The following is a step-by-step summary of how the book is made. It’s a 3-month project. Below is a rough outline because this is an ever-changing and improving process, and every school does things a little differently. In summary:
- Planning. Steps 0-3.
- Creating. Steps 4-13.
- Celebrating. Step 15. Don’t miss step 15!
- Making a difference in the world. Steps 16-19.
Planning Phase 0-3
Step 0. Passion and participation.
I like to call this Step 0 because it is like the blank canvas facing every artist. At the moment, no concrete idea exists. It is more like a driving passion. For me, that driving passion is to make a meaningful and timeless book, a book that everyone, both kids and adults, can enjoy. The better the book, the more likely it is that we can see the ideas within the book to spread into our community and become a reality. For example, by the time we finished our book about monarch butterflies, we gathered enough support to give hundreds of families a packet of seeds to start their own butterfly garden at home.
For me, it is a work of passion that I feel my life has been training me to do. It is amazing, even years later, to meet kids that remember me and tell me about how their dreams are becoming realities, and how the ideas in the books are coming true.
That was a little about my passion, but I can’t do this alone. In fact, I’m a small part of the equation. So, even more important than the artist is the project leader, someone who can shepherd the book from a dream to a reality. This person always seems to have a special talent and love for growing ideas bigger by connecting people, organizing events and hurdling walls.
Step 1. Planning.
Meetings with team members to establish goals.
Now we can begin to gather support for the project, which includes finding schools with dedicated teachers and parents. Behind the scenes, introductions include several meetings with the staff and the parent-teacher organization, so that everyone has a chance to contribute. We look for opportunities for everyone to participate, including ideas about the subject of the book, and how those ideas might come to fruition in the community. For example, with Ruby the Red Worm we hoped it would inspire homes and schools to begin composting their scraps and using that compost to help nourish a garden.
We’ve gone through this process several times now, so I have a comprehensive step-by-step outline and timeline. That being said, every school and organization is a little different, and there is always room for improvement.
Step 2. Fundraising.
This is a step I wish we could skip, but it is my goal is for every student to get a free book. Fortunately, in the past, we have had a lot of sponsors, including me. And, so far we’ve given away about 4000 books!
For our book, The Cupcake Boy, the PTO decided to do a cupcake bake sale. It was a big success! We earned enough to pay for the whole Make-A-Book Project with some money left over to fund more activities and supplies for the students.
We have even more ideas about how to do a fundraiser. Even if you don’t do a book project, Scott can still help organize a fundraiser for your school by selling his books and giving back a substantial portion of the profit.
Step 3. Social awareness.
Promoting the book’s goals.
The Make-A-Book Project is a great educational experience all by itself but, like I said, we really want to see those dreams come true. If we do a book about monarch butterflies, we want to see more monarch butterflies in the world! (I personally went from zero butterflies the first year to 25 butterfly sightings in my garden the following year.) We promote the book’s theme a lot towards the end of the project (see steps 16-19 below) but it is never too early to start. And it starts in the classroom, as the teachers begin educating the students about our chosen subject matter.
One big thing that I do throughout the process is write stories about the making of the book and about the theme. These stories can then be shared with friends and family and the media. Click here to read some.
Creating Phase 4-12
Step 4. Research and writing.
Long before I begin the projects, I have been concepting ideas, researching, and letting the ideas simmer in my subconscious before I’m ready to put pen to paper. This is my most intimidating step — writing an educational, inspiring and entertaining story. I didn’t just pick those adjectives randomly. I feel every story must be educational, inspiring and entertaining in order to engage readers of all ages. And the best part is that the students will contribute even more great ideas once we begin, helping bring the stories to life.
Step 5. Slideshow.
Introducing Scott and his world bicycle ride.
Before I begin working on a new book with the school children, I like to introduce myself with a slideshow about my trip around the world on a bicycle, called “If you could do anything, what would you do?” I also bring lots of extras, like: a set of free books for the library, bookmarks, reader-teacher guides, a world map, my bicycle, and more. In this case, I pitched my tent in the library for the kids to explore; and I also set up my stove (without the fuel), cookware and water filter.
Step 6. Creating the story.
Ideally, if time and budget allow, I can spend an additional week with students to co-create the story. We talk about the elements of a story, like story arc and character development. We also talk about what type of stories they might like to create. For example, one school had a pond and wanted to write a story about the pond, the animals and the ecosystem. Another school had a landfill nearby and wanted to do a story about landfills and recycling.
I start by summarizing that we are creating a real book that will be in libraries for everyone to read; in this case, Ruby the Red Worm’s Dirty Job, a book about composting and living a life of passion.
Step 7. Character naming contest.
We are constantly looking for ways to get as many students involved and recognized as possible. One fun idea to get the students more involved in the production of the book was to have them name the characters in the story. So I, along with my self-appointed fan club, made this ballot box.
The can was half full within 1.5 hours. By the end of the week, we had hundreds of votes. I think my personal favorite was Honeynester the Bee. We also had dozens of names such as: Worm the Fly and Snail the Butterfly. It’s interesting how the students seem to collectively decide to do such things without any leader.
Update: For the new butterfly book, we introduced a Character Creation Contest to get even more students involved. This was followed by the Character Naming Contest.
Step 8. Illustrating the book.
When we’re ready to begin illustrating the book, I work with the students in the classroom for a full 5 days as the artist-in-residence. Plus, a couple make-up classes to get pictures we are missing.
After teaching kids the basics of illustration. (Illustration needs to tell a story.) Then I read the story to the students and ask for volunteers to illustrate sentences or concepts that inspire them. I literally give the first student to raise their hand a page from the book. By the end of the week, I have over 1000 drawings to choose from!
I continue to learn how to work with the various ways kids learn and create. Some students prefer to illustrate an actual sentence from the book, which requires a more literal interpretation; while other students prefer a more conceptual approach. In the photo above, a student studies keywords for missing pages in the book, including a few extra key phrases to see if they would generate any creative drawings — and they did! I then rewrote the book to fit the new pictures. One of my favorite pages not in the original manuscripts is by a student who drew worms as astronauts. I didn’t know it, but worms indeed have been sent to space in NASA experiments.
Step 9. Collateral school projects.
Bringing the book to life in the classroom.
The book and the theme really begin to come to life now. An important part of the process is all the fun activities that go along with the book.
During my visit, which was Reading Week, one of the teachers organized a Storybook Parade, where all the teachers dressed as their favorite storybook character and paraded through the hallways. The kids loved it! I’ve never heard so many squeals of delight. It really made me a little jealous that I didn’t go to the STEM school as a kid.
During this project, we taught the students how to compost. This is a great way to recycle your scraps, fertilize your garden and reduce your eco-footprint by eating more local food. For recent projects, we have been posting tutorials online.
While I was producing the final book, the students continued exploring some related projects. Pictured here is Mrs. Lambert’s class examining some red worms up close. The class also made tiers of homemade composting bins made from 2-liter bottles hanging from the ceiling. The top tiers are homes to some happy plants.
Also, pictured is one of Mrs. Hyland’s music students composing a theme song for Ruby the Red Worm. Some students would sing their songs while illustrating.
Update: There are even more collateral projects happening for the book Mirabella The Monarch. Read more.
Step 10. Choosing drawings for the book.
After working with the elementary students for at least a week in the classroom, I get approximately 1000 drawings to choose from. So, being more of the right-brained-artistic type, it is a major organizational challenge — I’ve never used so many folders, stickies, paper clips, dividers and color markers.
Here you see that I have laid the book out on the floor with my tentative favorites in place. Also pictured are dozens of folders. First I organize the pictures alphabetically by grade and teacher, since some kids will draw 10 pictures. As I progress, choosing pictures becomes harder, and I need to be more creative, such as combining two student drawings into one. I will also reorganize the piles by page number or subject matter. And constantly I am subdividing the pictures into firsts (favorites), seconds (maybes), thirds (probably-nots), miscellaneous, unknown and more…
It seems every time I look, I see the pictures in a new way, and am impressed by the creativity and humor of the young students.
Ms. Nagan, the art teacher, gathered some of her best illustrators for the STEM school’s application hour, to help me fill the missing pages. The book is looking fantastic thanks to the students’ overwhelming enthusiasm — and I mean overwhelming.
Step 11: Retouching and collaging the drawings.
After sorting through my foot-tall stack of drawings, I begin selecting and editing my favorites, and sometimes make collages to include as many students as possible.
Below, the first picture shows the original scan. You can see the line from the story on the top of the page and the students’ marker illustration of that concept. The second drawing is the final product. Some drawings require an hour of retouching, particularly if I combine two or three illustrations. I’ve also spent dozens of hours erasing pencil lines!
Only 100 more to go!
Before and after an artful reconstruction. Some illustrations I have to deconstruct character by character and reconstruct into the proper shape that better illustrates the concept of the story. In this case, either the original 8.5 x 11″ drawing would have gotten too small for the 6 x 9″ final, or I would have had to crop off one or two kids. This drawing was done by Aldana Mediamolle, a student at the Kennedy Elementary School in Argentina.
Step 12. School photo.
For the back cover of the book, we make a school class photograph of the students and staff standing in a fun shape, like a bicycle, cupcake or worm. It is an overambitious project, with a lot of variables. I’m always surprised when these pictures turn out so great! Each one also makes a giant framed photo that will be hanging in the school office until the end of time.
Time-lapse video of the school photo.
I think this is a beautiful picture even though it didn’t turn out as I imagined because I didn’t correct enough for perspective, which makes the muffin top look too small. The photo was taken on St. Patrick’s Day when all the kids were wearing green. I asked everyone with a red coat to be part of the cherry.
Below is the photograph from “Ruby the Red Worm”. It was very difficult to illustrate the chalk drawing and make it straight while accounting for perspective. It took me about 3 hours just to do the drawing.
Read a step-by-step story about how the school photograph is made.
Step 13. Cover illustration.
The new book is finally here! Perhaps no one is more surprised how beautiful it is than me, especially the cover! I puzzled for months about what to do, including a meeting with the art teacher to discuss if her best students would want to illustrate and/or color the cover, and whether to have the school vote on a winner. Those ideas were good; however, they weren’t feasible. So after one too many sleepless nights, I arose in the wee hours and in one inspired flurry, drew this picture. It’s quite different than anything else I’ve done, and so I like to think I’ve learned to listen to my muses. I also splurged several hundred dollars on a drawing tablet for my computer, which I used to color my pen and ink drawing.
Step 14. Production and printing.
Here is my new book on the floor of the print shop waiting to be bound. It’s the Spanish edition of the kids’ book. “Cayendo Hacia Arriba.” Would you believe they printed enough for 250 extra books just in case there is a mistake in the binding?
Below is the fifth and final and my favorite video of the making of “Cayendo Hacia Arriba” from my trip to Argentina as the Cultural Ambassador. Here we have the real Ambassador to Argentina, Vilma Martinez, and the Deputy Ambassador, Jefferson Brown, along with the women who made it all happen, Shannon Farrell, Press Attaché, distributing the books to all the kids in 13 schools. The embassy gave away about 2000 books to kids, many whom have never owned a book.
I love minute 1:44. I would have never imagined that my cultural exchange program would involve cheeseheads. The Argentina children called me: “the man with the head of cheese.” Also notable is minute 0:24 which shows the books coming off the printing press.
Step 15. Celebration & school book signing.
To celebrate the book we seat all the students in a big circle of tables ready to sign their page in the book. Then friends and family circle the table to get their book signed by each of the student illustrators or writers.
In my opinion, the celebration of the book is the most important step. It helps the students realize their own accomplishments, develop a sense of gratitude, and refine their purpose in life. Giving the young authors and illustrators an audience also empowers them to seed their ideas and passion in their community and eventually, these ideas may become a new reality.
The ice cream social and book signing celebration for “Ruby the Red Worm” drew over 1000 people. It was one of the most overwhelming, amazing and fulfilling moments of my life to see the dreams of so many students coming to life. The students were so proud to sign their illustrations in everyone’s book, and the parents and teachers were almost just as proud.
Thanks to the Waukesha STEM Academy for going way beyond the call of duty to organize this event, which is no easy job. They also included free ice cream for all the kids. At another school, we combined the celebration with a bake-sale fundraiser for The Cupcake Boy.
And, we can also build bridges with the community by inviting the media to do a story about the school and the book’s message, like we did with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Unfortunately, not every student can have their drawing in the final book, which is why the U.S. Embassy created this certificate of recognition to honor every student and teacher who was involved.
I’m very excited. This Thursday the Ambassador to Argentina will be visiting some elementary schools in Buenos Aires to read the new Spanish edition of my children’s book. What a great honor for me to have 2000 books given away to the kids, some whom are so poor that they have never owned a book.
Update: Here is Ambassador Martinez presenting a certificate to Director Javier Canepa of Escuela Pública Nro. 3 “Arturo Marasso”.
Below is Deputy Ambassador Jefferson Brown distributing books and certificates of recognition to one of many classes in a school in Corrientes, Argentina.
They made this wonderful sign. I couldn’t love it more. They summarized the wisdom it took me years to learn. Notice me riding my bike from the USA towards Argentina with the blue and white flag. It reads: “Es necessario hacer de la vida un sueño y del sueño una realidad.” Which means, “It is necessary to make our lives into a dream and to make our dreams our life.”
It makes me feel fulfilled to see all the proud young student illustrators. Below, at the celebration of the Cupcake Boy, a young artist displays her picture of the cupcake boy realizing he is like a greedy little piggy. Pictures like this help inspire new pages in the book and round out the story.
Making-a-difference phase. Steps 16-19.
This is where we get to see our ideas start to come to life in the world around us.
Step 16. Promotion.
Using the book to seed ideas into the community.
It is my goal for the ideas within the book, like living your dream or backyard composting, to spread into our community and become a reality. And the success of this project makes it very media-friendly and also provides schools and sponsors a great platform to contact the local media and tell their story. Below are a couple of my success stories from the Milwaukee Journal and Wisconsin Public Radio.
The Milwaukee Journal did a great story follow-up story about my trip around the world, coming home, and how this all evolved into working with local schools to illustrate children’s books. Read part 2 about the book project here. World traveler came home to fulfillment — JSOnline. (PS. The original full-page, color story about my trip around the world in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is no longer accessible.)
Thanks to Laurel Walker for doing such a thorough job, and helping build our local community by spreading change. I also had a big, big surprise to see that I made the cover of the online edition. I had many teachers tell me that it was a win for the education system during these troubled times of protests in the State Capitol. Also, see the fun photo gallery by Kristyna Wentz-Graff.
I had another great interview on WPR’s Larry Meiller program. We talked a little about my trip around the world on a bicycle, and a lot about working with Poplar Creek Elementary School to illustrate the new book Falling Uphill: The Secret of Life.
Also, Listen to my favorite interview the first time I was on Larry’s show all about my trip around the world. Some of these themes are what Scott can talk about during the introduction to the make-a-book project.
Step 17. Seeing the dreams come true.
We are literally creating a dream of making a book and turning that dream into a real book that will live forever in schools, libraries and homes. Not only are we making a book, but we are turning the dreams and ideas within that book into a reality. For example, several years after the completion of Ruby the Red Worm, I would meet students, parents and teachers who would tell me that they started a composting bin in their own home or garden; furthermore, their friends and neighbors are now being inspired by the book and worm composting bins. So, in other words, together we can create books that improve our world in a very real and measurable way.
Gift-giving & coloring books.
I think the book makes the perfect gift for friends and family. It also doubles as a nice coloring book.
One mother was kind enough to send me this photo: “My kids thought your book needed a little color”. I think this is a great surprise. I initially designed the books in the simplest way possible for children to illustrate. Unlike fine art, illustration needs to tell a story. So I felt black marker drawings would give the kids the best control, and I know from years of being a graphic designer that colors often turn to mud by the time they reach the final printing. So, I’m pleased to see that black & white books turned out even better than I imagined, because, to use modern vernacular, they are more interactive.
Step 18. Creating miracles.
The most fun for me after dreaming dreams and turning them into tangible realities — not only the book itself but the ideas within the book — is watching our ideas sprout, grow and sow new seeds of miracles that someone somewhere will be inspired by a student’s drawing and that person will think twice about their path through life and rather than do what they feel they have to do, will instead do what they love to do, perhaps becoming a Nobel Laureate or even a cupcake baker and touching the lives of millions more with the passion of a dream.
One unforeseen benefit was a literacy program created by the Peace Corps and the Paraguayan youth at a national leadership camp called Jóvenes por Paraguay. The high school students used the Spanish edition of “Falling Uphill” as part of their literacy workshop at a nearby orphanage. Read this story >>>
Talk about miracles
Here’s something bizarre. The illustration on the left was done by a student in the USA and the one on the right was done by a student in Argentina! And they were never allowed to see any examples.
Step 19. The sky’s the limit.
We’ve already seen some great ideas, like: environmental awareness, story parades, literacy programs, community outreach and cultural outreach programs with the US Embassy and the Peace Corps, social fundraisers, and more. In fact, there are infinite opportunities. Our only limitation is finding a creative goal and some dedicated people to help implement it.
Current project updates
Visit our blog for updates on the current book project and more about how the book is made.