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So Near, And Yet So Far

By April 15, 2012Children's Books

So Near, And Yet So Far, is a children’s book about a young Jewish girl, Klara, and her historic voyage on the MS St. Louis as it fled Nazi Germany in 1939. I was honored to be asked by the Jewish Youth Library of Ottawa, to illustrate the story last summer. The book gave me an opportunity to understand how a book is made, and realize the tremendous amount of work that goes into creating each and every page. Since this was the first book I illustrated, it has been rather difficult not to share what I have been working on with you.  Honestly, I have two other huge projects that have captured 2011, that have yet to be released. I can’t wait to show you.

Here are some of the illustrations from So Near, And Yet So Far.


How I Illustrated My First Children’s Book

The Story

Illustrating a book is honestly the best kind of project I have ever worked on. It isn’t easy, but the rewards are tremendous.  Working on two books in 2010 allowed me to do more drawing than I have ever done in my life.  Therefore, I feel I have grown immensely.

Like I mentioned, I was approached by the Jewish Youth Library of Ottawa to illustrate a book written by Sara Loewenthal about the MS St. Louis.  This grant funded project was designed to communicate a story of the Holocaust to children. The story follows the events of the MS St. Louis through the eyes of a little girl, Klara. She explains the story like only a child could. I thought the story was cute, and I couldn’t wait to start working on the project.


For our story I needed to do a lot historical of research. In a book like this we need to pay close attention to historical accuracy.I spent hours pouring through personal photos from passengers of the ship, to newspaper clippings. Each photo gave me insight into attire, fashion, architecture, and of course pictures of the M.S. St. Louis itself. The phrase that keep coming back to my mind was. We want our readers to be back on that boat. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was a brilliant resource. The following images are from their enormous database.


After gathering research material we started the planning phase. Before I came on-board the project, loads of planning was done to get the project ready for me. I was given a breakdown of the required illustrations along with the manuscript. This told me the number of illustrations and the general pace of the book.

Couple questions to ask ourselves.
What story do we want to tell? We need to think big picture here.
Who are the characters?   We have the main character Klara, her sister Traude, and Mama and Papa
Who is our target audience? This is a children’s book, and we needed to communicate this story, effectively without sugar coating obviously difficult subject matter.
Size of the book. One of the issues we had early on was changing orientation of the book. We first started out vertical, and then moved to horizontal. Therefore we had to re-sketch most of the images to make the compositions work in a horizontal format.


Once I read over the manuscript I began sketching. I spent a few afternoons in my rocking chair on my porch sketching thumbnail ideas alongside the manuscript. We take the written word and combine it with picture, and together they create a story. This is where the fun begins.In sketching I try not to evaluate ideas, but rather get them on paper. Think of it as visual brainstorming.

Here are a few thumbnails sketches as well as a few larger sketches. Getting these ideas down quickly gives us an idea of how the book will look. The sketches are then sent to our team.


So Near, and Yet So Far was a collaborative project. Sarah and I were only part of the team that brought this book to life. Erica and Devora were a huge part of this project offering ideas, direction, and project management. It was quite a fascinating experience for our team to come together and work on this project from different countries. Devora, Erica, Sarah and myself went back and forth discussing objectively each illustration from sketch to painting. Thus, the book we have today is very much a collaborative effort of our team. Later on Cythnia was brought on board as our layout designer.


After various round of sketching we finally moved my favorite part, the drawing. Drawing to me is beautiful. The feeling of pencil on paper is stunning. From a blank paper a picture comes to life. This is certainly the most labor intensive aspect of my portion of the book making.

Color Comp

The next step in this project was deciding on color. Color sets the mood. We can tell a completely different story by simply changing the color. So Near, and Yet So Far required a palette that communicated as sense of the past, almost like flipping through old photos. Therefore we decided on a vintage colors with a limited color palette. We did a couple color comps to make sure we were all on the same page.


Based on my color comp. I began painting process.Watercolor is beautiful. It is simple yet elegant. The watercolor can stand on its own, but I like taking it to the next level. Digital Painting.

Digital Painting

Here we have a scanned watercolor painting that is digitally painted over using the wacom tablet . Digital painting is done to enhance colors, fix color balance, and push the boundaries of light and darkness. This is one of the most exciting parts of the process and you can see the work really come to life!

This illustrating this book was truly an amazing experience. Creating books is truly a dream come true. May this be the beginning of many more books to come.



Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • Great looking work, as usual, Nicholas!

  • Nick–Your work is phenomenal! I knew you were talented, and I see glimpses of what you are doing on facebook, but I am seriously blown away. You have developed such a rich and beautifully unique style, I am happy to see you are doing so well. It is fascinating to see how your work develops. Simply amazing.

  • James T. says:

    Is it possible to buy So Near, And Yet So Far anywhere? Do you have a contract for the distributor?

  • Birthe Warburg says:

    Thank you for these words and illustrations. I think back to my own ship story, the noise and crowds, the rows of bunks and an overwhelming smell of human bodies. The fear of loosing my Father. The journey did end with a future and another story. I grieve that few today learn little and so the past becomes another future.

    • nicholas says:

      Hey Birthe,
      It is an honor to have you comment on this post about the book. Let us hope by telling these stories, the next generation will never forget. Take care!

  • Birthe Warburg says:

    My TV is broken, the radio has poor reception and my computer is not functioning as I wish however there has been some result with something of interest. I found a reply from you with respect to my journey by ship so very long ago. The compilation which you undertook is most interesting. I do work with a paintbrush and have not done so much pencil work. I do see that as being the first step to put something together. I have printed out your method with the intent to send it to my granddaughter. I feel that she is of an age where it is impossible to comprehend those years. I also found a simple book with very informative pictures as well as informative simple langue. I wish you well. Birthe.

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