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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Carlos

Making the Picture Book: A Little Bit of Everything

Updated: May 6

Making a picture book is more than just art—it's a journey of cultural exploration, personal struggles, and triumph. In this post you will read about the process of creating the art for my latest picture book, A Little Bit of Everything, written by Meghana Narayan and published by Sleeping Bear Press.

Cover art for A Little Bit of Everything | Sleeping Bear Press | 2023

The scanner went with me to the Philippines!


Every book project is different. The challenges are different, but making this picture book was the most challenging so far. Not only because of the wide scope and fused cultural references that the story required but also the logistics part of it. In order to meet my August, 2023 final art deadline, I had to bring my work to the Philippines. This long overdue trip had been planned prior to accepting this project, which meant that I brought my scanner and art materials with me. Why? Because I could not sacrifice the image quality of my scanned artwork and there is not a single decent scanning service in my hometown. Even if there is, this work is confidential. This was clearly the disadvantage of using traditional media, right?

Moreover, I was battling with depression since the start of this project and had to cut my regular therapy due to my travels. On top of that my first week in my home country, which was meant to celebrate with my family after nearly 4 years of separation, I contracted Covid19 just days after my arrival. I had to cancel any social engagements and isolate myself inside a room at my parent’s house. I felt like a child again and decades of memories came flashing by.

Amaya's memories | Double page spread for A Little Bit of Everything | Watercolor and digital collage | 2023

Mushy Brain

Imagine being shrouded in thick dark clouds trying to purge any ideas for a double page spread or having to drag yourself out of bed just to meet the deadline. Just as when every hour counts, an entire day would be spent staring at my blank A3 sketchpad. There were moments when I would find myself standing in the middle of a room not recalling what I was doing there in the first place. It was like having a brain of a gold fish! None of my usual self-care remedies helped—mindfulness, yoga and even my HRT were all ineffective. I finally sought CBT to untangle my messy head so I could be myself again and get back to work.

Work continues even on a wobbly train to Hamburg with my parents

I have been unwell for some time and while I was in the middle of this project, I felt like I was going further downhill. It was like being in the bottom of a barrel and there was no way out because my mind and body did not want to give a fight anymore. It’s menopause and I’m only 43! I was forced into it since I was treated for cancer of the uterus at 34 years old. Untreated symptoms of menopause can cause serious mental and physical disorders such as osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and dementia among others.

The long haul travel and then planning a European tour for my parents that fit a schedule did not make things easier. Nevertheless being with my loved ones during this trying time gave me strength and support. Strangely, the Covid confinement allowed me to hyper focus and get a lot of work done.

My isolated make-shift workstation at my parent's house

Pushing Through

But I have books to make and therefore deadlines to meet. I cannot let my clients down and I was not going to let anything get in the way of my art. I knew I needed help already and the full understanding of the people around me. I opened up to my family about my struggles and they listened.

In trying situations like this, you plan ahead. You also anticipate down days and therefore requesting for a work timeline that is long enough and acceptable for your clients is crucial. I had to account for my travels, which on its own also needed planning. I made sure that none of my deadlines coincided with my travel dates. I informed my agent and client about this but left out the mental health issues part to not make them worry if I could deliver. In the end despite all of the hiccups and bouts of brain fog, I managed to meet all deadlines, toured my parents around Europe and kept my sanity and relationships in tact. In a month as of this writing, A Little Bit of Everything will be out in the world.

Mood board for A Little Bit of Everything

Making art about memories

A Little Bit of Everything is about a young girl, Amaya, who is discovering her identity through her memories and biracial heritage. What attracted me most about this story was the writing. Meghana Narayan's lyrical tale was so beautiful that I wanted to create the world where Amaya lives. Told with her authentic voice, "this speaks to children growing up with backgrounds in multiple cultures as well as to children learning more about the people around them." Every grown up who was a child once could definitely relate to having memories about first experiences. This story is a reminder of those times when we were out in the rain splashing the puddles and running around with our friends, or the first time we felt the salty ocean waves and traveling to see family from far away and expanding our own little world. The fine visual details of those memories might be murky for some but the feeling never disappears. I wanted to fill in the gaps through my artwork.

Cultural fusion

Another thing that drew me to the project was the idea of making art that combined two cultures.

Amaya is of Chinese and Indian decent. I have lived in Singapore and have observed these two cultures from afar. Chindian is a local term of endearment for those who are born with such mixed heritage. In Singapore and Malaysia, Chindians have cultivated a unique culture of their own. But for this book, I needed a deeper understanding of both cultures to find a connection—a design element that will unite the two that will be omnipresent in all the pages. Chinese and Indian cultures have been intertwined for millennia. At the crossroads of my research I came upon Parsi embroidery, an amalgam of two if not three cultures. The Parsis are an ethnoreligious group that migrated to Northern India from Persia, now present day Iran. With them they have brought their religion, language, culture, cuisine and a particular style of embroidery on silk, which they have traded via the Silk Road to China and then back to India. Eventually the Chinese's advanced technique of embroidery and weaving influenced the manufacture and design of the silk saris that became so popular all throughout the subcontinent of India. For centuries the design patterns had become so interwoven with the Indian way of life that the origins of the art form had been forgotten. You will see the design element in the stylized ornate florals and foliage decorating the cover and pages of the book.

But for this book, I needed a deeper understanding of both to find a connection—a design element that will unite the two that will be omnipresent in all the pages.

The palette of the book also played a big role in harmonizing the story, pages and cultures. To represent both cultures, I employed a lot of reds, saffrons and aquas and dark teals to contrast. These colors, especially red, is an auspicious color symbolizing life-generating energy like the sun, life, and blood in Chinese culture and love, commitment, strength and loyalty according to Indian culture. I wanted to use contrasting colors to symbolize the merging of cultures as well.

I tried to create a balance in the layout all the while minding that when I fill a page with details they are there for a reason. When you turn the pages, you will feel the flow and the interconnection through the Parsi-inspired floral ornaments and the swallows, which in both cultures have spiritual meanings of travel and renewal. Amaya recalls her travels and adventures and she is in a journey to maturity from infant into a big sister and passes onto her the real as well as fantastical stories she has learned.

"Inland" | Acrylic on canvas | 2022

Cover art

Unlike my other projects, the cover art came at a much later stage in the book making process. There were a lot of back and forth with the concept until my editor suggested that we borrow the design from one of the pages in the book where I created a mandala as an interpretation of the line, “kaleidoscope of colors” as Amaya visited her family in India. I was happy to oblige since this was a chance to incorporate my fine art painting style of creating ornate geometric designs in my picture book art even though I was not intentionally creating a mandala. In fact that page was inspired by one of my paintings "Inland", which in a way also depicted the symmetrical optical illusions of a kaleidoscope. The square format of the book worked perfectly for this design.

Cover art concepts

Character and costumes

Amaya's likeness was inspired by my niece, Lia. Since I have been so far away, I have not had the chance to spend so much time with her and my nephews. I have also later learned that the author, Meghana, was inspired by her daughters. The beauty of making children's books is that you can draw a little bit from your real life and dedicate your work to your loved ones—a love letter, if you will.

Character sketches for Amaya

Technically speaking, I needed Amaya to have long hair to use as a device in one of the spreads in the book where she remembers her earliest years, her adventures and dreams. My client loved one of my pieces, "Thoughts of the Sea" and although I did not want to repeat myself, the image fits the text. As for her skin tone, I created a watercolor paint mixture exclusively from which I derived the skin tones for the rest of her family. She wears blue outfits to compliment her tanned skin and to let her standout from the warm-toned background elements. We watch her grow up in her memories and as the story progresses.

When working on books that touch cultural themes, I always make sure that I remain respectful by getting the facts right as best as I could through extensive research, similar to how I created the art for "Lullaby for the King".

One supporting character in the story, Nai Nai, Amaya's paternal grandmother, who immigrated from China, became a point of discussion particularly about her costume. Despite the provided visual reference, I looked up traditional clothing for women in China anyway and found articles that explain the difference between Qing Dynasty commoners and noble women's attires. Although strictly hierarchical and regulated, fashion flourished around this period and women's feet were also bound.

Supporting characters sketch

But then I began thinking about when exactly Nai Nai migrated if Amaya was born in this generation. I would assume it was around the 1970s, where none of the traditional clothing in the samples I received and presented were relevant. Because all of Nai Nai's scenes belonged to Amaya's imaginary world anyway, I proposed that she should be a pirate aboard a junk ship instead. To me her character read as an adventurous, strong and determined woman, who might occasionally forget some things (you will know what I mean when you read the book). I also countered that if we proceeded with representing her in a flowing Manchurian courtesan gown, as was suggested, we might be faced with even more questions about authenticity and practicality. Nai Nai remained in her golden years because children probably only know their grannies looking like this. I know, because when I dream about mine, they always had silver hair and can't remember them any younger.

Nai Nai in search for a new life

Similarly, I had to discover the many ways and nuances in wearing saris in every region in India. In the brief, Amaya's Mother came from the southwestern region. Out of the many cities in that state, I chose Goa for its famous hybrid architecture and diverse wildlife, that I could incorporate in the pages. I read about Hindu mythology and any folkloric creatures, like Garuda, the mount of Vishnu, Hanuman, the monkey-king, and Maricha, the golden deer, whom I imagined as the fabulous tales that Ajji told Amaya sitting under a mango tree—a tree and fruit so dear to me. So of course, I also checked which mango variety grows in Goa, the Mankhurd. I browsed records of gorgeous Indian folk art and miniature paintings to borrow design and decorative elements.

To adorn the mandala with elements from Goa, I watched several videos of dances, musical performances as well as festivals and even weaving techniques that hailed from that region. In order to correctly draw the patterns, pleats and drapes of the traditional garments, I studied the logic of wrapping the particular dance saris such as the Fugdi and the Bharatanatyam. Similarly I made sure that the dance poses were true to form. My only trip in Mumbai in 2011 left such a remarkable impression on me. I dug the countless photographs I captured of the bustling street market, colorful hawkers and pastry shops and added every bit of detail into the scene, where I imagined the family coming home during a dizzying regional festival, hence the various dances.

Can you imagine this page as a grand Bollywood production?

"A kaleidoscope of colors" | A page from A Little Bit of Everything | Watercolor and digital collage | 2023

About family and a little bit of everything

This book is also about family—more than the blood connection but also the passing of traditions, values and stories.

While creating the pages I couldn't help but realize how this story connected me to my family at a time when I needed my loved ones the most. My parents are also from two different regions and backgrounds and speak different languages. In my country, which is an archipelago of 7,100+ islands and about 180 languages, everyone is made up of a little bit of everything! I came home not only to spend time with my family after the pandemic but also celebrate the newest member. I finally met my 1 year old nephew, Joshua, and spent some time with the all grown up Lia and Adam, who had a bit of hand in the drawings, too. They wanted to learn drawing and so I employed them (because they also need to learn that no creative service is free) to trace some pages, while we chat about their teenage lives. Despite not having children of my own, I have my talented nephews and niece to carry on the creative genes, the stories, experiences and memories we all shared. They are now adding up to these stories as they build their own identities. The book is dedicated to them.

A family portrait

Final thoughts

I have often asked myself if I would have done the art in the book differently or if I would have had better ideas and created better pictures? Somehow I needed to convince myself that this is where I am right now and I will make the best out of it. Despite my many troubles during the making of this book I pushed forward until I reached the finished line and passed the ball to my publisher. I was conscious to not obsess nor even look at the pictures again and moved on to the next project that equally deserved my full attention. Then the positive feedback came after several weeks and it was a relief. Minor revisions had to be made but still I refrained from reviewing all the spreads until it was time to submit the final art for printing. Looking again at the artwork in a refreshed light, only then did I realize that the pictures were as they should be. There was nothing else I could or would do. I am also happy with how the pages turned out and can only look forward for more projects like this and more importantly my evolution as an artist.

A Little Bit of Everything is a lyrical book that asks readers to celebrate their own uniqueness—and that of others. This is a lullaby to any child who is discovering who they are. Part of the Own Voices, Own Stories collection, written by Meghana Narayan and published by Sleeping Bear Press on March 15, 2024. Head over to their website to grab your copy.


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