Picture Book R and D's

'A Very Top Secret Mission'
(Templar, 2015)
It's easy for illustrators to underestimate how much research and development picture books may require, ideas can evolve through several stages before reaching the final published version. This week, Sue Eastland explains how her debut picture book A Very Top Secret Mission grew from concept to completion. 

If creatives charged for the long hours of research and development that goes on behind the scenes we would be unaffordable! I have written a few words describing just one of my many experiences of R & D (Research and Development).

Idea number 1.

I work as a full-time freelance illustrator and hadn't really considered writing a picture book until a book publisher's art editor saw one of my character sketches and said chirpily "That would make a good story!"

Cat Burglar first sketch

So I took myself back to my studio. I looked at the sketch, I thought to myself: Okay, he's a cat burglar. What's he going to steal?

It was quite a dull grey, rainy day and my pet cat was sitting looking out of the window, very very bored. I wondered, what was he thinking? Start thinking like a cat, I told myself. How would a cat think in simple terms? Well, he wants to go outside. He wants it to stop raining. Then the idea came to me, what if the cat burglar was like my cat? Bored, wanting the weather to change. He might think that if he stole coloured objects to make a rainbow the sun would come out.

So over the next few weeks I put together a few illustrations showing all the various items the cat burglar would steal in order of the colours of a rainbow.

Cat Burglar development illustrations

Then ...guess what? I didn't like this idea! (this happens quite a lot in the creative process).

Next please...

Idea number 2.

Still thinking like a cat I asked myself what cats do not like? The answer, dogs! That's it, let's develop an idea along the lines of a cat burglar stealing from some dogs
Four dog characters
The idea developed slowly and went along the lines of: The cat burglar is going to steal one thing from each of the four dogs, a ball, a bone, a dish, and a balloon. Each dog in turn will follow the cat burglar until the cat burglar has all four dogs following him. 

The last dog's owner is a policeman. And the twist in the tail, a party has been laid on for the policeman's dog and in fact, the cat burglar has been employed by the policeman to lure the dogs to a surprise birthday party. Last illustration: a wild party celebration... both in the book and in reality as  I think I've got it this time! I send it to the publisher, the front cover, a couple of spreads, and a synopsis.

Initial front cover design

"Come to a meeting!" cried, the publisher." Okay!" I responded joyously thinking I've cracked it.

Meeting, London, 10:30 AM, March 2014. 
Art director "We love the idea, we love the cat, BUT we want to do a book that involves the reader."
"Ye..es, what do you mean?" I asked cautiously.
Art director: "We want the cat burglar to be a detective and investigate the case of the mysterious stolen cat food and the book to be interactive in some way!"
So my fabulous cat burglar had crossed over from the dark side, seen the error of his ways and become a detective. How did that happen?

At that moment, I could have quite easily had an artistic hissy fit and stormed out. However, I pulled together some shreds of professional integrity and agreed to develop a new character and a new story.

Back to the drawing board.

Detective Inspector Clawso - sketch


Idea number 3.

It was a few weeks later, after much thought, scribbling, and mountains of crumpled wastepaper, just when I was eating my lunch, a fish finger sandwich, that a brilliant idea came to me. I could create a series of clues that the cat detective could find. A clue trail to solve the case of the stolen cat food. It would start with two clues, two scraps of card cut from a packet of fish fingers!

Once I had this idea the rest of the story seemed to flow naturally. I suggested to the publisher: "Let's include some puzzles that the child reader can solve along the way for the interactive elements." They agreed enthusiastically.

"Great," I said, "I'll get on with it."

Then the real work began!

Detective Inspector Clawso- Finished image


Sue Eastland's debut picture book A Very Top Secret Mission was released on 1st September 2015 by Templar Publishing. 
Sue can be contacted here.


  1. It's tough for illustrators to have to make repeated revisions, well done for your perseverance! It's inspiring, and fascinating to see how the book developed Sue, such beautiful work!

  2. Such wonderfully animated illustrations - and really fascinating, as John says, to see how your story went through its metamorphosis. Thanks Sue!

  3. Thanks Sue - a highly enjoyable write-up and I can relate! Can't wait to see what Detective Inspector Clawso comes up with in the book but also enjoyed your development illustrations - would love to see one of those in the SCBWI Showcase that tours to Seven Stories - deadline v soon!

  4. Shana Nieberg-Suschitzky6 October 2015 at 11:00

    Thank you for sharing your journey's trials and tribulations, it's very encouraging for us all, who travel that road. I look forward to seeing the final result, Well done!

  5. Thanks Sue. Congrats on your debut. This post is such a wonderful example of the curly road of development to full drawn character. And, what a character! I love Inspector Clawso already- I want a coat like that! I want your talent! Okaaaay...


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