kristivaliantby Kristi Valiant

PENGUIN CHA-CHA is my first book as both author and illustrator, so my process was very different than when I’ve illustrated manuscripts written by other authors.

penguinchachaUsually I receive a manuscript from a publisher, I read it over—that first read tickles the first glimpses of images into my head—and then I decide if that manuscript is one that I want to spend months illustrating.

Illustrating stories by other authors gives me a chance to illustrate ideas that I wouldn’t have had otherwise and brings variety to my work.

For example, in THE GOODBYE CANCER GARDEN, the author Janna Matthies wrote about a family growing a healthy vegetable garden as Mom recovered from cancer. It’s a powerful story of healing. Since I’ve never gone through something like that, I wouldn’t have thought to write that story, but Janna experienced a very similar cancer battle in her own life before writing this hope-filled story. As soon as I read that manuscript, I knew it would be an important book for many families. It was an honor to be able to illustrate it.


Another part of illustrating someone else’s manuscript is to add my own voice to the book through the illustrations. I need to figure out what to add to the story they’re telling, and that may mean showing things in the illustrations that the author never thought of. (That’s why publishers like to keep the authors and illustrators away from each other.)

corasdogIn the picture book CORA COOKS PANCIT by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore, Cora feels ignored at first by her family. To echo her feelings, I drew a little dog that follows Cora around wanting to play, so he brings her more and more toys on each page. Cora ignores him.

Just as Cora gets her happy ending, the dog gets his own happy ending when Cora finally plays with him. The dog wasn’t part of the text by the author. The dog is my own contribution to rounding out the story with the illustrations. Since parents are usually busy reading the words, they may not even notice the dog, but be assured that the kids who are hearing the story and studying the illustrations definitely notice that dog! Kids are master picture readers, so that’s always something I think about as I decide how to draw my half of the story in books written by someone else.

My process for PENGUIN CHA-CHA was different from the start because the illustration came first instead of the manuscript. Way back in 2007, I drew an illustration of penguins dancing. I used to be in a swing and Latin dance group and I liked penguins, so I decided to combine two things I liked to create a fun portfolio piece.


Around the same time I had tried my hand at writing my first picture book manuscripts about other subjects. I had a meeting with an editor and showed her my picture book manuscripts and also my portfolio. She remarked about how much more my face lit up when we got to the dancing penguin illustration than when I talked about my manuscripts!


So I realized I really needed to write about the things that make my face light up. Makes sense, right? So I wrote story after story about dancing penguins. It was much harder to write a wonderfully marketable picture book than I thought it would be! What remained constant were the dancing penguins, but the plots of the stories were all over the place. Those penguins danced for years as I figured out my story. I even licensed them out as wrapping paper at some point. I finally sorted out my story as it played as images in my head. I only wrote down the words that I felt were necessary and not shown in the illustrations. In the end, my editor at Random House asked me to add in a bit more text. I may be the only picture book author that’s happened to—usually they want to cut words!


Writing my own books allows me the freedom to draw my favorite subject matter and favorite kinds of characters and things that make my face light up like dancing penguins. And the story usually starts with an image for me. Illustrating someone else’s manuscript brings more variety to my work and new experiences. So I love both!

Speaking of new experiences, I’m currently illustrating a picture book written by Danielle Steel called PRETTY MINNIE IN PARIS. For research, I visited Paris—what a lovely city to experience! The story combines Paris, a fashion runway show, a long-haired teacup Chihuahua, and a stylish little girl. Oh la la! Watch for PRETTY MINNIE in the fall of 2014.

penguinchachaprizeThanks, Kristi, for giving us a glimpse into your process! 

PENGUIN CHA-CHA releases today!  Happy Book Birthday, Kristi!

And lucky readers, Kristi is giving away a PENGUIN CHA-CHA prize pack! You’ll receive a signed book, magnet, bookmark and sticker! Just leave a comment below by September 5th to enter, and if you’d like to ask Kristi a question, you can do so there, too.

You can learn more about the book at and download a Storytime Activities Kit.

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