Behind the Scenes of Making a Picture Book: The Vast Wonder of the World

vast wonder of the world

By Carol Hinz, Editorial Director of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books

To celebrate the upcoming release of The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett JustI wanted to (virtually) bring together a few of the people involved to share a behind-the-scenes peek at how the book came together. 

Author Mélina Mangal first learned about Ernest Everett Just when her daughter was in kindergarten. At the school’s Black History Month celebration, she picked up a coloring sheet featuring Dr. Just. The coloring sheet included only brief information, and Mélina was inspired to find out more. The research process spanned years, and eventually I acquired her manuscript. At that point, graphic designer Lindsey Owens became involved and last (but definitely not least!), Luisa Uribe was hired to illustrate.

Carol to Mélina: What was the most challenging part of the writing process?

Deciding how to start the book!  I have at least thirteen different beginnings, all of which I loved when I first wrote them down!  One version began with the city of Charleston, another began when Ernest Everett Just was at the end of his life. There are so many possible approaches one can use when writing about a scientist like Dr. Just. I wrote poetry, drew pictures, and read a lot of other picture book biographies to help me along. Gentle nudges from my editor also helped steer me toward a direction that could sustain the brief narrative. Now my challenge is, where to store all those drafts!

Carol to Mélina: What was the most surprising part of your research for this book? 

Ernest Everett Just lived in the early 1900s and much has already been written about him. The most surprising part of my research was finding new sources of information. The information was not new, but so many more documents are now digitized, which means I was able to view scanned versions of original documents from my home.

Not so long ago, access to these materials was only available on-site, or through more cumbersome formats like microfiche. After accessing some of these documents, then traveling to South Carolina to pore through more documents, I gained an even deeper appreciation for the work of researchers before me, like Dr. Kenneth Manning, who wrote the first biography of Ernest Everett Just without the convenience of online databases.

Finding new sources also included meeting new people. I was surprised at how much joy it brought me to travel to California to interview a family member of Ernest Just. She felt special to be interviewed about her childhood, and I felt special to actually meet with her. It was also amazing to speak with experts like Georgette Mayo at the Avery Research Center, Dr. Kenneth Manning of MIT, and Dr. Malcolm Byrnes at Howard University, all of whom shared valuable insights from their respective fields.

Vast Wonder spread
Ernest Everett Just as a curious child

Lindsey to Mélina: How did you choose exactly what details to include in the final book? Your author’s note is extensive and fascinating and shows that there is a lot more to Ernest Everett Just that didn’t make it into the book!


Choosing the details to include was indeed very challenging.  I had so many facts to share!  But once I finally decided on the beginning approach to the book, I could more clearly see what facts needed to follow. I asked myself, “Does this move Ernest’s story forward or are you trying to highlight your research?” I also thought about what facts could possibly be shared through illustrations.

Even though I had to cut a lot of material from the narrative, I was able to move some of it to the back matter.  In some cases, I added background information, such as in the Author’s Note, where I explain more about segregation, or in the More About Ernest Everett Just’s Science section, where I was able to delve into the significance of his research.

Collecting all the facts about Ernest Everett Just was essential, even though I did not end up using many of them.  They helped me flesh out in my mind who he was and gave me confidence in my phrasing.  I also thought about how, even if certain facts didn’t make it into the book, I could share them in live presentations with young readers.

Luisa to Mélina: Was there anything you learned through your research that you didn’t have room to include in the book? What was your favorite part of the process of writing it?


Writing a nonfiction picture book was very challenging. So many of the facts I found could spawn a whole series of books. Ernest Everett Just’s mother, for example, was such a dynamo of a woman—so dedicated to her community. Although I wanted to include more about her, as the primary influence in Ernest’s life, I realized that I couldn’t spend too much time on her because it was Ernest’s story. But she deserves her own book!

And then there’s Ernest’s detainment by the Nazis toward the end of his life. Understandably, it was such an intense experience that is still shrouded in mystery. I wanted to research and write more about it, but to do so would have required more background info for young readers, which would have taken them away from the central story of Ernest’s life and my focus on his childhood.

Luisa to Mélina: What was your favorite part of the process of working on this book?

The research process was definitely one of my favorite parts of making The Vast Wonder of the World. I loved digging through old documents, reading about how life used to be, and interviewing people. I felt like a detective, trying to solve the mystery of Ernest Everett Just’s life, piecing a puzzle together. Through it all, I had to keep reminding myself that it is not possible to reveal everything about a person’s life.  But if I could introduce young readers to a remarkable scientist whose life was full of challenges, they could see the possibilities of their own futures, despite the difficulties they may be experiencing.


Mélina to Luisa: How did you start creating the art for The Vast Wonder of the World?  What was your process?  Do you approach each book the same way with similar rituals, or is each book unique?

The process for the The Vast Wonder of the World was unique, definitely. I did so much research on everything in the book and on Ernest Everett Just’s life, and I had the opportunity to visit the place he was born, which is not something I have been able to do for any other book.

After coming back home and having all this information in my head, I had a clear picture of what I wanted to show, and I began drawing some preliminary sketches for each spread. When I felt I had a better idea of each spread I worked out the final sketches, and after comments and amends I started to color, with a nebulous idea of what the palette should be, but trying to see where the images took me as well. This last part is the same pretty much for all books, although some are harder to figure out than others. I am usually messier at the beginning and gain focus and method as I start the color phase.

Mélina to Luisa: How did you feel when you were in Charleston, South Carolina, where Ernest Everett Just grew up?
I loved being able to visit Charleston for the book; it’s a special city, and a place that means a lot to my family, so it was very interesting to try and see it from Ernest Everett Just’s perspective and also appreciate how much some things and not others have changed in a hundred years. It surely made me feel closer and more connected to the story.

Vast Wonder color sketches
Luisa’s thumbnail color sketches

Carol to Luisa: Before you turned in the final art for this book, you sent us a beautiful image with thumbnail-size pages and a color palette for the colors you used throughout the book (shown above). How is doing that helpful to you as an illustrator? And how did you decide what colors to use in bringing EEJ’s story to life?

This is a file that I keep separate where I stick each spread as I start coloring, and for me it’s a lifeline! It’s what helps me keep a consistent tone and rhythm throughout the book, and it helps a lot if I start deviating too much from the established palette and choosing weird hues because I can see it right away. This is why I like to work on several spreads at the same time as well, otherwise it gets too messy in my head.

As water is a constant presence in the book I wanted to use it as a reference, and thought that building the color palette around it could work. I realize that water is not always blue or green, but it was also meant to be a space of safety and wonder for Ernest Everett Just, something bright and alluring, as for example the spread where he looks out the window and the water is splashing. From there I followed my usual instincts and taste, as I like to use corals and other similar tones, and they go well with the blues and greens.

Luisa’s photo of the plaque marking the birthplace of Ernest Everett Just.

Lindsey to Luisa: Do you have a favorite detail that you discovered while researching for this book? I know you looked into everything from cityscapes to the fashion of the time, and I’m just wondering if there was anything you found that was particularly delightful or fun!

Yes! I loved finding the plaque that makes Ernest Everett Just’s birthplace. It’s in a part of Charleston that’s a mix of older and newer buildings, and I actually recruited my parents to go with me and help me look. We had a bit of trouble as it’s hidden by some bushes and there are scary “NO TRESSPASSING” signs for the buildings around it, so we were nervous about looking suspicious just wandering around . . . but we found it in the end! His house no longer exists but a couple others still stand so it was great to get to see them in person.

Luisa’s photo of an old house in Charleston, South Carolina.


Mélina to Lindsey: What challenges did you face in designing and producing The Vast Wonder of the World?

I think the most challenging part of the layout was the back matter. On top of there being a lot of information, there was also a handful of unique information in this back matter that we don’t often include other titles. The main challenge came with the timeline, which consists not only of events in Mr. Just’s life, but also relevant world events. We had to figure out a way to convey the differences between these two types of events while also considering the small space we had to fit them. In the end, a color change and an informational caption seemed like the most efficient solution.

Another unique challenge with this title was the inclusion of some of Ernest Everett Just’s quotes. You came to us with a ton of beautiful quotes that he had written over his lifetime, and for a while we weren’t sure if we should include them on the end pages, in the art or layout somehow, or if we should put them on the jacket flaps. We went back and forth on this throughout the layout process before we decided to include just our favorites on their own page in the back matter.

Here’s how that page of quotes in the back matter turned out!

Luisa to Lindsey: As the designer, you’re the one in charge of putting the book together. Can you tell us a bit about what this entails? Also, how did you go about choosing the right elements for this book?

Sure! To start at the very beginning, we had to choose a trim size for the book. When choosing a trim size, we think if the book would work best in a vertical format, a horizontal format, or a square format. When we settled on a vertical trim size for this one, we were looking less at orientation and more at space—our vertical trim size is larger than the others, so it could better present the ‘vastness’ of the narrative. Also, it worked well with the amount of back matter.

Then, once the final art was in the layout, we had to choose the interior font and the font for the cover. For the interior, we wanted a font that felt academic, but not institutional, so that it could reflect the informational narrative without feeling strict. A looser serif font seemed to work nicely. For the title type, I went through several iterations before we landed on this one. Here, we wanted something that would appeal to a young audience but would still feel sophisticated, to follow the book’s subject matter. I also had in mind that the font had to feel, on some level, like an adventure—with a title like The Vast Wonder of the World, we needed a font that was exciting. The font that we ended up choosing somehow felt like a sea adventure; for some reason, I could imagine it accompanying an incredible water voyage! And picking the colors (for the title font and the end sheets) was the easiest part, as Luisa had already provided us with a stunning color palette in her illustrations.

Finally, we chose a matte laminate for the jacket and cover because we felt that a gloss finish would take away from the organic nature of Luisa’s illustrations. She includes so many marvelous textures in her work and we didn’t want a gloss to overpower them.

In Conclusion

Thank you to Mélina, Luisa, and Lindsey for taking the time to answer these questions! If you’re in the Twin Cities, you can find Mélina at the following upcoming events:

  MN Black Author’s Expo

  October 27, 2018

  10:00 am to 3:00 pm

  Parallel Building, Minneapolis, MN

  Book Launch

  November 3, 2018

  3:00 pm

  Red Balloon Bookshop, St. Paul, MN

  Book Signing

  November 10, 2018

  11:00 am to 1:00 pm

  Barnes & Noble Galleria, Edina, MN

  Midtown Global Market    

  December 22, 2018

  11:00 am to 3:00 pm

More posts by Carol.

Leave a Reply