Making JUST RIGHT – Plus a Giveaway!

Hi everyone!

The launch of JUST RIGHT: SEARCHING FOR THE GOLDILOCKS PLANET is a week away. To celebrate, I thought I’d share a behind-the-scenes look at the process of illustrating this book, from the very earliest scribbles to a final book. But before I go on, look what I got in the mail:

Of course the cat inspected them first

20 brand-new copies! They are so new, in fact, that the spine makes that cracking sound when you open one. My bookshelf is only so big, so I’m going to give a couple of these babies away to whomever wants one. Sign up for my email list any time before January 29 and I’ll enter you in a drawing for a signed copy. (If you’re already signed up you’ll be entered in the drawing automatically.) Winners will be announced Jan 29!


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Now, on to the sketches.

This book started out with sample art for Roaring Brook. My editor Emily took these sketches to the acquisitions team to help them visualize how Curtis's manuscript could potentially come to life. The challenge with this book was to develop a visual side story with a character that could make the scientific text more accessible for kids, and I tried out various ideas in these early sketches. (As you can see, one made it into the final book.)

I knew from the beginning that I wanted the character to have curly hair that's recognizable in silhouette.

Once the book was officially a go, I had a lot of research to do about extrasolar planets, the scientific tools that enable us to find them, the history of their discovery, and astrobiology. On location research wasn't possible, of course, but I was able to get help from various experts along the way who generously answered my questions. (An extra special thanks to Sarah Rugheimer who took the time to Skype with me all the way from England, and Michele Lanan, the biologist in the family who had many insights about alien evolution.)

The alien landscapes are some of my favorite illustrations in the book and one of the things I'm most proud of. I put a lot of effort in trying to design extraterrestrial ecosystems that would feel strange yet familiar. I tried to think of the entire life cycles of the different species and how they would eat, reproduce and interact with one another. It was a real challenge to come up with something new. Nearly everything you can possibly imagine has already existed on Earth at some point.

Some early alien designs.

One of the final alien landscapes.

In the meantime, I was also working on thumbnail sketches. We bounced back various ideas about how the scientific information could be presented. A scrapbook? A fictional voyage in space? A museum? Eventually we settled on the narrative of the girl who visits the planetarium and gets her own telescope at the end.

The second round of thumbnails.

My editor Emily did a great job of pushing me to blend the real and imaginary elements of the story together to make the visual narrative more interesting and less textbook-like. Thank goodness for Emily, I don't know what I would have done without her. (Also thank goodness for family and friends, who tolerate my endless picture book ramblings and help me get un-stuck every time I'm stumped.)

This lava pit in the floor was my mom's contribution.

A detail of the final lava pit. Don't try this at home!

I used a tripod and projector to transfer my final drawing onto the paper. Someday I'm going to have to find a more comfortable way to do this, as those lamps have been known to swing down and smash into my head without warning. But this is how I did it for my next four books to be published, so I might as well admit to it.

Losing all feeling in my arm, no doubt.

I took this time-lapse video to illustrate the last (and favorite) step of the process: painting the final art. I've had a few people ask how I created the milky way sky effect in watercolor, so you can see that demonstrated here. Each painting usually takes about two hours or so, although some of the really star-heavy spreads took longer because of all the white dots. I toss about fifty percent of my final painting attempts and will redo them from scratch a second or even a third time as needed.

I've added this video to my new "videos" page where I plan to put more time-lapses and painting demos in the future. Or you can subscribe on youtube.

And the Winners Are...
JUST RIGHT book trailer


  1. by Lauren on January 23, 2019  9:45 am Reply

    Beautiful as always! I love seeing how it all comes together. :)

    • by Jess on January 30, 2019  12:52 pm Reply

      Thank you Lauren! I'm glad you enjoyed reading about the process.

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