The Story of TATTOO STORY (+Book Giveaway!)

Hi everyone! I’m taking a break from my series about classic PB animal characters so that I can share about my new book, TELL ME A TATTOO STORY (written by Alison McGhee, published by Chronicle Books), which just released this week! YAY!! The illustration journey is unique to each book, and I’m excited to share how it went with this one.

TattooStory_coverWEBAlso, if you’d like, add a comment below for a chance to win a signed copy of this book! The winner will be chosen at random, and I’ll announce the winner on May 13th. 

When I got the call from my agent about a picture book manuscript by Alison McGhee about tattoos, you can imagine I was intrigued and excited! A picture book about tattoos? Is that possible? Turns out, yes, it is. In TELL ME A TATTOO STORY, a father tells his little son the story behind each of his tattoos, and together they go on a beautiful journey through family history. There’s a tattoo from a favorite book his mother used to read him, one from something his father used to tell him, and one from the longest trip he ever took. And there is a little heart with numbers inside—which might be the best tattoo of them all. Alison McGhee wrote this story inspired by her own children and their many tattoos.

After lots of inspiration gathering (for this book, looking at A LOT of tattoos!), the first thing I draw for a new story are the characters. My vision for this book was to get all retro with the characters. My thinking was that most everyone who gets tattoos are inspired by the classic tattoos of the early 20th century, so my vision was to infuse the story with some 1950’s flair.


First character sketches (top), revised character sketches (bottom)

It turned out that Alison’s vision for this book went in a different direction, and she felt it important that the characters be modern-day, blue collar tattooed parents, and that the father also be a war veteran. So I created new character sketches based on that feedback. The characters morphed from retro to present day versions of the same family.

[A quick aside for picture book writers who are saying “What?? I thought authors had no say in the artwork!” It’s true that this is an unusual circumstance. Chronicle Books is unique in that they often keep their picture book authors more involved through the art process, and also this story was a personal one for Alison (an author with major clout!). But generally, apart from these points, over the course of the project I was given free reign to imagine what most of the scenes showed.]

For this book, I had the challenge of trying to figure out how to show a story that unfolds in the present, and also flashes back to scenes that happened in the past. My thumbnail sketch (which is about 1 inch by 2 inches) of this scene shows how I’m thinking of differentiating the flashback by giving it fuzzy edges:

Tattoo_thumbnail sketch_ewheeler

Here’s how the sketch evolved:
Tattoo_full sketch_ewheeler
Once all the sketches were developed and approved, I created a color storyboard for myself to figure out how the color scheme would work. To help differentiate the present day moments from the past, I thought I would keep the present day color palette more sparse, and have the flashbacks be bright colors and more fleshed out scenes.


But once I got to painting this first piece, something wasn’t working with the colors I had chosen. Talking it over with my art director at Chronicle, Kristine Brogno, she pointed out that there didn’t seem to be enough of a separation between present day and the memory. I didn’t want to give the memories any sort of border or hard edge, but how could I make it more obvious?


The solution was to make the present day colors not only more monochromatic, but also to only use cool hues. So I used a limited range of blues with only a touch of skin tone for the present, and I made the colors in the flashback predominantly warm hues. There were also some tweaks in the characters that I made, because I felt I was getting a tiny bit too cartoony for what I had imagined. Here’s how the revised (and final) piece came out:


While the present day scenes keep the same muted color palette, the flashbacks have their own unique color scheme. The memories take place randomly from the dad’s childhood, to the birth of his son, so by making each memory unique there’s a sense of the passing of time from memory to memory.

I kept this treatment up through the whole story, until the very last scene, here:


This is a present day scene, but it’s treated as though it’s a memory. I wanted to suggest that this moment–storytime with his son–will soon become another precious memory. So I’ve combined the present day and memory color palettes by blurring the edges and creating a bright blue and yellow version of the blue/beige present day color palette.

And if you’re wondering what this new story-time-memory’s future tattoo might look like?
Go back to the beginning and take a look at the title page:

I also wanted it to feel like the dad has many more stories and tattoos than the ones featured here, so I filled the endpapers with tattoos. Maybe readers will be able to imagine more memories for all the other tattoo designs?


Last weekend I was on a panel of picture book artists at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which was moderated by Lee Wind, who pointed out that diversity is such a big issue in children’s books these days, and that this book shows us inclusion of a different sort. Rather than being about a cultural issue, this book tackles a topic that may be taboo for previous generations, who have generally (not all, of course) held negative stereotypes towards tattooed people. Nowadays we see a lot more new adults (and new parents) with many tattoos. More people are seeing them less as acts of rebellion, and more as acts of creative expression.

While I was signing books in the Chronicle Books booth later that day at the LA Times bookfest, a woman approached me with the book and said:
“So . . . I saw this book . . . and you know . . . most people in my generation view tattooed people as the scum of society. But I keep seeing more and more tattoos on young people these days. This book made me think differently about tattoos. It helped me understand what tattoos can mean to people.”
She bought the book!

To read more about TELL ME A TATTOO STORY, check out this write up in Kirkus Reviews:

Alison is sharing reader tattoo stories on her blog, the Chronicle Books staff shared their tattoo stories on their blog, or share your own on twitter using the hashtag #MyTattooStory and tag @ChronicleBooks.

To have a chance to win a copy of TELL ME A TATTOO STORY, comment on this post!

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. Thanks for sharing your process! I’m looking forward to reading this book!

  2. Man oh man what a prize. Can’t washer to read the story.

  3. Eliza, this is a lovely post – the illustrations are beautiful and seeing your process and the thinking about how to make the past and future distinct was really interesting. Thanks for sharing the backstory – I agree with the woman at the end, too! Mary Jane

  4. This looks like an incredible book! I can’t wait to read it!

  5. What a unique book! Thanks for sharing your process, Eliza. This is clearly a very special story and I can’t wait to read it.

  6. Great post! Thanks for sharing your process and a little bit about this book. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  7. How gorgeous, Eliza! Thanks for sharing. Can’t wait to see this one.

  8. I know a young family who NEEDS this book. Thank you for sharing, Eliza. (And Alison, for the words!)

  9. Would have never thought of writing a picture book about tattoos! Will defineatly reD THIA.

  10. I am so intrigued by this book and can’t wait to get my hands on a copy! Thanks for sharing this story and yours!

  11. Beautiful illustrations!! Thank you for sharing the process!

  12. Stacy Digianantonio

    Wow! I can think of many patrons at our library who will love to check this book out! I can’t think of any other picture books like this one.

  13. Amanda Sincavage

    Love that you already got to experience the impact of your book! It looks beautiful!

  14. Love your dreamy illustrations! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  15. I just love this behind-the-scenes view of the book, your process, and the back-and-forth with the author and art director. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing, Eliza, and congrats on another beautiful book!

  16. I love the illustrations. It’s great to have a behind-the-scenes look. Thanks for sharing.

  17. Wow! Amazing illustrations, Eliza. Congratulations on another book flying out into the world. I especially love the insight into the cool vs warm colors of the different illustrations, and the endpapers are magnificent!

  18. Fun post, and one of those books I feel lots of parents have been waiting for. Also, I think I have a crush on vintage Dad. 😄

  19. Oh, I have to get this book for my daughter. She is a tattooed mommy with 3 kids and each of her tattoos has a story. Great topic!

  20. LOVE your art for this, Eliza! I’m picking up my copy from the library today–can’t wait to read it!!

  21. Thank you, Eiza. As a PB writer who hopes to be a PB author, I was interested in the journey of the illustrator. Also, The book validates people with tattoos, my 37-year-old son being one of them. I look forward to seeing the book

  22. Love the story line and your illustrations look amazing. Can’t wait to see the rest of the book! Congrats!

  23. Personally, I’m not a fan of tattoos so wasn’t sure how I would feel about this book. You have completely convinced me that it is a beautiful, warm-hearted story that will resonate with many! Can’t wait to read it!

  24. I’ve been told to check this book out and so for me this post was really timely.

  25. Thank you for the insight into your process. Amazing!

  26. Thanks for letting us peek into your process, Eliza. Can’t wait to read this one!

  27. another terrific post! 🙂

  28. I love the inside scoop on your process, Eliza! I’d love this book to be a part of my “permanent” collection. 😉

  29. Great work, Eliza. I love hearing your process and how you worked with the author and the publisher to create your wonderful illustrations. I love your illustrations in Pat Zietlow Miller’s book WHEREVER YOU GO. You are very talented, and I can’t wait to read the tattoo book.

  30. Very cool…thanks for sharing!

  31. How topical! And super creative thought process on conveying the memories, stories and flashbacks. I learned a lot!

  32. Oh wow – sounds fascinating! Gotta get my hands on this 🙂

  33. Breaking down walls, one picture book at a time.

  34. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this! Thank you for sharing your art and process 🙂

  35. Thank you, Eliza, for sharing your beautiful art and process. This is an exceptional book, and I look forward to reading it!

  36. This book feels warm and cozy. I love the closeness in the illustrations.

  37. I love this unique storyline! And what an interesting look at the illustration process from behind the scenes.

  38. What an original idea and a beautiful depiction!

  39. I love Eliza’s work. I love Alison’s stories. Can’t wait to see them together! Also, so enjoy seeing the illustrative process. Eliza makes it look so easy, but I know it’s hard work. Thank you for sharing.

  40. Fascinating insight into the illustration process. I like the contemporary setting as I’m seeing more and more people with tattoos – especially young women, actually. Sequel?

  41. I love the family history connection! So excited for this one!

  42. Loved how we learned so much about the process of illustrating this amazing book as well as why it is so special. My youngest (26) has several tattoos. He arrived last weekend with a new one of a forest on his arm, wrapped in plastic to protect it. Gorgeous artistry – 9 hours of work over 2 days.

  43. Really really interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  44. Geralynne Antonette Berg

    Love the book!!

  45. These illustrations are so nice, not condescendingly cartoony and not too realistic/serious. I love the color schemes and that you actually think these things out. I especially liked that the author had a say in the illustrations because I would find it very irksome if I wrote a book and it was illustrated in a way that jarred with my vision of the book. Thanks for the inside info.

  46. A wonderful look into your process Eliza, thank you so much for sharing this. I have one daughter and her husband who have many tattoos, I’ve ordered a copy for their little guy.

  47. This book looks amazing Eliza! you are such an inspiration. Thank you for sharing your process. I really appreciate the insight into some of the hurdles you have to overcome and how you work through them. The work is so beautiful from the sketches to the final pieces, I could just look at it for hours! I would be so excited to win a copy. Thank you for giving all of us the opportunity! 🙂

  48. Margaret Flint Suter

    Adding to my must purchase list…hello? Indie book seller? Add “Tell Me A Tattoo Story” to my get it now list please! Yep! Looks smashing and as an inked “Granny” I will get a copy for myself and one for my grandkids as they have inked parents!!

  49. The book looks so lovely 🙂

  50. Love it. Congratulations and much success!

  51. What a great topic for a picture book. I often see tattoos on people and wonder why they chose what they did. I’m sure there’s a story behind each one. Your illustrations are amazing! Can’t wait to read this book.

  52. Thank you for presenting your illustrating process. What a fun book for you to get to do!

  53. What a wonderful post!

    I am crazy about those end papers. 🙂

  54. Thank you for sharing your process, Eliza! I second Tammi’s sentiment about the endpapers. Can’t wait to enjoy this book 🙂

  55. Looking forward to checking this out in person! Thanks for the preview!

  56. I definitely want to read this one! Thanks for sharing your process of creating the illustrations. It adds another perspective to the book we don’t often know and appreciate.

  57. Congratulations on an absolutely extraordinary book! Thanks for sharing, Eliza!!!!!

  58. A jaw-droppingly beautiful book Eliza!

  59. I love this story and the modern day illustrations! The whole concept is incredibly timely. I am a teacher and I know so many people who would benefit from this book! I also love your use of color scheme throughout the story! Thank you for sharing your process. Regardless, it will definitely be in my classroom and gifted to others, as soon as it is available in Canada.

  60. Wow, what a beautiful book! I look forward to reading it, and soaking in that gorgeous art!

  61. Love seeing your process!! Can’t wait to read the story!

  62. I really like the use of color, and the sharing of memories between the father and son!

  63. I know the importance of books and reading, but I am reminded of all I don’t know when a book like this comes along. Beautiful!

  64. What a clever idea for a book. Love the illutsrations, Eliza!

  65. A huge thank you to everyone who commented here! I enjoyed reading each one, and am bowled over by the interest and enthusiasm. Much appreciation! I’ll draw a number from a hat in May and will announce the winner on May 13th (so all comments up to then will be included).
    Many thanks, again!

  66. A tattoo picture book! Who wudda thunk? It’s wonderful and I cannot wait to check it out. Thank you for sharing your process.

  67. I wasn’t sure I would like this, but I was so wrong. Every moment and memory remembered is beautiful, precious and resonates with everyone. It brought tears to my eyes. I’m particularly grateful for the positive portrayal of a warm, loving veteran. So glad he came home safely to the love of his life and his future with his adorable child. Thank you!

  68. It looks beautiful, Eliza! I remember you telling me about this project when it was still a work in progress. It’s exciting to see the finished product! I especially love the end papers. They almost make me want to get a tattoo. (Almost.)

  69. Thank you for sharing this wonderful book Eliza! As an illustrator myself and also one who has a little tattoo that represents so much, I really appreciate your beautiful depiction of the subject. There truly is so much negative out there when it comes to the topic of tattoos. I thoroughly enjoy your work and was so delighted to also pick up a copy of Miss Maple’s Seeds at our local book shop here in Northern California. The colors are exquisite. Getting the blues right is always a challenge and you did an amazing job.

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