ILLUSTRATION FEATURE The evolution of a Picture Book - Tiny Penguins

Five tiny penguins and a brand-new baby – how to make a picture book in just seven years. By Jane Porter


The journey to a finished picture book is often a very long one, involving multiple rewrites, stacks of dummies, and a floor full of rejected characters and scenes. The secret, as my editor at Walker Books once told me, is to “make it look as if it took 5 minutes” – in other words, an effortless effect and a lightness of touch that actually takes a huge amount of work.

I wanted to share the journey of one book in the hope that it will encourage SCBWI members who are just starting this adventure to keep going, and to embrace the opportunities that can come when circumstances force you to be ruthless with your own work. It’s been interesting for me to look back and see how much has changed from the original concept – as well as looking at which core elements made it through the publishing process.

This is the story of Tiny Penguins and The New Baby, published April 2021 by Simon & Schuster. The story began more than seven years ago, when I went to show my portfolio to an editor. We had a conversation about playing with scale and dolls’ houses. I came up with the idea of tiny penguins – I wish I could remember why! You can see some of my thought processes in the accompanying sketchbook photos, dated from 2014 to 2019, where you can see I began with the story being told by the little girl who became Gertie, then later experimented with telling the story from the penguin perspective.

The original dummy was very stripped down and simple, narrated by the girl. There were just two penguins and no baby. The palette was extremely limited, and I included collaged elements from a Victorian catalogue as well as a kitchen floor made from cross-hatching from an old 19th century volume of Punch magazines. This floor is the only single element from that first dummy to make it into the finished book!

The kitchen you see in the book is actually my childhood kitchen – here’s a tiny me having a rummage in the cupboard.


In picture books, a lot is down to luck and timing. And my original version was unlucky at first – the publisher I had the dolls’ house conversation with turned it down because they had just published another book about two cheeky penguins – so my story went back in the drawer for a while.

Some years later, I was lucky enough to be offered a two-book deal by Simon & Schuster, after I went in and showed the team my portfolio and some ideas. Tiny Penguins was the second book, following King Otter, but I felt quite stuck with the story for a while. The story from the original dummy was just too thin – so I was very grateful to editor Holly Tonks for pressing me to discover the penguins’ motivation. I even went to London Zoo and spent hours staring at the penguins trying to figure it out. (It was nice to go back recently and show them the finished book).

It was Holly who suggested bringing a baby into the picture, and that’s when the direction of the story really started to become clear. I made many mini-dummy books until we finally resolved a version that everyone was happy and excited about – I love this process, but it can be agonising at times. There were many scenes that didn’t make it (one particular favourite was the penguins performing a song and dance number for the cat, under the spotlight of an Anglepoise) but there’s no doubt that the book is stronger without them.


The next step was to make detailed roughs, and then get cracking on the artwork. Around this time, I had gone on Juliet Docherty’s colour course which was an absolute revelation to me. I also went to the Pierre Bonnard exhibition at the Tate Gallery three times, and the combination of these two things led directly to the purple, mustard and turquoise colour palette, which I think sets off the black and white of the penguins nicely. The artwork is all painted by hand on paper using gouache paints and coloured pencil, with a few tiny bits of collage. I scanned the individual elements and layered them up in Photoshop, adding a slightly off-register white background behind the characters to help them to stand out.


It was also fun to use objects from around the house in the book, such as my daughter’s Russian doll and a sugar bowl I bought in Oxfam. The family cat makes several appearances too. I was keen to make the book diverse in terms of the people in it, so Gertie and her family have a rich yellow ochre with a touch of purple added for their skin tone. When I made the artwork for the spread where we first see the baby, I realised afterwards that amongst the crowd of admiring friends and neighbours I have accidentally included Judith Kerr!

The last part of the story was the cover – it’s generally left until last as it’s the most important part of a picture book in sales terms. Together with designer Chloe and new editor Polly, we tried a number of options. One of the problems was that the penguins are by definition tiny, so there was a difficulty with scale when showing them with Gertie and the baby. In the end the solution was to put them in the foreground with Gertie and the baby cropped close. You can see some of the alternatives below – before the baby was added to the title.

The cover was finished in spring 2020, and the book was published a year later. I have a great love of making 3-D objects, so I spent some of those long months of waiting making some needle-felted penguins and creating a little animation with them. I also designed some downloadable tiny penguin finger puppets to help promote the book – if you’d like to make some, there’s a video here to show you how with a link for the template in the caption.

I held an online book launch since Covid restrictions are still in place at the time of writing, but it was such a nice experience – with over 130 participants of all ages from all over the world – that I think I will do it again in future, even when drinks in bookshops are allowed again.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the journey of Tiny Penguins and the New Baby from tiny idea to publication – and whatever stage you are at on your own publication journey, I hope it has given you some encouragement. 

Jane Porter is an award-winning picture book author and illustrator who loves rivers, wildlife, teaching and playing the fiddle. Website: 

Jane's You Tube Channel
Twitter: @TheJanePorter
Agent: Philippa Milnes Smith



  1. I absolutely LOVE features like this and I LOVE Jane Porter's work! My copy of Tiny Penguins has just arrived and it's a jewel in my treasure trove of picture books. Thanks for this, Jane!

  2. Wonderful to read your journey with this book, thankyou Jane!

  3. What a great article, thanks Jane.


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