesting tidbits that parents and teachers may use with children.

What in your background brought you into children’s publishing in general and picture books specifically?

Looking back, my experiences have all dovetailed perfectly. I was a complete bookworm as a child, reading everything and anything I could get my hands on. My grandmother, a librarian, and my mother, an elementary school teacher, both fed my reading habit and encouraged my interest in writing.

In high school, I had a few mentors in the visual arts, including a photography teacher and an art museum director. They encouraged me to study communication design and art history in undergrad, a great combination for my current position as a picture book publisher.

Communication design gave me tools like composition and color understanding for visual literacy, and art history gave me a foundation of how art had communicated in the past as well as an understanding of different mediums. One of my early jobs in book publishing had me working with illustrators on cookbooks and calendars, and I loved the collaborative aspect of being a book designer. My skills culminated when I became a designer in the kids division of Chronicle Books. The design director, Kristine Brogno, first taught me the nuances of art direction and creating picture books as part of a creative team.

Is there a book or books you have been involved with that you’re particularly proud of or pleased with?

I am proud to have collaborated on so many fantastic projects over the years! At Chronicle, Ruby’s Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, stands out for both the powerful true story and the joy of working with Sophie on her first picture book.

At Candlewick, I was beyond pleased to consistently work with several author-illustrators including Carson Ellis, Steve Light, Leslie Patricelli, and Matt Tavares — some for more than a decade. I’m proud of so many of their gorgeous books including Steve’s conceptual Swap! as well as Carson’s unique Du Iz Tak? A clever tale of ingenuity, Swap! features Steve’s intricate pen and ink line drawings with limited colorization to underline the bartering aspects of each trade. Du Iz Tak? celebrates curiosity, the seasonal cycles of plant life, nonsensical language, and fanciful characters all playing their parts on a stage set that changes details with each page turn.

More recent Candlewick published books I was thrilled to have worked on are Windows by Julia Denos, illustrated by E.B. Goodale, and Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. Both books include contemporary content usually overlooked in picture books and have multiple layers of deep visual storytelling by debut illustrators — elements I endeavor to focus on in Page Street Kids projects.

At Page Street Kids, our first picture books publish this fall. Oliver: The Second-Largest Living Thing on Earth by Josh Crute, illustrated by John Taesoo Kim; Khalida and the Most Beautiful Song by Amanda Moeckel; Before You Sleep by Annie Cronin Romano, illustrated by Ioana Hobai; and Contrary Creatures by James Weinberg are created by brilliant debut authors and illustrators and all four will always have an honored place on my personal bookshelf for kicking off this journey with us.

Talk a bit about what you look for when considering a manuscript to publish? Which comes first: words or image?

I look for something that has heart rather than a message, something that moves me — usually through a strong character and a satisfying ending. I might be moved to tears or a fit of giggles.

The creator decides how the story is best communicated and, as such, we are open to traditional texts as the first step in creating a picture book, or, perhaps less traditional, the images in thumbnail form as the first step.

Coming from the art side of the creative team, I feel uniquely positioned to develop visual storylines and add text, if necessary to bridge the visual gaps, later in the process.

How do authors and illustrators come together? 

Once a text is acquired, it is shared with the creative team and read. Each individual team member considers specific adjectives the text evokes for them, and they use those adjectives to find illustrators. We then come together and share our adjectives and illustrator choices. The idea is that, while several paths might be considered as far as style and rendering, certain elements should be found in both word and image in order to match them.

The adjectives also give us a jumping-off point for what we are looking for in an illustrator as well as how to discuss the merits of each illustrator or portfolio piece. Two to four illustrators usually rise to the top and are shared and discussed with the author in the context of the manuscript. When a top choice is agreed upon, we then approach the illustrator and make sure they respond to the story in a passionate way. I owe Candlewick Press for my many years of experience in these types of discussions.    

Could you run through (briefly!) the process of actually acquiring and producing a picture book?

Instead of simply reacting to submissions, we are proactively seeking debut picture book talent by reaching out to illustrators whose work we respond to and finding both illustrators and writers in new or unexpected venues. We work closely with creators in very early stages of development if we believe in a project. Projects are discussed in informal editorial group settings, and decisions to move forward with acquisition are weighed based on revision progress and the quality of storytelling.

In general, once a project is acquired and the creative team is established with the author and illustrator (or author-illustrator) plus editor and designer, the collaborative steps include feedback and suggestions on:

  • possible character designs
  • text paging and thumbnails for pacing and basic content
  • trim size choices
  • first 100% sketches for detailed content and emotions
  • final editing with sketches and revised sketches in book pages
  • consideration of self-cover and endpapers
  • sample final art spread for palette and final style
  • type design pages
  • cover sketch with final title discussion
  • final artwork
  • full jacket design with edited flap copy
  • final turning dummy with all elements in place
  • files sent to the reproduction house for color checks
  • sales team input considered
  • final approvals at the printer

On the side, we are working throughout the process with sales and marketing to best position the book and get it on bookshelves and into the appropriate little hands.

In your new role, you’ll be publishing more than picture books.  How has your work on picture books and as an art director informed this new venture?

At first and for the near future, I’m focusing solely on picture books and building a strong foundation of quality content, talented creators and staff, and a publishing process that fits uniquely into the one well established by Page Street Publishing. The YA list functions under this already-established set-up and I am not involved editorially, though I consult on the covers and some marketing cross-over.

At Candlewick, I managed the art department and launched a media imprint (along with an editor) for the Walker Book Group, so a managerial business role in addition to creative decision making is not out of my comfort zone. Additionally, I am thankful for support and leadership on the editorial and business aspects of this new venture by Page Street Publishing’s founding publisher, Will Kiester. Will is an enthusiastic fan of picture books and brings an important perspective to everything we are doing at Page Street Kids.

In the future, we may branch out to board book formats and early readers or illustrated middle grade — all types of books I have worked on in the past. My focus will always be on great storytelling and how thoughtful words and distinct images interact to fully engage readers.

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"There is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away" — Emily Dickinson