Design case study: illustrating The Dragon in the Library

It takes a village – or at least a team – to produce a book, and in this article, author Louie Stowell, Nosy Crow designer Elisabetta Barbazza and freelance illustrator Davide Ortu share insights into how an illustrated book comes to life.

Louie Stowell, author of The Dragon in the Library (Nosy Crow, June 2019):

As part of my job as an editorial director, I work very closely with Design to scope out illustrators and create briefs for illustrated children’s books. I check art at various stages and generally feel very close to the visual side of the process. 

Becoming an author of illustrated fiction has definitely been a process of letting go when it comes to the art. Writing The Dragon in the Library, I discussed visual ideas with my editor, and added notes in the text with suggestions for pictures here and there. But mostly, I left it in Nosy Crow’s hands. My editor worked with Elisabetta Barbazza, the Senior Fiction Designer at Nosy Crow, to create the briefs, then they found the illustrator – Davide Ortu. When the art came back, I was enormously relieved that I loved Davide’s art. He captured Kit, the main character, perfectly. 

Kit, the main character of the book, illustrated by Davide Ortu

We did do some back and forth on the other characters, initially through my editor, but as deadlines loomed, we did a bit of pre-Bologna instagram DM-ing to get some final tweaks locked down so we could both go to the fair with it all wrapped up – mostly trying to get one of the characters’ hair right, with help from sensitivity readers, who pointed out that the way the character – Josh’s – hair was sticking up was something that just wouldn’t happen with black hair. 

First-draft illustration of Josh 
and final version

One thing I’d love to know more about is how fiction designers go about finding the right artist for a text – since the text comes fully formed (give or take a million rounds of edits), so you have to retrofit the illustrator to the story, unlike in my day job, where you think about text and image together from the outset. Over to Elisabetta… 

Elisabetta Barbazza, Senior Designer at Nosy Crow:

Initially I read the manuscript and came up with a few ideas for the cover and at the same time I looked for different illustrators who would be able to draw lovely and interesting illustrations for this book. It’s kind of a fluid process, as I try to imagine how I want the book to look. 

Then, I presented my initial ideas to our covers meeting, together with my selection of illustrators, and everybody in the team agreed that Davide was the best person to illustrate this book.

To decide the best places to punctuate the text I read the manuscript and decided which are the best visual scenes – I asked myself what would be funny and interesting to see while you read the book, kind of like choosing the best scenes of a movie.

To produce the final cover, I knew that my key elements were a library, a dragon, and Kit’s adventure in the library. After deciding the best direction for the cover at our covers meeting, I sent Davide a mock-up of my idea for the cover. Davide then sent a few variations of my mockup and together we got to the final visual.

For the cover of the book proof, I usually just show a hint of the real cover and I thought that the type and the dragon tail would be the essence of what the book is about. It’s kind of stripping down the real cover to its core essence.

The complete cover artwork 
and the book proof artwork 

Davide Ortu, freelance illustrator:

I was very happy when they contacted me from Nosy Crow, I really wanted to work with them. Since I read the synopsis of the book I immediately felt that I connected with the story. I started working on the characters first and then the cover. Working on this title presented very few difficulties, there were almost no changes. I discussed my direction with Louie as I saw so clearly in my head how I wanted to make the illustrations that almost did not need to be discussed.

The cover was quickly approved (we only changed the haircut for Kit, which initially was a little bit longer). This was very positive to begin with as I started to illustrate the chapters with confidence.

This has been my first book to illustrate totally working in black and white. The colours are very useful because they serve and communicate many emotions to create atmosphere. Working without colour for the entirety of the book was a very interesting and new challenge for me. 

Without the use of colour I tried to boost other aspects of my illustrations by experimenting with textures, and different ways of narrating my images with vignettes or different compositions more dynamic than normal. I never thought that I would like to work so much in black and white: I loved it!

I am looking forward to reading more about Kit: she is an incredible character, she is exactly the kind of female protagonist that is needed today in literature. I loved that she was such a strong and funny independent girl.


Louie Stowell is Editorial Director at Ladybird. Louie’s book The Dragon in the Library will be published on 6 June. You can find out more about Nosy Crow at their website https://nosycrow.com/, and view Davide’s portfolio at https://www.davideortu.com/.

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