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How to Design a Children's Book: Cover and Internal Pages

This post is part of a series called Book Templates .
Create a Cool Image-Inside-Image Effect in Adobe InDesign
Design a Hardback Cover for a Young Adult Fiction Book in Adobe InDesign
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Hello and welcome to my tutorial on how I went about making my first published children's book, Ruan The Little Red Squirrel by Rachel McGaw. 

This tutorial will cover the creation of the cover and a double-page spread using Adobe InDesign CS6 and Adobe Photoshop CS6. This will be more of a theory of creating a book and working with a publisher or author than a painting tutorial.

This tutorial documents what happened when I was commissioned to create Ruan The Little Red Squirrel. Each job is different, but most have similar processes—this tutorial documents my experience, and yours may vary. 

In this tutorial, I will cover:

  1. What to Expect From Your Publisher or Author
  2. How I Set Up a Book Cover in InDesign CS6, which will cover the terms and settings you will need to be aware of when setting up a document.
  3. Rough Jacket Layout: To give the client an idea of your intentions and to ensure all the vital elements are in place. 
  4. How I Put the Layout Together
  5. Taking Our Layout Into Photoshop to Begin Sketching
  6. Rough Colour Composition—Why This Is Important: To ensure that the illustration will be eye-catching and balanced and the right elements are drawing the viewers attention.
  7. Final Cover Layout in InDesign including the barcode, ISBN, the final blurb text, the heading, author and illustrator credits and spine text, including the book title, the author, the illustrator and the publisher's name. 
  8. Changing the Blurb Colour
  9. Changing the Colour of the Title Text
  10. How to Create a Book Spread
  11. Book Layout and Planning—Maintaining a Flow Throughout the Book
  12. Creating a Rough Colour Palette
  13. Adding the Finished Artwork Into InDesign
  14. Exporting the Book as a PDF

For this tutorial I will be using Adobe Photoshop CS6 for the drawing and sketching part and Adobe InDesign CS6 for the layout.

1. What to Expect From Your Publisher or Author

  1. A copy of the manuscript, which may be final or a draft copy, so you can get started on the work.
  2. A list of illustrations required for each page. Some publishers will give you a piece of text to illustrate; others will give you specifics of what has to be in the illustration or spread. In my case, the publisher very kindly gave me notes on what Ruan had to be doing in each scene. The cover artwork was left open to my interpretation. Unless the cover has to be created first for promotional purposes, I like to leave that until later in the process as it gives me a better feel for the character(s) and the story.
  3. A contract! Any publisher worth their salt will give you a contract stating terms such as payment (very important!), distribution, deadlines, cancellation terms, and what's expected of you, e.g. number of illustrations and size: colour, greyscale, or black and white. Information on contracts can be found on the Association of Illustrators website.
  4. Artwork dimensions. You need to know how big (or small!) you need to create the artwork!

Ruan The Little Red Squirrel is published by Forth Books and distributed by Lomond Books

First published in 2016 by Forth Books

The Artwork is Copyright Rowena Aitken 2016; Text Copyright Rachel McGaw 2016.

No parts of this publication may be reproduced without the prior permission of Forth Books.

2. How I Set Up a Book Cover in InDesign CS6

Step 1

Create a New Document in InDesign. You can do this by going to File > New > Document or Control-N.

InDesign can be used for Print, Web and Interactive projects, although this tutorial will cover only print.

For this sample document I wish to create a square book 210mm x 210mm with a 10mm margin and 10mm of bleed.

InDesign Document Setup Window

Quick Tip: If you have the "chain" icon selected and require the same value in all the bleed columns, press Tab once. This will fill in all the values for you!

Number of Pages

This is the number of pages in your document. Don't worry if you are not sure; extra pages can be added later.

Start Page Number

This is quite simply what it says; the number you want the page numbers to start on. For example, if you have a ten-page book but the first two pages are blank, you could set it so that page 3 could be set to page 1. It's still the third page in the book, but it starts off as the first page of content. This is modifiable later, and for Ruan The Little Red Squirrel I did not use this feature, but it's a handy one to know about. 

Facing Pages

This would be for creating spreads, as in a book where they are bound down the middle. It is not always essential to provide artwork for print in spreads. You can send single pages, but using spreads can help you balance the layout of the spread and to see how the two pages sit together if they have different content. 

Width & Height

This is the Width and Height of your document shown here in Millimetres (mm). You can change the units in Edit > Preferences > Units & Increments.


Whether the document is Portrait or Landscape.


This knowledge is not required for this tutorial, but it's always nice to have all the information! 

Number: This is how many columns you wish to have in your document. This is for things such as newspaper articles which have several columns across the page.

Gutter: Is the space between the columns of text.


Margin is the space around the inner edge of the document so that any artwork or text does not get cut off.

Bleed and Slug

Bleed (shown in blue) is used when artwork goes over the edge of the finished piece so that it can be cut down cleanly and not leave a white line. Bleed amounts can vary but are usually between 3 mm and 5 mm.

Slug is different to bleed. If you imagine a piece of A4 paper with A5 artwork in the middle and there's paper which can get cut away, this is where notes can be left for the client, printer, or proofreader. 

In my experience, this is not usually necessary.

Slug Bleed Document Boundary and Margin Diagram

Slug is the extra area outside the bleed (shown in pink) where you can have notes for the printer or editor.

Step 2

Here is our document set with facing pages. For this example, I have made a square book 210 x 210 mm.

Square Facing Pages

At the bottom of the Pages panel there is a tab that says Edit Pages. Click on this and you will see a list of options. Click on Custom.

Custom Pages Selection

Step 3

In Custom, a dialogue box will come up. Here, change the Width to 425 mm. This is Width (210 mm) + Spine (5 mm) + Width (210 mm). Then click OK.

Custom Page Size Dimensions Change

Step 4

To use Guides, you need Rulers (Control-R) visible. You drag one out from the Vertical Ruler for a vertical guide, or from the Horizontal Ruler for a horizontal guide, or set one manually by typing in the Guide point.

What I like to do is to drag a guide out from the Ruler and place it at the far edge of the document.

Custom Page Inside An InDesign Document

Then I go to the X position in the toolbar and type /2. This places that guide at exactly the centre point of the art board. You can also use /4 to put it at the quarter point, or use * (e.g. *2) to multiply the value.

InDesign Spine Guide Setup - Guide 1

Step 5

Place this next guide 5 mm away from the first.

InDesign Spine Guide Setup - Guide 2

Step 6

PDFs can easily be exported from InDesign by going to File > Adobe PDF Presets > High Quality Print.

In General, set the Range to the page numbers you wish to export (in this case 1-2) and set Pages to Spreads.

InDesign PDF Export Settings - General

Then in Marks and Bleeds select All Printer's Marks.

InDesign PDF Export Settings - Marks and Bleed

Here I have an image of the actual PDF I exported from InDesign. This is a simplified version of what I use to lay out my sketch in Photoshop.

Note how I added a rectangle over the spine area in InDesign. I did this by selecting the Rectangle Tool (M) and dragging a rectangle over the guides while Snap To Guides (Control-Shift-;) is active.

Basic Cover Layout Sample

You can export PDFs or JPGs from InDesign for this process; I prefer PDF as unless I have specified the base to be paper* in InDesign, these guides are transparent.

*Paper is set to white as default, but if can be useful if you are going to be for example printing on a pale blue copy paper to see how the piece looks. InDesign creates its files on a transparent layer. 

Cover Layout PDF in Photoshop

To Open a PDF in Photoshop, go to File>Open and select your .pdf. Options similar to this will appear. If it is a multi-page PDF, you can select more than one page to open.

Open A PDF in Photoshop Dialogue

Spine Width

Most publishers will provide a spine width; however, if your client is self publishing, they may not know the spine width. For this you will need to know the paper weight, the type of binding, and the page count. Rather than give you a formula, which can be tricky and have other variables, there are many free spine calculators online which are available from your favourite search engine. 

Links and How External Artwork Updates

InDesign is a brilliant program, and like Adobe's other products like After Effects and Premiere InDesign, it links your external assets rather than having them set in the software. 

This means that if you have a .psd linked to your book spread and think, "Oh, I need to move that tree to the left a bit," you can simply right-click on the .psd in the Links panel in InDesign and select Edit Original. The .psd will open in Photoshop, you make your changes, and then press Control-S to Save. Go back to InDesign and the artwork should automatically update.

If it does not, go to the Links panel and click Relink and select the file where you have it stored. 

This is great as it means you do not have to save different versions of the original files if you don't want to. They also stay in the right place so there's no moving an asset around and wasting time lining it up. 

Links that Adobe InDesign works with include:

  • .eps (Encapsulated PostScript)
  • .ai (Adobe Illustrator Vector)
  • .jpeg or .jpg (Joint Photographic Experts Group)
  • .psd (Photoshop Document)
  • .tiff or .tif (Tagged Image File Format)
  • .pdf (Portable Document Format)

Font Choice

For children's books, fonts are a very important consideration. Text must be clean, clear, and not too small. Children are learning to read so you have to make the process as easy and enjoyable as possible.

This font is used for the interior book text plus the cover text regarding the spine and blurb, except the initial R. 

Ruan Mermaid Bold

Ruan Mermaid Swash Caps Bold

I chose the Mermaid font as the "swish" of the S of squirrel reminded me of a squirrel's tail. It is important that you check the licensing terms of fonts before you use them. In this case, the publisher and I contacted the creator for permission.

Both these fonts are clean and legible without any overly fancy embellishments. 

Cover Stipulations

A standard book cover must have:

  • spine text: with author, illustrator, title, and publisher's logo
  • back: barcode with ISBN, blurb, publisher's logo, and website
  • front: title, the main character, the author and illustrator's names

A stipulation from the publisher is that the cover must be bright, eye-catching, legible, interesting, and reflect the story. Next I will go on to talk about how I set up the rough jacket layout and move from InDesign to Photoshop.

3. Rough Jacket Layout

Here are the actual dimensions for Ruan The Little Red Squirrel. Generally speaking, the cover of a paperback children's book will be the same size as the pages, plus extra for the spine width. This varies depending on the kind of binding and thickness of the cover. If the book is hardback, there will be a variation in the sizing.  

Jacket Dimensions

Here's the jacket with the basic information available. 

Ruan Lorem Ipsum

4. How I Put the Layout Together

Add a Spine Marker

Firstly, I create a blue rectangle where the spine should be. While it's clear in InDesign where this point is, these guides do not embed themselves within the .pdf. 

Spine Marker - InDesign

With Snap to Guides selected, draw out a rectangle using the Rectangle Tool (M) and select a colour—it's not essential which colour you choose. 

Adding the Title 

The title is one of the most important things on the book jacket—here is how I created it. 

Step 1

Next I drag out a text box using the Type Tool (T) and type "Ruan The Little Red Squirrel". 

Ruan Title Basic

Step 2

Next select the bottom line only and press Justify all lines in the Paragraph window, which you can bring up by pressing Alt-Control-T.

Paragraph Panel InDesign
Ruan Title Justify All Lines

Step 3

I feel "Ruan" needs greater emphasis so I add it on a line by itself and increase the point size to 63 pt and "The Little Red Squirrel" to 42 pt. 

Finished Ruan Title

Adding Author and Illustrator Names

Next, I create a new text box by using the Text Tool (T), and with Mermaid font selected I type "Written by Rachel McGaw" on the top line and "Illustrated by Rowena Aitken" on the bottom line. 

Author and Illustrator Names

Barcode Placeholder and ISBN

Sometimes it can take a little time to get the barcode and ISBN for a book so a placeholder has to be put in place. Simply draw out a rectangle of the approximate size using the Rectangle Tool (M) and fill it with black. 

Barcode Placeholder

Blurb Placeholder

While I wait for the blurb to come through, I add in a block of Lorem Ipsum (placeholder) text. To do this, drag out a text box by selecting the Type Tool (T) and dragging out a rectangle for your text. 

Drag Out A Text Box

Step 4

In the toolbar, go to Type, and then down at the bottom select Fill With Placeholder Text.

Type  Fill With Placeholder Text

That will then fill an area with text while you wait for the final copy to come along from your publisher or author. 

Placeholder Text

Sending the Rough Layout to the Publisher

Here I send a copy of this to the Publisher to see if they are happy with this. Once I receive the blurb, the barcode and the ISBN (International Standard Book Number), I can paste the text into place and link the barcode to the black rectangle.

This is sent back to the publisher to check everything is good, and it is!

Ruan With Actual Blurb

5. Taking Our Layout Into Photoshop to Begin Sketching!

Next, in Photoshop I have exported this layout as a pdf and opened it as before. The book layout layer is set to Multiply in the Layer styles so I can draw below it.

Notice how I have considered the information which has to be on the jacket. 

  • The title is on a clear area of sky and is not blocked by clouds or leaves. 
  • The branch leads the viewer's eye around the book to the back where the blurb is. 
  • There are layers of interest; sky, clouds, trees in the distance, Ruan the squirrel on the branch, a caterpillar and then foreground leaves.

Once I am happy with the design, I send it off to the publisher for their feedback.

Ruan Rough Sketch


Amendments are not unusual, and here the publisher and I felt there needed to be more characters involved. The characters in the book did not lend themselves to being in the trees so I created a few: a nosey woodpecker, an inquisitive blue tit, and a butterfly on a chrysalis. 

Ruan Amended Rough Sketch

Next, we move on to our rough colour composition.

6. Rough Colour Composition: Why This Is Important

Step 1

In Photoshop on a New Layer (Control-Shift-N), I block in all the colours starting from what I know, e.g. the squirrel is orange, the leaves are green, the sky is blue. Doing this is important for a number of reasons.

  1. It lets the client see your idea before you begin painting.
  2. It takes any guesswork out of when you start painting.
  3. You can see any conflicts that may arise early on and change the palette accordingly.
  4. You can play around with mood and lighting.

Ruan Rough Colours

Step 2

Below is a great example of why we do colour roughs. Here I decide that the composition doesn't have enough red. Red is a good colour to use as it grabs the eye, so I decide that a butterfly would be a good feature for the front. You want your book to jump out from the shelves, so red against green is a good idea!

Ruan Rough Colours Butterfly

Step 3

To make my painting easier, I create "flats". These are large areas of colour on their own layer. I like to send this to the client as well as roughs as it's a bit cleaner.

Ruan Flat Colours

For tutorials on my painting process, please take a look at Create a Multi-Character Pirate Illustration for Young Children in Adobe Photoshop and Create a Digital Painting of a Zombie From Scratch in Adobe Photoshop

7. Final Cover Layout in InDesign

The Spine Text

Step 1

As the spine text is at 90° (90 degrees) to the way we normally read, it can be helpful to rotate the spread. You can do this by going to View Rotate Spread 90° CCW.

Ruan Cover Rotated 90 CCW

Step 2

Next you simply type the text, which in this case is:

Ruan The Little Red Squirrel Written by Rachel McGaw Illustrated by Rowena Aitken

Then you select the font, in this case BlairITC TT, and we set the font to 10 pt for the title and 7.5 pt for the author and illustrator credits.

Ruan Spine Text

Step 3

We add in the Forth Books logo by pressing Control-D and selecting the file we require (Forth.ai) and placing it on the spine.

Ruan Completed Spine

Next, we move on to making the text pop against the background.

8. Changing the Blurb Colour

Here we can see that the blurb is a little hard to read, so let's make it white.

Ruan Blurb Black

Step 1

Select the text using the Text Tool (T).

Ruan Blurb Selected

Step 2

Go to the text colour in the toolbar and select Paper.

Ruan Blurb Change To Paper

Step 3

Press Shift-Control-A to Deselectet voilà!

Ruan Blurb White Paper

Barcode Placement

The barcode is important so retailers can scan the book. This needs to be high contrast so ideally black on white. The ISBN was provided in the barcode .TIF by the publisher.

Next I add the publisher's logo, Forth.ai, the website, and the price.

Ruan Barcode ISBN and Price

9. Changing the Colour of the Title Text

Next we need to look at the title text. The black doesn't really work against the blue sky, so we will need to change it to white—this is very easy to do.

Black Ruan Title in InDesign

Step 1

Select the text using the Type Tool (T).

Ruan Title Selection in InDesign

Step 2

Next, in the toolbar, click on the triangle at the side of the top square (Fill) when you hover over it. A dropdown will appear where you can select a colour swatch. Here we need white, so we select Paper.

Ruan Title Paper Fill in InDesign

Step 3

The white looks a lot better already, but I feel it needs a stroke to push it from the background. Click on the triangle at the side of the square below Fill with a ghosted-out T and a diagonal red line through it. This controls the Stroke colour. Select black.

Ruan Add Stroke To Titles in InDesign

Step 4

This looks great, but I feel the stroke needs to be a little thinner. To bring up the Stroke dialogue, press F10 on your keyboard. Here you can change the stroke to any of the presets, or you can manually type in a number. Here I went with 0.89 pt Stroke

Ruan Stroke Adjustment in InDesign

Step 5

To deselect the text, simply press Shift-Control-A.

Ruan Finished Titles in InDesign

Step 6

Here we have our completed book jacket! Looks great, even if I do say so myself.

Ruan Finished InDesign Layout

10. How to Create a Book Spread

Step 1 

Analysing the Brief

Here is a copy of the brief that the publisher sent.

Publishers brief

So for this spread, we need:

  • tall trees
  • forest park
  • entrance sign
  • Ruan and friends
  • birds and butterflies

The next thing we need to do is do a little bit of research. As this book is based in Scotland and I've lived here my whole life, I know what most of the required elements look like. An image research hunt, however, can never hurt.

Step 2

On paper, I doodled out a possible layout. These do not have to be neat. In fact, the more messy, spontaneous and fluid they are, the better! Yes, the start of any book is this basic. 

Note the inclusion of "squirrels", a "butterfly", the "park sign", and the "outline of trees". 

Ruan Opening Spread Thumbnail

I go through the whole book like this. Some people find it helpful to have these doodles on paper to see the layout, but I like to combine them in Photoshop, especially if there are some amendments I can make. Follow whichever process you prefer; traditional, digital, or both!

Next I will talk about the flow of the artwork through the book.

11. Book Layout and Planning: Maintaining a Flow Throughout the Book

To keep children (and adults!) entertained while looking at a picture book, it's important to create a flow throughout the book. It is also very important to have a variety of compositions, poses, and character placements. 

Doodling can help you come up with unexpected layouts without working too hard. You're not precious over your ideas—these are disposable. Free your creativity!

Ruan Book Thumbnails Image 1

Some shots are over the squirrel's shoulder to show his point of view, others are close-ups, and some are zoomed out (such as 23) to show the scale of Ruan compared to the two human characters. Working with the whole book in mind means that you don't end up with the same compositions repeating themselves. 

Ruan Book Thumbnails Image 2

12. Creating a Rough Colour Palette

Step 1

Here I have the .pdf from InDesign in Photoshop. I create a white layer behind the text as pdfs come into Photoshop transparent if there are no background images.

Ruan InDesign Layout In Photoshop - Spread

On a New Layer (Control-Shift-N), I grab a random brush and start doodling away according to my notes. Bear in mind that you need to keep the spaces around the text clutter-free.

Ruan Rough Spread

Next I can move on to the rough colours.

Step 2

In Photoshop I created a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) underneath my rough sketch, picked a random brush, and started working from the large areas to the small and from the known to the unknown. 

On a New Layer (Control-Shift-N), I painted a cornflower to lagoon blue for the sky.

Ruan Sky - Rough Colour

Step 3

Using a large soft brush, I added a light source on the viewer's right-hand page.

Ruan Sun - Rough  Colour

Step 4

I then created a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) and roughed in some shades of green for the trees and grass.

Ruan Greenery - Rough  Colour

Step 5

I felt the composition needed something extra, so on another New Layer (Control-Shift-N) I roughed in some deer. 

Ruan Deer - Rough COlour

Step 6

Then a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) was created and I roughed in a rust orange for the squirrels. 

Ruan - Squirrels Rough Colour

Step 7

To draw focus to the playing squirrels, I used a saturated yellow green on the grass to make the orange really pop. 

Ruan Grass Colour Brighten

Step 8

Next, I added in some daisies, and reflecting the colours of the squirrel I roughed in a grey and orange butterfly.

Ruan Butterfly Rough Colours

Step 9

Then I painted in a few flowers to break up the grass area.

Ruan Rough Colours Flowers

Step 10

Here we have the spread colours organised, and with the text overlaid you can see that the text over the sky is clear, but the text at the bottom is not as clear. In the painting stage, if the grass is light enough down there, we can leave it black, but if not we can simply change the text to white in InDesign.

This image is then sent off to the publisher for their approval, and I include a note in the email regarding the text at the bottom. They then give me the go-ahead, and next I move on to the flats and painting stage. 

Ruan Layout With Text

What I like to do is have all the colour roughs ready at the same time. This way I can set out the whole book as in the thumbnail stages to make sure the colour palette is consistent and interesting. 

Ruan Colour Thumbnails

It is not essential to send the publisher this step of the process, but I thought I'd show you a cleaner version with the clean line art.

Ruan Clean Line Art and Flats

The Completed Spread Artwork!

On talks with the publisher, we felt that we needed a bird in there, so I added a blue tit playing with the squirrels. This also broke up the large expanse of green in the illustration.

I also removed the back paw of Ruan as the publisher felt it may be misconstrued as something that shouldn't be in a children's book!  

Ruan Opening Spread Complete

Next we'll add the finished artwork into InDesign

13. Adding the Finished Artwork Into InDesign

Step 1

To place your artwork into InDesign, I recommend creating a New Layer for your artwork. Press F7 to bring up the Layers panel. 

InDesign Layers Panel

Press the New Layer tab next to the trash can at the bottom of the panel, and name the layer.

Here's the blank layout in InDesign. All you need to do to place the artwork is press Control-D, locate your file (in this case Ruan_DS_2-3.psd), and select it.

InDesign Spead Base

A thumbnail of the file you wish to place will appear next to your cursor. Click this in the top left-hand corner and the artwork will fall into place.

InDesign Drop Spread Into InDesign

Ruan Spread PSD in InDesign

Step 2

Changing the Spread Font Colour

Change the text from black to white. You do this by selecting the text using the Type Tool (T). Next, press F5 to bring up the Swatches panel and select Paper. This will turn the text white.

InDesign Font Colour Panel

I move back to InDesign and update the link. The text at the bottom of the page is a little unclear in black, so I change it to white, which looks much better.

Ruan Spread In InDesign With Text Colour Change

14. Exporting the Book as a PDF

Step 1

Then, once the whole book is completed in a similar fashion and the artwork is approved by the publisher, I then export a High Quality PDF in InDesign by going to File > Adobe PDF Presets > High Quality Print, and type in the file name I wish to give the pdf, in this case Rowena_Aitken_Ruan.pdf.

Depending on how the publisher would like the artwork, you can set the pdf to be set to spreads or single pages.

Export PDF - InDesign - General Settings

Step 2

Here I select all the Marks and Bleed settings but leave out Slug as there is no information in this area.

Export PDF - InDesign - Marks  Bleeds

Then Export the .pdf, check it over, and upload it to your publisher. Await feedback, and if it's all good then kick back and pat yourself on the back. Well done, you!


I hope you enjoyed my insight into the not-too-often-seen technicalities of producing art for a children's book. Every client will be different and will have their own preferences about how work is completed. On this project, I was in charge of the layout and illustration, which made my job designing the book a lot easier. In some publishing houses, they already have the layout of the book finalised and you have to make artwork to fit around it. Both methods have their pros and cons. 

I loved creating Ruan The Little Red Squirrel, and working with Forth Publishing was a dream! If you have any questions or suggestions, please leave a comment below.

Ruan The Little Red Squirrel by Rachel McGaw can be bought on Amazon UK and from all good bookshops.

Ruan The Little Red Squirrel Wave

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