Five Page Layout Tips

All picture book author-illustrators need to consider how your story and images fit together. Even when the narrative is not told in actual words, it and the art are interwoven. Pacing, the arc of the book, and the structure and stylistic elements of the art are critical to the book’s appeal.

Viva Frida, by Yuyi Morales, is a creatively imagined bilingual portrait of Frida Kahlo. Author-artist Morales combines puppets and scenery she has made with lovely acrylic paintings. Her aesthetic decisions were rewarded: the finished book was given a Caldecott Honor medal and a Pura Belpré award.

What were some of her techniques?

  1. Plan for text

The artwork fills each spread of Viva Frida with brilliant color. Ms. Morales left enough open space for the simple text, which is shown in two different typefaces and colors, one for English and the other for Spanish. This overlay of color and lettering effectively bonds the art and text. Other picture books have story and images on separate pages, or sometimes in finite areas. Each solution lends a certain “feel” to the overall design.

2. Consider point of view

Here we are in the tree with the monkey Fulang-Chang, looking down on Frida and her locked chest. Her dog Xolot is also below, peering up at Fulang-Chang. This God’s eye view adds variety through its omniscient perspective. Another example might be an ant’s eye view. Changing the perspective for a scene where something pivotal happens – in this case the key will be used to open the chest revealing what’s inside – enhances drama.

3. Maximize page turns

Frida sees arrows whizzing around and this worries her. What does she realize? The reader must turn the page to discover what the arrows portend. This page turn has an active role in controlling the action the reader experiences. The page turn is like a scene change in a movie.

4. Distinguish the main character(s)

On pages or spreads where the content is more complex it must be easy to see the main character. A hillside and forest are the backdrop, there are arrows, one of which has pierced a small deer. But Frida is clearly shown because her white dress stands out from the dark landscape and her figure is central. Yet she is compositionally tied to the fawn’s white spots and on the opposite page, the Spanish text in white.

5. Honor the edges: bleeds and gutters

Ms. Morales has carefully positioned this close-up of Frida removing the arrow from the deer’s leg. The central gutter, which could distort a face or other important part of an image, harmlessly sits between Frida and the fawn. Throughout this book the art “bleeds” across all edges. This is a conscious choice that lends a feeling of openness to the layout. Borders make scenes finite while bleeds suggest that the image is only a part of a more expansive world. When designing with art that bleeds off the page the illustrator must include an extra 1/8” of art beyond the trim size to be certain that the color will extend to the edges once the book is trimmed.

About the art.

In case you are wondering how Yuyi Morales did the art, she used a clever combination of techniques. She made Frida, her dog, and monkey in 3D using wire, polymer clay and wool. These were photographed with some elements of the setting. On some pages Frida is an acrylic painting, as are the backgrounds. And there was some digital manipulation. The end result is visually poetic.

Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales, Photography by Tim O’Meara,  A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press, NY, copyright 2014. ISBN 978-1-59643-603-9

Viva Frida is a Caldecott Honor Book and recipient of the Pura Belpré Award

10 comments

  1. A fascinating study in design & illustration! I wonder if picture book art is ever used in schools, with techniques discussed as above? They should be!

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  2. This book is stunning! Thank you for sharing and highlighting it with your artist’s lens.

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    1. Hi Laura. Thank you for reading! I love the colors and emotion in this book about a fascinating artist. My husband and I visited Frida’s home in Coyocan, Mexico a number of years ago and there too was similar color, decoration and verve. Yuyi is awesome.

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    1. My pleasure, Marcia. it seems to me that lots of our readers enjoy insights in the how-to aspect, so once I decided onthe topic, I chose this book as an excellent example. Usually we do the newest books, but backlist books are still wonderful.

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  3. Hi Lisa. Although this blog is titled “writers rumpus”, anyone doing picture books is either an author-illustrator or an author who may be helped by understanding the artwork’s role. Thank you for reading!

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    1. Hello Rita. You are wise indeed. The more one understands about the entire package that a picture book is, the more cohesive the finished book should be. And this perspective of yours will help you see what to leave in and what to delete from your text to make the book sing!

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