Monday, 20 November 2017

Releasing a children's book for Christmas - are you prepared?

Ho ho ho - it's almost time for Santa to come and visit! 

And what does Santa bring to good little boys and girls? Books of course!

But when should you start marketing your Christmas themed books? Should you say 'holidays' instead of Christmas? And should your book have a festive 'message'?

Don't worry if you're asking all these questions and more; they are all relevant if you want to be a successful Christmas author. I recently teamed up with author Adam Reed to create a magical, festive themed book to rival the popular 'Elf on a Shelf' series, and he kindly took some time to give us some advice on this blog.

Adam was originally looking to start a holiday tradition with his family and only came across one option - an elf. As he looked at it and dug into the story he was taken aback by how creepy it looked, how intimidating the story was to children, and how stressful the “tradition” came to be for parents.  
With that, he struck out to create a fresh, new Christmas tradition not only for his family, but for children and families all over the world.  In doing so he vowed to take all the negatives of the elf, and turn them into positives, creating a magical story, an adorable plush, and a holiday brand that would bring a new meaning to family traditions at Christmastime for years to come.  He hopes that with REINDEER IN HERE he has done just that.

So let's start with the writing.

Writing a Christmas tale is much, much different than writing at any other time of year. The competition is already high - with some popular and classic Christmas stories dominating the market. How can you make YOUR Santa stand out from the thousands that already exist? Why would a parent choose to buy YOUR book instead of the ones that everybody already know and love?

One tip is to make sure you're original. Instead of the over-done story about Santa and the night before Christmas, why not think of a unique twist to place over the top? Perhaps Santa rides a skateboard instead of a sleigh. Perhaps Santa is female. Adam gave his story a twist by creating a whole new world of imaginary characters and traditions revolving around a brave little reindeer who saves Santa's day! And popular classics like 'The Grinch Who Stole Christmas' apply this rule to their stories too. It's what makes them sell out each year.

Another tip is to include all those Christmassy feelings that you associate with that special time of year, without being too obvious and cheesy. It's easy to fall into the trap of writing about being good for Santa, or hearing bells jingling or even seeing snow fall, but most kids hear this in every Christmas book, TV show and song already. Try thinking about what makes you feel festive instead. Maybe it's the smell of hot mulled wine, or having to wear knitted mittens. Write about the tastes, smells and sounds of Christmas that you often overlook or take for granted and you're sure to create a vibe that excited children can't resist. 

Christmas words are, of course, going to be in your book, but some authors struggle in their attempt to make their book appeal to everyone. It's important not to alienate children but at the same time you have to be true to what you are writing about. Have a think about exactly who is going to buy your book and let that be the decider on your language. If you're writing a religious book about the importance of traditional Christmas values and Jesus's role at that time of year, then your audience will be different to a book that is writing about elves and presents. You can't market it to every single child in the world, because they aren't all the same, but you can use language and illustrations to make your book diverse and relevant. If your book isn't a traditional Christmas book, then you can still create that festive feeling in your illustrations instead. Adam's book uses a bit of both to really capture the magic of December.

"If you look at the illustrations, we really tried to make Christmas unique and magical on every level. While there are traditional Christmas colors, there are a lot of very bright unexpected colors. I wanted the North Pole to be magical, I wanted the illustrations to pop off the page and I think we accomplished that.  Early copies of the book have been reviewed extremely positive, and children seem to be reacting to the bright colors, and magical feel of the entire story and visuals.  It was a very deliberate decision to design it that way."

So you've written your story and you're sure it's a winner! Now it's time to cash in on the crazy Christmas sales. Here is my biggest piece of advice I can give you;


It seems strange to be thinking about Christmas when it's sunny outside, but please don't underestimate this advice. As an illustrator I am inundated with requests to illustrate Christmas books during October and November and unfortunately I have to turn most away by explaining that they're just too late. Aside from the illustrations taking many months to complete, editing, formatting and publishing will eat away at your deadline so the sooner you can start the better. Adam knows this all too well. He says;

"The whole process was stressful and the launch is also stressful because its been two years of work to get here. Add to that that my wife just gave birth to our second child, and was on bed rest for weeks…it was the perfect storm of madness.  But I also know my personality, and I thrive under pressure and stress, it just motivates me even more to succeed one way or another.  
Ideally I wanted to do it in early November as I feel that most people start planning for Christmas in early November, but it was a very layered process to get the book written, illustrated, and edited — and then an even more intense process to find a packager, a plush maker, design both the plush and the packaging, then put them all together and get them to amazon in time for the holidays. It was almost an impossible task but I pulled it off."

So plan well ahead and expect your book to take longer than you thought. After all, it's better to be early than late when it comes to Christmas sales! Most parent start their Christmas shopping in November, but some start as early as September - so that means you should aim to have your book finished and ready for sale at the end of August! Try to make the most of sales and start pitching as soon as the cold nights start setting in. When you are advertising your book, remember that while kids may be your target readers - it's the parents who will be buying. Try to aim your advertisements at parents and families buying your books as gifts for children. 

Writing and marketing are huge tasks, but here are some other points you should be thinking about too;

The book's message.
Just because it's Christmas doesn't mean you can't apply all the usual rules of writing a story for children. Are you teaching a life lesson or just having a fun story with a twist at the end? there should definitely be a reason for your character's actions - just like any other time of year. Avoid pages that don't progress the story and make sure your plot is full of action and events to keep your reader's interested.

What kind of illustrations are you looking for? They play a big role in picture books and you want to make sure they're clean, professional and appealing to kids. If you're looking for Christmas illustrations, make sure your illustrator has had experience drawing snowflakes or Christmas trees.

Do your homework! If you're writing about Reindeer like Adam did, make sure you know what shape their hoofs make in the snow or what their diet is. Including facts will make your story more believable and children will pick up on mistakes - so don't wing it!

Thankyou for reading, I hope this blog helped you write a Christmas tale that will be loved year after year after year! If you're looking for an illustrator for your Christmas tale, you can email me at and I'd be happy to discuss your project.

You can buy Adam's book as a beautiful box set that includes a Reindeer plush toy here;

You can also find more about Adam's campaign - ShelfTheElf on his website here;

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Illustrating bubbles - Adobe Photoshop Tutorial

Say 'hello' to Norman!

Norman loves swimming, talking to fish and exploring sunken ships, but Norman is currently missing a few bubbles. 

Bubbles are one of those things that seem like they should be really easy to draw but actually are quite difficult. They're moving, reflective, translucent balls of air and trying to draw one without it looking like a white circle is definitely a challenge. Here's my tutorial on how I create a good-looking bubble using Adobe Photoshop! 

Step One - The Outline

Using the tools panel, select the paintbrush tool. I always use a hard round brush and set the size to 3 and the hardness to 100%. Your size might differ if your canvas is a different size to mine, so play around until you can create a line of similar width to mine.

It's worth noting that I draw with a Wacom tablet and keep the Opacity Pressure tool on so that the lighter I press the less of a line appears. 

With white as your colour, draw a circle. Don't worry if it's a bit wobbly as bubbles usually are! 

Step Two - The Centre

With the paintbrush tool again, this time select a soft round brush. Set the size a lot bigger at 95 and the hardness a lot less at 0%

At the top of the Photoshop panel there will be two options; Opacity and Flow. Set the opacity to around 50% but leave the flow at 100%

Now fill in the bubble. The tip here is to fill in about half of the bubble randomly, using two or three strokes. I let my strokes overlap and one of my strokes was more of a 'dot' than an actual stroke but you can play around to create a unique bubble for you.

Step Three - Delete the middle

It seems silly to delete what we just did, but this makes a nice round middle for our bubble and gives it some depth. 

In the tools panel select the Eraser tool and set the brush to a soft round brush the same as we just used but with a bigger size. The size wants to be big enough to delete the middle of your bubble in one click but not too big that it deletes some of the white centre we just made. You should end up with something like this;

Step Four - Add some highlights

Again, select the hard round paintbrush with a hardness of 100. My size is 72 here, a bit bigger than our outline. The Opacity should be around 50% again and the flow stays at 100%.

You might find slightly different settings work better for you, which is fine!

We are now adding some highlights to our bubble. I like to change the highlights on each bubble so they are all different, but usually the top has the most highlight and a few bits elsewhere. I also selected the eraser again and with a smaller size (but the same settings as I used before) I deleted some more bits of the bubble next to my highlights so they stood out a bit more.

Step Five - Add some colour

Using the same settings as we did for the highlights, just change the colour. 

I used pink because Norman is purple and the bubble is reflecting Norman's colour. you should select a colour which is a lighter or more washed-out version of whatever the bubble is in front of or near. 

Make sure you don't fill too much of the bubble with highlight and colours (we still want to see through it!) and don't forget to change the colour depending on the bubble's surroundings.

And there you have it! The more bubbles you create, the faster and easier it will be.

You can copy and paste the bubble and change the size to create lots of little bubbles, or just play around with the process to make oblong and wonky bubbles - feel free to be creative! They really look effective when placed over objects like Norman's body. If you put any bubbles in the background, try turning their Opacity down to make them harder to see. (They will have to be on their own layer to do this.)

I hope you enjoyed the tutorial - have fun making bubbles! Bye Norman!

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

"ALL CHILDREN ARE GOOD" An interview with Peggy Barons, author of The Little Christmas Angel

I recently completed illustrations for a festive themed story called The Little Christmas Angel. Written by Peggy Barons and published by Carpenter's Son Publishing. I caught up with Peggy a few months after the book's release to see how she was getting along, and was pleased to see The Little Christmas Angel was a success! Peggy was kind enough to answer a few questions for you all so we could find out a little more about the process she went through. 

Hello Peggy! Wow, what a great response to your book! Your story is well written and engaging, it's hard to believe this is your first published book. Did you like to write as a child?

Yes, I wrote plays and my friends and I would act them out. I also  
liked to write poems and stories. But I was never very good at
drawing so I learned to use descriptive words instead.

Who did you look to for support and inspiration while you worked  on your project?

Actually, I looked to my own young adult children to help me  
remember what they loved about The Little Christmas Angel when they  
were little, and also to my two grandsons to see how stories  
interested them and what held their attention. I knew they loved  
finding tiny unexpected little surprises in the illustrations like a  
cow wearing a necklace or mice playing checkers - even if that  
didn't have anything to do with the actual story.

What would you say has been the easiest part of the process for you, and what was the hardest?

The easiest part was actually writing the story. We had a special little Christmas Angel that I found at a holiday craft fair that "flew" around our house at Christmas time and my four little children loved finding her in a new place everyday. When I decided to do this project, I imagined a back story for the Angel, starting  
with the original first Christmas, and then bringing her into modern times. It was fun!

The hardest part was finding a publisher. After several big publishing houses decided to pass, I found Carpenter's Son Publishing who was really great at helping to get this project off the ground. They helped connect me with toy manufacturers, book designers and a great illustrator, Izzy Bean.

Do you have plans for anymore stories or books?

Yes, - they are still in the incubation stage at this point, but I'm  
excited about two different stories I'm eager to tell. We're very  
busy right now though focusing on The Little Christmas Angel. It's  
already in it its second reprint and it was just released six weeks  

eBooks have become very popular lately, but you chose to keep your story as a traditional hardback book, why is this?

I love holding a real book in my hands - both for reading to little  
ones and even reading on my own. I had a Kindle for a while, but I  ended up giving it away. Parents today wisely try to limit screen  time for their kids and books, (real, physical books) are great for  that!

Well thank you so much for talking to us, and I hope your book continues to sell well!

The Little Christmas angel makes a great Christmas gift, you can purchase yours on 

Monday, 7 November 2016

'Bluebird' Children's Book Illustration - Speed painting

Bluebird Illustration Speed painting

I love watching speed paintings, and now I'm addicted to making them too! There's something very satisfying about watching a blank canvas transform before your eyes, I cant help but watch it over and over.

I hope you enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed making it!

This illustration was created for Laura Bullock's book; "Where Do You Live, Animal Friend?" and is available on Amazon here; Where Do You Live, Animal Friend?

If you need an illustrator for your children's book, you can email me at

Thursday, 30 June 2016

WORDS AND PICTURES - How to balance text and illustrations in an illustrated book.

When writing your children's book, you probably took a lot of time with your words; writing, reading them and then re-writing until you had crafted those words into a sentences, sentences into paragraphs and those paragraphs into a beautiful story that you can't wait to share with the world.

Then, like so many other authors, you let someone else handle the rest and they 'plop' the words onto the middle of a page in Times New Roman. Sigh.

I've worked as a full time illustrator for over seven years and one thing I have learnt is that exactly where and how you plop the words in a book makes a huge difference. The typography and placement is just as important as the illustrations. The two should come together and create a visually appealing page that reads naturally instead of clashing.

Here's some of my own DOS AND DONTS for making the most of your text. You can use these yourself, or pass them along to your illustrator or designer who can try them out for you. I'm always interested in hearing your thoughts too, so if you've got some ideas that I haven't mentioned, please feel free to comment below!

DO match your font to the story.

Try and pair your font with the nature of your book. For example; a story about a Princess who chews bubblegum might be light and rounded, but a book which involves monsters and dark forests may suit a spindly, spider-like text.

You can try more than one font and even mix them up as you go along, having different fonts for different actions or characters. Just be sure that whatever you choose, it is ALWAYS legible.

Here are some great websites for sourcing fonts - and some of them are free!

DON'T plonk your font down anywhere and leave it there.

You must think about the placement of your text. It's a long process that will involve lots of edits and tweaking until you get it right, but a good designer will never get annoyed with trying out different placements. When you think you've got it right - try another placement just in case!

Is your text on the same page as an illustration? 
Which one do you want to see first - the words or the picture? 
Does the text get lost in the colours? 
It is in the same place every page? 

One thing is certain - you must be aware of bleed and trim. The text should never be too close the edge of a page. 

DO test with other people to see if they can read it.

This seems obvious, but it's hard to test your own book properly when you already know what it says. Ask friends, family and other writers to read it out in front of you. Do they read it in the correct order? Do they stumble on words or struggle to find the next sentence? As beautiful and your layout might look, if it isn't easy to read by your target audience you may as well bin it now.

DON'T be boring.

Black, Times New Roman in a white box... yawn! 

What about red text? Text with a pattern? Text with a texture? Now there's an idea. How about text that curves around the illustration it is describing? If your text is being shouted, why not place it inside a huge illustration of a mouth? Get creative and try different things - if it looks good and can be read easily then make it work WITH the illustration instead of leaving them to battle for space. I'm not saying you can't keep a neat, monochrome theme if that suits your book; just don't automatically default to it without at least thinking about your options. 

DO your research.

Look at as many popular children's books as you can, and see if you can find common themes they all have. Assess their typography, the size of the font, where they place it... these bestsellers must be onto something.

Don't be afraid to try some of their ideas yourself - use them for inspiration! (Just be careful not to plagiarise anyones work, of course.)

DON'T have too much text on a page.

This is a common error that new writers make. 500-800 words is the recommended average for a 32 page children's book and it's like that for a reason - it leaves just the amount of text on each page.  Filling a page with text leaves no room for illustration and makes it feel cramped. If you need to say more, consider moving text to an adjacent page or cutting out a less important sentence. It's tough to cut your story short, but it will benefit the book in the end.

DO have pages without any text at all.

Some clients are horrified when I suggest this. No text on page 13? But what will they do?! What will they read?! 

This is a great opportunity to break your book up and make your audience pay attention as long as you use it in the right place. (You may not have a right place for it in your book, and that's OK too!)

The best tip here is to use it as a build up or passage of time and let the illustrations to do the talking for you. A story about someone digging a hole to the other side of the world may leave three pages of nothing but illustrations of the character digging... getting lower and lower until they disappear entirely... The next page that includes text should then have a big action or reveal as the climax;

...SUPRISE! He's now in China!

This is where your illustrator's talents come in handy. When there is no text on a page, you need to give the reader plenty to look at. Hidden items, background characters and lots of detail will make this trick work.

DO create your own font

While I appreciate this is not something everyone is able to do, it may be something your illustrator could do for an extra fee. Creating your own font has many benefits; If you can't find one that looks right you can create one to fit perfectly. No other books will have the same font which makes yours unique. Not using easily recognised or default fonts means some readers (and publishers) will take you more seriously and know you have put the extra work in. 

Finally, here is a list of words and what they mean. They aren't 'Dos and Don'ts' - but they will certainly help you discuss what you need with your illustrator and be able to understand what they are saying to you! I hope you enjoyed reading my tips and tricks to making words work for you. Now get writing that next bestseller - and good luck!

SERIF - Fonts that have little details or accents to make the words easier to read. "This is an example of Serif"

SANS-SERIF - Font's that don't have the little details or accents. On computer monitors we are restricted to dots per inch and so the details and accents are not as easy to scale down or read.  "This is an example of Sans-Serif"

TYPOGRAPHY - The way type is arranged to achieve the desired effect

TYPEFACE - A kind of type. For example; Times New Roman

LINE SPACE (SINGLE, DOUBLE, ETC) - The amount of space between the lines of text

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Developing a character and listening to feedback.

A live project example, complete with client feedback!

It's not enough to just be able to 'draw' to be successful in the illustration game - you need to hold a myriad of essential skills, two of which are; 

- being able to listen to criticism and, 

- making changes to your work based on that criticism. 

To demonstrate this ability in a real-world setting, I decided to share with you a recent character development project. You can see my sketches, plus the actual client feedback along the way and how it affected my work!

1. The first draft.

The brief was to create a character which will be used in a children's book as the main antagonist. Here's what I was given;

Could the girl be designed with brown hair and a pink dress? 

While this seems quite vague, I have already read the script so I know more about the character from her role in the story. She's a young girl who has a wobbly tooth. Here was my initial sketch based on the description given and my interpretation of the script.

2. The second draft.

I really like these examples from your website, would it be possible to combine these three together somehow? Perhaps with longer hair in pigtails? 

2. The third draft.

I like the twin tail look, but could we try the design as a cuter, younger, more rounded design? 

2. The fourth draft.

Great! Much better. Can we add the twin tails back?

2. The fifth draft.

Thankyou for the sketch. I think we're pretty close. Could we make the hair a bit more defined with it being a bit more pronounced and maybe some bobbles or flowers?

I think we've got it! Let's proceed to colour.

As you can see, most characters go through a series of changes before we finally settle on one to move forward with. Here is our character once we added colour, the client loved her!

This cutie will be featured in her very own adventure soon... watch this space!