wendymartinWhen I was a child, I had a reoccurring nightmare. I was on a field trip with my third grade class in a large grassy area with a huge tree in the middle. All the kids were following the teacher across the field and under the shade of the tree. I wasn’t a very popular child, and I was in the tail end of the line.

As I passed under the shadow of the tree, I noticed a large hole in its roots. At that moment a fierce bunny sprang out of the hole and grabbed me, pulling me down into the hole with it. I tried to call out but to my dismay my voice had gone silent.

Needless to say I woke up in tears and a cold sweat.

I still have dreams where I’ve lost my voice. Words fail me.

What a terrible place for a storyteller to find herself.

I’ve never considered myself a writer or a wordsmith. I do love words though. Their history, the way they sound, how when strung together in an organized fashion they can open up the universe to those who read them. So when I approach a picture book, I see pictures first. I write down what I see. Then comes the hard part of making the words sing. Because that’s what words in a picture book need to do.

wendytoolsYou’ve stuck it through November and have a list of 30 ideas. If you have lists like mine, most of the ideas are stinkers. I’ve been doing PiBoIdMo for more than a few years now, and I do see recurrent themes on my lists. Maybe you also have repetitive ideas on your list. No matter. We’re storytellers. Take those ideas and get visual!

As an artist, I work on picture and text together, creating a dummy. Even if you aren’t a professional illustrator, you can use the framework of the dummy to really make your story shine. And your words sing.

For several years at #kidlitart, with my co-host Bonnie Adamson, we held the Picture Book Dummy Challenge. A lot of the people participating came directly from Tara’s PiBoIdMo. (#Kidlitart chat is on hiatus until Bonnie and I have more time to devote to it again. We’re both busy making lots of dummies!)

A picture book is a partnership of words and images. As word counts drop, the illustrations have to carry more of the story, and things like page turn in the text have to be concise.

This is where a dummy becomes a most excellent tool.

A dummy will tell you if:

  • Your story is strong enough to carry through a 32-page book.

Since word counts have been dropping over the last decade to close to 500 and sometimes even less, it is hard to tell if you have a book on your hands (as opposed to a magazine story.) When a manuscript is laid out in a dummy you have visual clues to show you where your story needs more action, drama or dialogue.

  • There are enough action scenes for 15-20 images.

An illustrator’s job is to take your manuscript and enhance the story you have written. If you only have a few scenes, this will be downright challenging. Think about your favorite picture books. Does the character move through time and space from the beginning of the book to the end? Or does the character stay in the same place for the length of the story? When a manuscript is laid out in a dummy you have visual clues to show you scene changes. There need to be scene changes.

  • The page turns (or the breaks between action) are interesting enough to keep the reader moving to the next page.

In novels there are chapters. Usually the end of the chapter is written in such a way that you want to keep reading. There could be a cliffhanger or some sense of tension in that chapter end. Whatever it is, you feel compelled to get to the next chapter and find out what happens. You care what happens. You can’t wait to find out what happens. When a manuscript is laid in a dummy you get visual clues on your “chapter endings” to show if your page turns will propel the story forward.

  • There is too much visual description in your text.

Five hundred words is not a lot to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end; to include a story arc and achieve character growth. The last thing you want to do is talk about red hair and green eyes, or blue sky and orange sunlight. Leave that to the illustrator. Save your words for things that can’t be seen. When a manuscript is laid out in dummy you get visual clues on your descriptions. Are you using precious word count to describe something seen?

All my books start as tiny scribbles. Even if you’re not an artist, you can scribble your ideas down, can’t you?

Here is the thumbnail layout for one of my books, RABBIT’S SONG by S.J. Tucker.


I also refer you to Tara’s post on picture book dummies (which Tara says is the most popular page on her site, so you know it’s an important tool!).

Once you have your scribbles down, you can make a little booklet. It never ceases to amaze me what a difference having a physical dummy makes in visualizing where your manuscript needs some attention.

ebook-3dcover-miniI’ll be giving a way a copy of my e-book “How to Make a Picture Book Dummy in 9 Easy Steps” to one lucky commenter. So let me know how you plan to take your 30 ideas and make them into amazing stories! A winner will be selected in one week. Good luck!


A transplanted New Yorker now living in Missouri, Wendy Martin has been working as an illustrator for 25+ years. She earned a degree in Fashion Design from the Fashion Institute of Technology, then continued her art education at the School of Visual Arts with a B.F.A. in Graphic Design. After her move to Missouri in 2000, she turned her focus to her true love, children’s books. AN ORDINARY GIRL, A MAGICAL CHILD, a children’s book she both wrote and illustrated, was released in 2005. The book was picked up by a new house, edited and re-released in 2008, then went on to become a finalist in the 2009 international COVR awards. Four additional picture books and a coloring book quickly followed. Visit her on the web at WendyMartinIllustration.com.