Hello! My name is Danielle McDonald and I am a Children’s Book Illustrator living on a little farm, just outside of Goulburn in NSW. The Makers’ Collective has kindly invited me here to share a little insight into my creative life each month and I am delighted to be able to contribute to such a wonderfully creative community.

One of the on-going projects on my desk at the moment is to illustrate books for a brand new series for girls called ELLA DIARIES (Scholastic Australia), which was just launched in February this year. I would like to share a bit of a ‘behind the scenes’ look at how the artwork for this series came to life. So let’s start at the beginning…


When I was first invited to illustrate a Brand New series of chapter books for young girls my automatic response was to reply with a very excited “YES!” It’s always such an adrenalin rush to be asked to start a new project, but it’s usually followed by a mini panic attack of self-doubt when the enormity of the project starts to hit home!

Fortunately I do have some experience with Chapter Books, including working with the established and popular Go Girls and Zac Power books (both with Hardie Grant Egmont).

But the biggest thrill for me has been the wonderful success of establishing the Ella and Olivia series with Scholastic Australia. In fact, it is Ella who becomes the star of the new series – ELLA DIARIES.


So, where to start? In the case of a brand new series, this obviously means creating the LOOK and FEEL of the cover artwork that will be rolled out for the entire series. I guess you could call it the BRAND.

Of course, each book must also have its own unique identity, while still being easily identifiable as part of the series! No easy task!

Fortunately we already had our star character – Ella. The brief for the cover artwork was based around the idea that these books were Ella’s own recordings, doodles and drawings, so the most important thing was portraying the feeling that the books were the diary of a young Grade 5 girl. Ella herself was to be present, but not be the focus of the artwork. At this stage I had only a basic summary of the story for the first book, so I had to just jump right in to get things rolling.


I was naturally drawn to the logo concepts first. The logo would obviously be the quickest way to identify the books in the series, but it also needed to portray the concept of it being the diary format. We wanted to get the feeling of a collage or scrapbook style cover, so here are some of my early ideas:





I needed to apply these ideas to some artwork to get a feel for how they might work in the layout.

Here are some early concepts:


At this stage things were not quite working. Everything was fighting for attention and things were all bit too disjointed. None of them seemed to capture the idea of a young girl creating the artwork. This was to prove one of my biggest challenges – how to make it feel like a young girl had created the artwork, while also making it look professional. So far it was lacking authenticity.


So I packed everything away and decided to just do some doodling and playing around with markers and pens. This seemed to be just what was needed to get things moving in the right direction.

New ideas started to form, and then this little gem appeared:

Ella Diaries icons 2 Danielle McDonald

I started to play with this idea as a bit of a centre piece, and went back to basics with some pencil roughs. This helped to get the feeling of the layout without worrying about colour.


Once I cut out the logo to create a more layered feel with the polaroid image of Ella, I started to see how I could use the background for some doodling artwork that would be in the style of the illustrations for the inside pages of the book. The collage and layered feeling was starting to develop.



Fortunately, it was about this time that I finally received a full copy of the manuscript. The author of these beautiful books is award winning Meredith Costain. There is so much wonderful humour and charm in the text that I could not wait to get doodling. This was just the inspiration that I needed!

Normally when I sketch, I draw in pencil and then trace and re-draw over and over until I am happy with the final drawing. This approach was not only going to be too labour intensive for the volume of illustrations required, but it was also going to be a bit too manufactured for the doodling feel that was required.

So I took to drawing and playing around with black line work right away, and I was hooked!! Doodling is so much fun! This new approach was just what was needed and I have since become a bit addicted to labelling everything with arrows and fun text!

Ella Diaries doodles1 Danielle McDonald

I also had the rough draft concept for the second book, so that it could help me consider how the second book might look to fit the series. It became obvious that the background colour and drawing area would be a great way to distinguish each book from the next in the series. Then it was a matter of playing around a bit with how Ella might be portrayed, and everything seemed to fall into place.


I think I actually shed a few tears of joy the day I sent that final concept off. I remember getting a super excited email from my editor followed by lots of follow up emails throughout the day, as people around the office responded to the artwork. Apparently there was quite a buzz around the office about it and a few days later my original contract was extended to even more books in the series, so I guess that’s the ultimate compliment!


The whole process took approximately 4 months and the books were released in February this year.

Here is the final artwork for the first book!

Ella Diaries 1 Danielle McDonald

And the second book!

Ella Diaries 2 Danielle McDonald

So far, the response has been wonderful and I get such a buzz when I see them out in stores. I am now working on the internal artwork for book number 4 in the series (the cover art is done) and I can’t wait to start book number 5 after recently learning about the theme of this one!

Book number 3 is due to be released next month and I am lucky enough to be able to share this sneak preview with you! Keep an eye out in all good bookstores, or online to grab yourself a copy!

Ella Diaries 3 Danielle McDonald

So there you have it! Thank you for persevering with such a long post and next month I look forward to sharing a bit more of an insight into my various techniques and work methods. In the meantime, please feel free to visit my blog Red Dog and Jude if you would like to learn a bit more about me. Until then, HAPPY EASTER and see you next month!


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