Kids + Teens

Illustrator Jake Parker’s Cover Process for The 12 Sleighs of Christmas

When the elves discover that Santa’s sleigh is in a terrible state, they let their imaginations go wild—and soon there are sleighs of every kind, inspired by big rigs, motorcycles, zeppelins, and much more.

The 12 Sleighs of Christmas is a turbo-charged read-aloud filled with spirited vehicular silliness, written by New York Times bestselling author Sherri Duskey Rinker. The illustrator is Jake Parker, who has worked on everything from animated films to comics to picture books (and started Inktober!). 

Here, Parker breaks down exactly how this cover was created. 

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Hi, Jake Parker here. The fine people at Chronicle Books asked if I would share the process that went into designing the cover of The 12 Sleighs of Christmas, so here’s a rundown of what goes into making a cover for a children’s book.

The 12 Sleighs of Christmas

The 12 Sleighs of Christmas is written by Sherri Rinker, and when I read the manuscript for it, I gave my agent an enthusiastic “YES I WANT TO DRAW THIS BOOK.”

Briefly, it’s about the elves going to fix Santa’s trashed sleigh, but instead they decide to break into 12 teams and have a contest to see who can design the best new sleigh. They build a hot rod, locomotive, semi-truck, snowplow, and much more. It was such a fun book to do—probably the most enjoyable book I’ve done so far.

Alright, lets get down to business. Once the interior illustrations were sketched out, my art director asked for some ideas for the cover.

The cover design for this was a tough nut for me to crack, though in hindsight it was obvious. The book covers so much, so I start to ask myself questions: Is it about the elves building the sleighs? Is it about the sleighs themselves? Is it about the problem of Santa’s sleigh being broken? If it is about the sleighs, do I show all of them, or one of them? If it’s about the elves, do I show them planning or engineering the sleighs? What sells this book the best?

1. Idea Sketches

In this stage it’s all blue sky ideas. If I haven’t received any specific direction from my publisher, I usually have an “anything goes” attitude with these sketches, so I try to throw out a bunch of different directions.

The least amount of sketches I’ll send is three; sometimes I’ll send 10 if there are a lot of ideas floating around in my head. Usually four to five is a good starting point to get the creative gears moving on both the editorial and the creative sides.

Here’s what I sent:

The 12 Sleighs of Christmas

The 12 Sleighs of Christmas

And here’s the email I got back from my art director, Kristine Brogno:

The 12 Sleighs of Christmas

Great notes! I definitely had a clear direction I wanted to go now. It wasn’t about what was in the book, but capturing the feeling of the book.

2. Final Sketch Idea

I picked the most visually fun and accessible vehicle from the book and decided to make that the hero sleigh for the cover. It was also a sleigh that would prominently show Santa. I designed it in a way that showed motion and energy, and the title was designed in a way that felt very Christmas-y. I sketched it up and sent it over:

The 12 Sleighs of Christmas

And here’s the email I got back from Kristine:

The 12 Sleighs of Christmas

It’s approved! That’s the best news. I’ve done covers where there’s a lot more back and forth at this stage. The “cover meeting” she talked about in the email is a group of editors, marketing people, and art directors who decide what’s the best direction to go with the book cover.

Now that I had the approval to go to final art, I started to work on designing the back side. I wanted this to be a wraparound.

3. Finish the Sketch

I thought it would be cool to see some of the other fantastic designs the elves made for Santa so I included them on the back:

The 12 Sleighs of Christmas

I sent this in and got a big thumbs up from my editor, Melissa Manlove, and Kristine Brogno. Now it’s time for final line art! At this point the team has seen my final art from some of the interiors that I’ve finished, so they don’t need to see the cover until it’s close to finished.

4. Final Line Art

The 12 Sleighs of Christmas

So far everything has been drawn digitally in Photoshop. It’s easier and faster to work digitally at this stage since there’s a lot of back and forth, erasing, and resizing things to fix the composition.

I draw in orange because I like how it looks.

An added benefit of drawing in orange is that when you print out the drawing to ink over it there’s a stark contrast between the black ink line and the light orange. It makes it easier to clean the ink scan up.

5. Inking

I inked this with this brush pen on this paper.

The 12 Sleighs of Christmas

6. Scan and Color Flats

I scan the inks at 300 ppi and bring them into Photoshop. I won’t get into my Photoshop specifics here, but the linework gets cleaned up a bit and then I do flat colors (or my assistant did the flat colors, I can’t remember on this image).

The 12 Sleighs of Christmas

7. Color and Finessing

At this stage there’s a little bit of back and forth while Melissa, Kristine, and I make everything “just right.”

I add shadows, and highlights, I color hold some of the linework, and I add effects and snow. I make it look cover worthy.

I was also told that the publisher wanted to add a little “bling” to the cover, so Kristine and I decided a nice red foil on the letters would really make this cover pop.

The 12 Sleighs of Christmas

8. Proof Approval

I send in the final file, a 250MB PSD, and they prep it for print. Then a month or so later I got this in the mail:

The 12 Sleighs of Christmas

I check it to make sure the colors look fine, and they did. Once they have my approval, it’s sent to the printers!

9. Hold Finished Book In Your Hands

The 12 Sleighs of Christmas

This is my eighth children’s book, and it’s probably the one I’m most proud of. I put my ALL into this book. It was so much fun to design the sleighs, but more importantly, the crew at Chronicle Books and the author Sherri Rinker were a dream to work with.


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You can find The 12 Sleighs of Christmas here.

Jenna Homen

Jenna Homen

Content and Community Manager at Chronicle Books. When she's logged off, she can be found painting, cooking, camping, or petting her dog Harley. You can follow her on Twitter at @jn_na.
Jenna Homen

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1 Comment

  • Leigh Cutrone February 22, 2018 at 10:27 am

    LOVE this article showing all the steps to a finished illustrated children’s book. I have absolutely NO drawing talent so this was so interesting to see all the work and steps by the talented artist,
    Jake Parker. Thank you for this.


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