The Argonauts Logo

How the book is made

The following is a step by step summary of a 3-month project and an ever-changing and improving process. In summary:

  • Planning. Steps 0-3.
  • Creating. Steps 4-12.
  • Celebrating. Steps 13-19.

Step 0. Passion.

This is the blank canvas facing every artist—creating the space for the project to exist and finding passionate team members. Even more important than the artist is the community leader with the passion and commitment to shepherd this project, someone whose special talent and love is connecting people, organizing events and hurdling walls. The project needs people committed to creating solutions to take the book from a dream into a reality.

For me it is work of passion that I feel my life has been training me to do. It is amazing, even years later, to meet kids that remember me and tell me about how their dreams are becoming realities, and how the ideas in the books are coming true.


Step 1. Planning.

Meetings with team members to establish goals.

Behind the scenes introductions include several meetings with the staff and the parent-teacher organization, so that everyone has a chance to contribute opportunities for everyone to participate, including ideas about the subject of the book, and how those ideas might come to fruition in the community. For example, with Ruby the Red Worm we hoped it would inspire homes and schools to begin composting their scraps and using that compost to help nourish a garden.


Step 2. Social awareness and fundraising.

Promoting the book’s goals.

Another critical step is to gather support for the project and maximize our goals. This includes promoting the creation of the book, extra-curricular activities and a possible fundrasier.


Step 3. Research and writing.

Long before I begin the projects, I have been concepting ideas, researching and letting the ideas simmer in my subconscious before I'm ready to put pen to paper. This is my most intimidating step — writing an educational, inspiring and entertaining story. I didn't just pick those adjectives randomly. I feel every story must be educational, inspiring and entertaining in order to engage readers of all ages. And the best part is that the students will contribute even more great ideas once we begin, helping bring the stories to life.


Step 4. Slideshow.

Introducing Scott and his world bicycle ride.

Before I begin working on a new book with the school children, I like to introduce myself with a slideshow about my trip around the world on a bicycle, called "If you could do anything, what would you do?" I also bring lots of extras, like: a set of free books for the library, bookmarks, reader-teacher guides, world map, my bicycle, and more. In this case, I pitched my tent in the library for the kids to explore; and I also set up my stove (without the fuel), cookware and water filter.

Scott's tent in the school library

Students admiring the map of Scott's cycling trip round the world


Step 5. Concepting and story time.

Scott working with a class of art studentsIdeally, if time and budget allow, I can spend an additional week with students to co-create the story. We talk about the elements of a story and what type of stories they might like to create. For example, one school had a pond, and wanted to write a story about the pond, the animals and the ecosystem.

When we’re ready to begin illustrating the book, I work with the students for 5-7 days as the artist-in-residence. I start by summarizing that we are creating a real book that will be in libraries for everyone to read; in this case, Ruby the Red Worm's Dirty Job, a book about composting and living a life of passion. Then I read the story to the students and ask for volunteers to illustrate sentences or concepts that inspire them. I literally give the first student to raise their hand a page from the book. By the end of the week, I have over a 1000 drawings to choose from!


Step 6. Character naming contest.

We are constantly looking for ways to get as many students involved and recognized as possible. One fun idea to get the students more involved in the production of the book was to have them name the characters in the story. So I, along with my self-appointed fan club, made this ballot box.

STEM Academy students voting for their favorite bug

Above is polite group of girls naming their favorite bugs. Before them the table was mobbed with students resulting in a mess of blurry pictures.

Bug ballot box

The can was half full within 1.5 hours and by the end of the week, we had hundreds of votes. I think my personal favorite was Honeynester the Bee. We also had dozens of names such as: Worm the Fly and Snail the Butterfly. It’s interesting how the students seem to collectively decide to do such things without any leader.

 


Step 7. Illustrating the book.

Above one of 18 art classes at theWaukesha STEM Academy charter school is working on their drawings for “Ruby the Red Worm’s Dirty Job”, and below students investigate live worms in a composting bin. It has been a privilege to work with this school. The kids have been overwhelmingly energetic and creative.

Student examining keywords for the book I continue to learn how to work with the various ways kids learn and create. Some students prefer to illustrate an actual sentence from the book, which requires a more literal interpretation; while other students prefer a more conceptual approach. In the photo above, a student studies keywords for missing pages in the book, including a few extra key phrases to see if they would generate any creative drawings — and they did! — so I then rewrote the book to fit the new pictures. One of my favorite pages not in the original manuscripts is about the worm astronauts. Worms indeed have been sent to space in NASA experiments.

And below two students collaborate on one picture. It is quite common to see this level of cooperation at the STEM school. Still it amazed me to witness the students so lost in the passion of the drawing that ownership never crossed their minds. Sometimes I would ask some students to illustrate a background image and others to illustrate the subject, which I would combine on the computer.

STEM student's collaborating on an illustration


Step 8. Collateral school projects
and Backyard Adventures.

Bringing the book to life in the classroom.

Elephant sculpture made from detergent bottles

During my visit, which was Reading Week, one of the teachers organized a Storybook Parade, where all the teachers dressed as their favorite storybook character and paraded through the hallways. The kids loved it! I’ve never heard so many squeals of delight. It really made me a little jealous that I didn’t go to the STEM school as a kid.

Above we see Hansel; and bringing up the tail of the parade, we see Scott in red pajamas as Ruby the Red Worm. Below, back in the art room, the kids in costume and character jump around for impromptu photos.

Elephant sculpture made from detergent bottles

Backyard Adventure Assignment: There are a lot of great online resources for building your own compost bin and using the compost to fertilize your garden. This is a great way to recycle your scraps and reduce your eco-footprint by eating more local food.

While I was producing the final book, the students continued exploring some related projects. Pictured here is Mrs. Lambert’s class examining some red worms up close; and in the background, hanging from the ceiling, are tiers of homemade composting bins made from 2-liter bottles hanging from the ceiling. The top tiers are homes to some happy plants. The worms made good models for the art class, and a lot of dirty hands. Also, pictured is one of Mrs. Hyland’s music students composing a theme song for Ruby the Red Worm. Some students would sing their songs while illustrating.

Ruby the Red Worm's Dirty Job


Step 9. Choosing drawings for the book.

Drawings for Ruby the Red Worm

After working with the elementary students for at least a week in the classroom, I get approximately 1000 drawings to choose from. So, being more of the right-brained-artistic type, it is a major organizational challenge — I’ve never used so many folders, stickies, paper clips, dividers and color markers.

Here you see that I have laid the book out on the floor with my tentative favorites in place. Also pictured are dozens of folders. First I organize the pictures alphabetically by grade and teacher, since some kids will draw 10 pictures. As I progress, choosing pictures becomes harder, and I need to be more creative, such as combining two student drawings into one. I will also reorganize the piles by page number or subject matter. And constantly I am subdividing the pictures into favorites, seconds (maybes), thirds (probably-nots), miscellaneous, unknown and more….

It seems every time I look, I see the pictures in a new way, and am impressed by the creativity and humor of the young students.

Update: Ms. Nagan, the art teacher, gathered some of her best illustrators for the STEM school’s application hour, to help me fill the missing pages. The book is looking fantastic thanks to the students overwhelming enthusiasm — and I mean overwhelming.

I also scouted the rooftop for the class photo. It took less than 5 seconds for the kids to scream: “Scott Stoll is on the roof.” I think elementary students are a lot like prairie dogs.


Step 10: Retouching and collaging the drawings.

Drawings for Ruby the Red WormAfter sorting through my foot-tall stack of drawings, I begin selecting and editing my favorites, and sometimes make collages to include as many students as possible.

The first pictures shows the original scan. You can see the line from the story on the top of the page and the students marker illustration of that concept, which shows a field of flowers toasting Ruby the Red Worm with a cup of tea.

The second drawing is a closeup depicting how I must delete the words from the illustration. I’ve also spent dozens of hours erasing pencil lines!

In the third drawing, I zoom in even closer to delete the “y” and a comma. Some drawings require an hour of retouching, particularly if I combine two or three illustrations. In this case, I removed the words and added additional cups of tea in all the flower’s hands.

And the last drawing shows the finished product. Only 100 more to go!

Drawings for Ruby the Red WormDrawings for Ruby the Red Worm

Drawings for Ruby the Red Worm

Composition.

Cayendo Hacia Arriba

Before and after an artful reconstruction. Some illustrations I have to deconstruct character by character and reconstruct into the proper shape that better illustrates the concept of the story. In this case, either the original 8.5 11" drawing would have gotten too small for the 6x 9" final, or I would have had to crop off one or two kids. This drawing was done by Aldana Mediamolle, a student at the Kennedy Elementary school in Argentina.


Step 11. School photo.

Today I will be taking a school class photograph of the students in staff standing in this shape. It is an overambitious project, with a lot of variables.

Above is my diagram of the school playground with the school at the bottom of the photograph. And below is my location scout made from the roof of the school. Notice that it took about 5 seconds for kids to scream: “Scott Stoll is on the roof.” I think they’re a lot like prairie dogs.

I’ve been observing the weather, waiting for the snow to melt, hoping for a cloudy day to avoid the high contrast and shadows, and also hoping to schedule a time when the playground will be in the shadow. Among my challenges, will be:

  • Drawing a giant picture in chalk
  • Calculating the correct perspective and space for the students to comfortably fill the lines
  • Organizing the students into groups of red and blue shirts. Fortunately the teachers are great at this.
  • Accounting for all the unforeseen variables
  • And accomplishing this all before everyone goes stir crazy and breaks formation.

I seem to learn all these things the hard way. If life was easy, it wouldn’t be new.

School class photo for Ruby the Red Worm

Drawings for Ruby the Red WormI’m very surprised this picture turned out so great! Another one of my personal favorites. And a giant framed photo will soon be hanging in the school office until the end of times.

It was very difficult to illustrate the chalk drawing and make it straight while accounting for perspective. It took me about 3 hours, and I was flying around the playground backwards so much I think it gave me bronchitis.

Below you can see a picture of the chalk outline from the point of view of the playground. It appears incomprehensible. And the next aerial view shows Mrs. Krzysik surveying the chalk drawing “We ❤ worms” and preparing to organize the students by grade and the color of their T-shirts. Due to the nature of kids, we had a limited amount of time to form the picture and capture a lot of smiling faces. Of course, when you want clouds, you get sun. And, I miscalculated the morning shadows since the sun was still in the southern hemisphere rather than due east, which created too much contrast and long shadows. We solved some of these problems by having the kids sit down. In the previous photo they were all standing.

See the preparation for this photo.

School class photo for Ruby the Red Worm

School class photo for Ruby the Red Worm

I think this is a beautiful picture even though it didn’t turn out as I imagined. The photo was taken on St. Patrick’s Day when all the kids were wearing green. I asked everyone with a red coat to be part of the cherry. I also didn’t account for perspective, which makes the muffin top look too small. Below you can see my preparatory drawing using a satellite image of the playground and a cupcake illustration, which I then transferred to the school playground using chalk and a grid pattern.


Step 12. Cover illustration.

Ruby the Red Worm's Dirty Job
The new book is finally here! Perhaps no one is more surprised how beautiful it is then me, especially the cover! I puzzled for months about what to do, including a meeting with the art teacher discussing if her best students would want to illustrate and/or color the cover, and whether to have the school vote on a winner. Those ideas were good; however, they weren’t feasible. So after one-too-many sleepless nights, I arose in the wee hours and in one inspired flurry, drew this picture. It’s quite different than anything else I’ve done, and so I like to think I’ve learned to listen to my muses. I also splurged several hundred dollars that I don’t have on a drawing tablet for my computer, which I used to color my pen and ink drawing.


Step 13. Production and printing.

Cayendo Hacia Arriba at the printer

Here is my new book on the floor of the print shop waiting to be bound. It’s the Spanish edition of the kids book. “Cayendo Hacia Arriba.” I needed to hover over the guys at the shop, because it just wasn’t getting done on schedule. Grr!

Would you believe they printed enough for 250 extra books just in case there is a mistake in binding?

Here is the fifth and final and my favorite video of the making of "Cayendo Hacia Arriba" from my trip to Argentina as the Cultural Ambassador. Here we have the real Ambassador to Argentina, Vilma Martinez, and the Deputy Ambassador, Jefferson Brown, along with the women who made it all happen, Shannon Farrell, Press Attaché, distributing the books to all the kids in 12 schools. The embassy gave away about 2000 books to kids that have never owned a book.

I love minute 1:44. I would have never imagined that my cultural exchange program would involve cheeseheads. The Argentina children called me: “the man with the head of cheese”. Also notable is minute 0:24 which shows the books coming off the printing press.


Step 14. Celebration & school book signing.

School book signing for Ruby the Red Worm

The ice cream social and book signing celebration for “Ruby the Red Worm” drew over a 1000 people. It was one of the most overwhelming, amazing and fulfilling moments of my life to see the dreams of so many students coming to life. The students were so proud to sign their illustrations in everyone’s book; and the parent’s and teachers were almost just as proud.

Thanks to the Waukesha STEM Academy for going way beyond the call of duty to organize this event, which is no easy job. They also included free ice cream for all the kids. An idea for future fundraisers would be to include cupcakes for sale for books like the upcoming “Cupcake Boy”.

School book signing for Ruby the Red Worm

School book signing for Ruby the Red Worm


Unfortunately not every student can have their drawing in the final book, that is why the U.S. Embassy created this certificate of recognition to honore every student and teacher that was involved.

Certificate of Recognition

Certificate of RecognitionI’m very excited. This Thursday the Ambassador to Argentina will be visiting some elementary schools in Buenos Aires to read the new Spanish edition of my children’s book. The kids will be receiving their own copy of the book and the certificate of recognition pictured above. We added another 18 illustrations to the certificate to honor even more students. What a great honor for me to have 2000 books given away to the kids, some whom are so poor that they have never owned a book.

Update: Here is Ambassador Martinez presenting a certificate to Director Javier Canepa of Escuela Pública Nro. 3 “Arturo Marasso”.


In my opinion the celebration of the book is the most important step. It helps the students realize their purpose in life, take a step of action with their passion and own their participation. The they are empowered to seed their ideas and passion in their community, and eventually these ideas may become a new reality. Assuming a few bumps in the road turning dreams into reality is my philosophy of falling uphill. See Step 18 below.

Below is Deputy Ambassador Jefferson Brown distributing books and certificates of recognition to one of many classes in a school in Corrientes, Argentina.

They made this wonderful sign. Notice me riding my bike towards Argentina with the blue and white flag. It reads: "Es necessario hacer de la vida un sueño y del sueño una realidad." Which means: It is necessary to make our lives into a dream and to make our dreams our life.


Step 15. Fund raiser.

School class photo for The Cupcake Boy with Amy Belle Elementary

My goal is for every student to get a free book. Here are some ideas how >>>

Example of a fundraiser: We celebrated the new book, The Cupcake Boy, at Amy Belle Elementary at their Spring Fling. It was a big success! It makes me feel fulfilled to see all the proud young student illustrators. Below is a young artist displaying her picture of the cupcake boy realizing he is like a greedy little piggy. Pictures like this help inspire new pages in the book and round out the story. And a special thanks to the custodian, Rochelle, who turns out to be Amy Belle’s own Cupcake Lady. She spent a week baking monster cupcakes, Despicable Me Minion cupcakes, Cinderella cupcakes and much more. And many more parents donated hundreds of cupcakes to the school bake sale. And thanks to Arma for helping to organize everything in her cupcake pajamas.

School class photo for The Cupcake Boy with Amy Belle Elementary

Photo with courtesy and permission from the family.

Monster Cupcakes


Step 16. Promotion.

Using the book to seed ideas into the community.

It is my goal for the ideas within the book, like living your dream or backyard composting, to spread into our community and become a reality. And the success of this project also provides schools and sponsors a great platform to contact the local media and tell their story. Below are couple of my success stories from the Milwaukee Journal and Wisconsin Public Radio.

World traveler came home to fulfillment — JSOnline

This is a great story about my trip around the world, coming home, and how this all evolved into working with local schools to illustrate children’s books.

Thanks to Laurel Walker for doing such a thorough job, and to help build our local community by spreading change. I also had a big big surprise to see that I made the cover of the online edition. I had many teachers tell me that it was a win for the education system during these troubled times of protests in the State Capitol. Also, see the fun photo gallery by Kristyna Wentz-Graff.

PS. The original full-page story about my trip around the world in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is no longer accessible :(

I had another great interview on WPR’s Larry Meiller program. We talked a little about my trip around the world on a bicycle, and a lot about working with Poplar Creek Elementary school to illustrate the new book Falling Uphill: The Secret of Life. Listen to the interview.

Also Listen to my favorite interview the first time I was on Larry’s show.


Step 17. Seeing the dreams come true.

Vamos Chicas Vamos

A girl in Paraguay holding the picture of her dream to become a dentist. Thanks to Molly Reddy and the Peace Corp. Read this story >>>

We are literally creating a dream of making a book and turning that dream into a real book that will live forever in schools, libraries and homes. But not only are making a book, but we are turning the dreams and ideas within that book into a reality. For example, several years after the completion of Ruby the Red Worm, I would meet students, parents and teachers that would tell me that the started a composting bin in their own home or garden; furthermore, their friends and neighbors are now being inspired by the book and worm composting bins. So, in other words, together we can create books that improve our world in a very real and measurable way.

Gift giving & coloring books.

I think the book makes the perfect gift for friends and family. It also doubles as a nice coloring book.

The Cupcake Boy colored drawingOne mother was kind enough to send me this photo: “My kids thought your book needed a little color”. I think this is a great surprise. I initially designed the books in the simplest way possible for children to illustrate. Unlike fine art, illustration needs to tell a story. So I felt black marker drawings would give the kids the best control, and I know from years of being a graphic designer that colors often turn to mud by the time they reach the final printing. So, I’m pleased to see that black & white books turned out even better than I imagined, because, to use modern vernacular, they are more interactive.


Step 18. Creating miracles.

High School Literacy ProgramThe most fun for me after dreaming dreams and turning them into tangible realities — not only the book itself but the ideas within the book — is watching our ideas sprout, grow and sow new seeds of miracles that someone somewhere will be inspired by a student's drawing and that person will think twice about their path through life and rather than do what they feel they have to do, will instead do what they love to do, perhaps becoming a Nobel Laureate or even a cupcake baker and touching the lives of millions more with the passion of a dream.

One unforseen benefit was a literacy program created by the Peace Corp and the Paraguayan youth at a national leadership camp called Jóvenes por Paraguay. The high school students used the Spanish edition of "Falling Uphill" as part of their literacy workshop at a nearby orphanage. Read this story >>>

Falling Uphill

Pictured above: Here's something bizarre. The illustration on the left was done by a student in the USA and the one on the right was done by a student in Argentina! And they were never allowed to see any examples. To me this illustrates how people everywhere are fundamentally the same with same fears and the same dreams.


Step 19. The sky's the limit.

We've already seen some great ideas, like: environmental awareness, story parades, literacy programs, community outreach and cultural outreach programs with the US Embassy and the Peace Corp, social fundraisers, and more. In fact, there are infinite opportunities; therefore the only limit is defining your goals, finding a creative solution and some dedicated people to implement them.


Current project updates

Visit our blog for updates on the current book project.