Reporting From The Picture Book Bunker


Tiny sneak peek from JOHN RONALD’S DRAGONS

I’m currently in the chilly mid-west, in the midst of the last week on a final artwork deadline, creating illustrations for a picture book by Caroline McAlister, JOHN RONALD’S DRAGONS: STORY OF J.R.R. TOLKIEN (MacMillan, Feb 2017). The last stretch of work on picture book artwork especially feels a lot like being in a bunker; social isolation, hyper-focus, and working all hours are typically involved (I haven’t checked my personal email or social media in about a month!). During intense picture book-making, I also don’t usually look at other picture books, because they often make me second guess decisions I’ve made on my current project:
“Should I have gone with a totally different color approach?”
“Did I choose the best layout for the story?”
(Really unhelpful sorts of thoughts when the deadline is looming).
So I’ve learned I have to turn off the input in honor of supporting the output.

Since I haven’t been looking at other picture books recently, I thought I’d share a little of my current experience while making picture books.

Building exterior (top) and Adam in the solarium (bottom) of the Hastings rental.

Building exterior (top) and Adam in the solarium (bottom) of the Hastings rental.

I feel fairly new to the field of children’s books — I’ve been illustrating picture books and middle grades full-time for a few years, and there’s still a learning curve to the process. One thing I’ve learned is that deadlines (almost) always shift. This year in particular, I’ve worked on books that were delayed (for various reasons) from a month in one case, to three years in another. These aren’t unusual occurrences, and I’m learning the valuable skill of being more flexible and rolling with the punches.

Last fall, it appeared that I would have a month open in my work calendar, so my husband and I set aside January 2016 with the intention of having a writing retreat; time to work on projects I’ve been waiting on for a few years. Since we spend the holidays in Wisconsin and Minnesota visiting family and friends, we thought it would be perfect to pair our trip with a month doing Air B’nB and HomeAway rentals for our retreat in wintry Minnesota towns. We found a super cool rental in Hastings; the top floor of a former historic Bed and Breakfast, and another cute cottage-like space in Stillwater, MN.

Work space set up in Hastings rental (top) and surveying the book progress (bottom)

Work space set up in Hastings rental (top) and surveying the book progress (bottom)

As things go, the Tolkien project ended up extending over the retreat time, which was initially a disappointment, as I had my heart set on some concentrated writing time. But I decided to embrace it as a working-retreat and figured out a way to bring the project (and my studio set-up from California) with me. It’s been my first experiment traveling with such a big project, and I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s much more feasible than I would have thought. My art set-up packs down to fit neatly in the car with other luggage, and I bought an extra folding table to use in the rentals.

It’s ended up being a great way to spend the last month of this book project. From an outside viewpoint, my days are exactly the same as when I’m working back in L.A., but my mental state has been totally different. Even though I’m still working 12 hour days, the retreat has made that a peaceful experience. It’s a change from my usual daily routine, where I’m often scattered and easily distracted, and has provided solitude, focus, and the enjoyment of a simpler workflow. By doing the same work in a different location, it’s helped me to pinpoint habits that might not be serving me – for example, feeling the need to be plugged in and in touch all day, and more prone to distractions than I need to be.

Desk set up in Stillwater rental

Workspace set up in the Stillwater rental

It’s my 2016 resolution to bring these peaceful and focused aspects of this working retreat  into my daily routine back home; to renew that creative internal space for better future picture book making.

Have you made any creative resolutions for this year that you can share with us here?

Eliza Wheeler

Eliza Wheeler is the author-illustrator of MISS MAPLE’S SEEDS (Penguin), which debuted on the New York Times Best Seller list. She also illustrated Holly Black’s Newbery Honor winning novel DOLL BONES (Simon & Schuster), Pat Zietlow Miller’s picture book WHEREVER YOU GO (Little Brown), Mara Rockliff’s picture book THE GRUDGE KEEPER (Peachtree), and Tricia Springstubb's new middle grade series CODY (Candlewick). Eliza received the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Grand Prize Award for best portfolio at the 2011 SCBWI National Conference. Eliza is a northern Wisconsin native currently living with her husband in Los Angeles, California. See her work at


  1. Margaret Flint Suter

    Really interesting to see part of your process and read about the ups and downs of a project.

  2. Shifting schedules, learning curves and flexibility – great lessons for us all! Thanks Eliza.

  3. This is great, Eliza. We do have to mold with our days. Kind of like putty. I’m preparing to add a potters wheel to my office. I am not an illustrator, so I wanted some creative outlet other than my writing. Fabulous tips. Thanks so much.

    • picturebookbuilders

      A potters wheel in your office — how awesome! I can imagine it bringing a great tactile experience into your creative life. I hope it happens, Robyn!

  4. What a lovely space to create in. I especially love this line: I’ve learned I have to turn off the input in honor of supporting the output.

    Thanks, Eliza. Looking forward to enjoying this new work when the time comes.

  5. I love your sneak peek, Eliza! The illustration is wonderful. It

    makes sitting at the foot of a dragon look quite peaceful. My resolution this year is one word: PATIENCE.

  6. What a fun way to build-your-own retreat! So nice to see your process and travels. (And, oh! That Hastings rental! Lovely.)

  7. lovely post! thank you for sharing.

  8. Thanks for sharing! Your post made me think of Beverly Cleary–she never reads other children’s books because she doesn’t want to be influenced by their work. As far as a resolution . . . I’m going to attend every writers’ conference I can afford to stay energized.

  9. Thanks for sharing your process and learnings. Can’t wait to see the book! As far as a resolution not be on-line so much, but it’s hard when your day job has you at a computer all day.

  10. Love this post! So good to change things up a little and get a fresh perspective–I need to do more of that this year. Your rentals look really charming, by the way (as does the sneak peak of your book–can’t wait to see it!)

  11. Thank you, Eliza, for sharing your new perspective and your process. I look forward to seeing that book! It really is amazing what a retreat can do for the creative process, especially when we take it home with us.

  12. I can’t wait to see the finished illustrations! I love the tree painting and it really captures him.

  13. We in Caroline’s critique group are thrilled with your illustrations as we have long been with her text. Can’t wait til it’s out!

  14. I keep looking at this picture. I think with the green colors and the rounded hills you have captured the spirit of The Shire!

  15. This was wonderful! I appreciated you sharing your experience, including your disappointment at first at having to work on the book instead of your writing. But being away can really shift our attitude and creativity–loved that! And the pix. Thanks so much. I have several creative intentions, including finishing what I hope is a nearly final draft of my YA to get to my agent and several picture books in various stages of readiness. Woop!

  16. Thanks so much for these wonderful comments, everyone!

  17. Hi would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re using? I’m looking to start my own blog in the near future but I’m having a hard time selecting between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal. The reason I ask is because your layout seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for something unique. P.S Apologies for getting off-topic but I had to ask!

  18. Loved the sneak peak illustration for JOHN RONALD’S DRAGON, as well as the glimpse into your writing retreat away from all the everyday distractions of home. Love the architecture style of your rental!

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