One of the most popular posts in Words & Pictures, Illustration Editor John Shelley revisits how to plan images and layout for illustrators starting out in picture books.

One of the first problems picture book illustrators and writers face is – how long should my book be? How much text, how many images, how many pages, what proportions and size?

Number of Pages

Picture books are constructed from signatures. Pages are laid out and printed together on large sheets, which are cut in half (giving 4 sides), then half again (8 sides), then folded, making a bundle of 16 pages called a “signature”. Many picture books consist of two signatures sewn together, resulting in a 32 page book. It's the most common format, and as common is generally easier to produce, it's best to submit dummies with a 32 page plan. However, for slightly extra cost, an extra half sheet (8 pages) can be added, making 40 page (i.e. 2.5 signatures) or replace one full signature to make 24 page (1.5 signatures) books. Three signatures would create a 48 page book, four a 64 pager and so on.
Construction of a hardcover 32-page separate-ended book. Jacket flaps are quite unusual for picture books in the UK now, but still very common in the US and many other countries.

How many pages are actually usable for the story depends on whether the book is “Separate-Ended” or “Self-Ended”. 

Separate-ended books have two separate sheets (usually in a coloured cheaper paper) as blank endpapers. That means all sides of the printed signatures are available to use, page 1 and page 32 of a 32-page book are the first and last pages. Commonly page 1 just carries a simple Half Title (i.e. A plain page with just the title), pages 2-3 are a more elaborate Title Page or frontispiece and p.32 can be used as the last page of the story (though often it just has a vignette motif or is left blank). If the text starts at p.4-5 that makes up a maximum 14 and a half spreads (29 pages) available for the story.

32 page separate-ended layout. The brown pages are the plain endpapers in a coloured paper; yellow indicate those available for use for the story.

Self-ended books however are pasted directly onto the cover boards with no separate endpapers. So, in the case of a 32-page self-ended book, page 1 and page 32 are glued down and never seen, pages 2-3 and 30-31 are used as the endpapers, and pages 4-5 are the title pages. That leaves 12 spreads (24 pages) available for the actual story, or just 11 if a half-title page is included. Self-ended books often have illustrated endpapers because the pasted side is the same paper as the rest of the book. 

32-page self-ended picture book with no half-title. Brown pages are pasted down on the boards, the ochre pages can be (though not always) used as printed endpapers. Yellow pages are those available for the story and illustrations

So you have a story, and maybe some character studies and other sketched drawings. The next stage is to plan out the book with a storyboard.


A common starting point for illustrators is to mark out a storyboard on a single sheet of paper, representing the whole book in small thumbnail sized squares. This allows the artist to pencil in the basic design of each spread, plan how the story unfolds over the pages, divide up the text, see where the dramatic points are, and consider the rhythm of the images. As the sketches are thumbnail size and very simple it's an easy matter to rub out and redraw. Some illustrators draw tiny sketches or write the text on sticky notes which they can switch around the pages, though I find these have the annoying habit of curling up and falling off!

Storyboard for one of my books, Jack and the Beanstalk. Note the stickies!

Having roughly planned the book, it's time to make larger sketches for each page or spread. Personally, I draw pencil roughs at A5 size per page (so A4 for a double page spread) scan these to make my dummy and later enlarge for the final artwork stage, but everyone will have their own method.

Next time, we’ll take a closer look at the various style, composition and design options available. 

All images ©John Shelley

John Shelley is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures and the illustrator of over 50 books for children, most recently A Purse Full of Tales, a book of Korean Folk stories, for Hesperus Press. He's twice been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, first in 2018, and again in 2019.


Eleanor Pender is Knowhow Editor. If there's something you'd like to know how to do, send your suggestions to

1 comment:

  1. Great article John, packed full of useful practical advice. ta.


We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.